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All the White Girls

March 2, 2012 by Kiersi

During #yalitchat on Wednesday, I had the privilege to sneak a peek at the titles and covers of a dozen debut YA novels hitting the shelves in 2012. There were some real stand-outs: the title Rape Girl struck me as daring and a little bit brilliant, and bound to get press attention; I also loved the high-saturation artwork on the cover of Jessica Souders’s Renegade (see here).

But looking at that gorgeous image, something tickled me about it, too: A gorgeous, blond white chick in a flowing red dress, hmm. It was eerily familiar.

Near the end of the chat, I snapped up a link to an exhaustive list of YA novels scheduled for release in 2012 on GoodReads. It wasn’t anything unexpected: the fifth Mortal Instruments book reigned at the top of the list (a tired series, but still popular nonetheless), the third in the Matched trilogy sat a little further down–mostly sequels and tri-quels and in some cases, the seventh or eighth book in a line-up.

What did surprise me, though, were the covers. I want to show you a somewhat disturbing image:

YA novel book covers, all featuring white girls

From top left: The Golden Lily, Everneath, Spellbound, Hallowed, Rapture, City of Lost Souls, Pandemonium, Endlessly. What's with all these one-word titles?

If you haven’t noticed a pattern, you may not be the only one. If you have–well, it’s a little unsettling, isn’t it? Of the top 25 books on the YA novels of 2012 list, at least 18 of them (a few are missing cover images at this point) feature a prominent picture of a white girl. (Usually wearing some flowing dress/sheet/nightgown thing.) The books that don’t feature a photo of a white girl have no photos on the cover at all.

Thinking I was just being overly-sensitive, I sent out the link on Twitter and suggested that it was a tad strange that so many YA book covers feature photos of white chicks. I wasn’t the only one, though: others thought it was a queer trend, though whether it implied a shift in the content of YA books or a shift in simply the cover art was not clear.

I’m leaning towards thinking it’s a little of both. At one time, the concept of the Twilight-esque YA novel was non-existent. When I was going through middle and high school, YA novels were classically books like The Giver or Catcher in the Rye or The Mysterious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time. But now that the genre is overwhelmingly dominated by books for teenage girls, it makes sense they would all show pictures of beautiful white girls in striking red dresses–it’s the same publishing mindset as romance books that feature topless hunks (also white) making out with plain Jane (also white).

Nonetheless, it rankles me. Where are the YA novels featuring latinas or South African girls (like Zoo City for young adults)? I can’t be alone in picking a Mexican girl as my main character. She’s got so much history and personality, I don’t think anyone else could tell her story the way she does, or with quite as much attitude. Even worse: where are our male characters? Well, not a single one appears on a cover unless coupled with a white girl in a flimsy gown on the 2012 YA list. And even then, where are the asian men? (My pal J.A. Yang pointed me to Foxfire, the only YA book cover this year featuring an asian guy–though he does come outfitted with a pair of Photoshopped fox ears. So that answers that question!)

What are your thoughts? Is this a trend that we should be keeping tabs on? Do you know of a great YA book coming out in 2012 that offers diversity of perspective?


17 Comments »

  1. Karen Kincy says:

    I’d like to point out that the protagonist of FOXFIRE has fox-ears because he’s a kitsune, or Japanese fox-spirit. Even if paranormal YA isn’t your usual cup of tea, readers might want to check this book out because it’s the story of a Japanese-American guy discovering the truth about his past in Tokyo. And it’s awesome. But of course, as the author, I’m biased. 😉

  2. Brenda says:

    Sadly, I do not. I confess it is only recently I’ve started reading YA novels – not all the time, more of an in-between other books I am reading. I don’t write for the YA market. You’ve probably just opened a new niche market.

    • Karen Kincy says:

      What niche market did you have in mind?

    • Kiersi says:

      When I was looking at lit agents, it boggled me how many had “multi-ethnic perspectives” listed for books they were seeking.

