It all started with a complicated question with a complicated answer. I’d been asked by a humanities teacher, Jamie Steinfeld, at the school I work at—the Bank Street School for Children—to booktalk some realistic fiction titles for her class in early October 2013. As I held up Julia Alvarez’s Return to Sender (Knopf, 2009), a girl raised her hand.
“Why is there a bird on that cover, when every other book you’ve shown us has had a picture of the main character?”
There were only 10 minutes left before lunch, and I was tempted to shrug her question off with, “Good question─but we don’t have time to talk about it right now.”
However, Bank Street’s director of diversity and community, Anshu Wahi, had previously advised me to