      • Stephanie Scott says:

        I’ve noticed this, too! At a conference for librarians I saw a more diverse set of YA than I see at Barnes & Noble and (sadly) on many blogs (I don’t blame book loggers for this at all, I know many of them get ARCs from publishers adn they read the big titles that are promo-ed). Kensington Teen has a very diverse catalog, but those aren’t the books you see on the top YA lists. I think the books are there, but they aren’t the big names. And why is that? Why aren’t the books with diverse characters getting the big deals and the promo from publishers? Why are diverse characters in YA relegated to category/niche markets or “issue” books?

        Good discussion, thank you for continuing to raise these points.

  3. I have rewritten this post a bunch of times cause it kept sounding more racist then I liked… So I’m going to try a more simple reasoning.

    My best guess is that the authors are doing two things. Writing what they know best (I don’t know any of them but I’m sure its a safe bet most of them are white women), and writing a character that is relatable to the widest audience.

    There are two reasons to making a character a certain ethnicity. The first (and kind of lame reason) is “just because”. I guess there isn’t anything wrong with it, but its kind of lame if you make a character Latino just for the sake of diversifying the cast. To me, characters where if you were to change their race (ie Nick Fury) it wouldn’t matter that much. The other reason would be that their ethnicity is a defining characteristic (and hopefully not the only one). This is a much more interesting reason. I don’t think I could ever accept a Magneto who isn’t Jewish. You can’t have James Bond not be British. At the same time, I could picture James Bond being black, as long as he was still British.

    • Karen Kincy says:

      “I guess there isn’t anything wrong with it, but its kind of lame if you make a character Latino just for the sake of diversifying the cast…. The other reason would be that their ethnicity is a defining characteristic (and hopefully not the only one).”

      Are you suggesting that ethnicity should be either completely arbitrary or one of the character’s defining features? I happen to think the truth usually lies somewhere in between. There’s no way I can deny my own heritage and appearance, for instance, but on the other hand I like to think the whole is greater than the parts. That’s how I approach the creation of each of my characters, at least.

      And now I’m ducking out of this conversation, as it’s a little awkward hanging around when your own book is being discussed. 😉

  4. I’m trying to think of the titles, but I know there were quite a few in 2011 that featured non-white cover models. One of the ones I’m thinking of has Violet in the title and it released in 2011. Night Sky by Jolene Perry features a native american girl and that just released yesterday. I’m going to have to find others.

  5. Jim Snell says:

    The Spell Bound cover looks most interesting. The others I’d dismiss as Harlequins.

  6. Whitewashing YA covers has been a problem for a while now. Chances are at least a handful of those books have protagonists of other ethnicities but the publisher thought they’d more be likely to sell if the cover features a white girl, even thought it’s not an accurate representation of the book.

  7. I don’t read a whole lot of YA, but a lot of bloggers have noted the same thing about Christian fiction, which I review a lot of. It’s a real problem. There have been some improvements over the last few years, but unfortunately I don’t think it’s going to just go away anytime soon.

  8. sjhigbee says:

    Book covers don’t only suffer from whitewashing – they can be downright sloppy. Richelle Mead’s Thorn Queen depicts a sultry, brown-eyed brunette (white, of course) on the cover. Which would be fine – except that Mead tells us repeatedly throughout the story that the protagonist is red-haired,green-eyed and fair skinned. It actually is an issue in the story… And Marianne des Pierres’ cyberpunk heroine Parrish Plessis is supposed to be very badly scarred – though the sexy girl waving a weapon around on the cover is typically airbrushed perfection…
    When publishers are making these kinds of avoidable mistakes, bothering to nuance the appeal of their books by depicting a wider ethnic mix would seem to be a distant dream – sadly.

    • Kiersi says:

      Wow, that is depressing at best. The publishers don’t even really seem to care about the books they churn out. I guess more reasons we as authors should be avoiding the big names for smaller/medium-sized outfits.

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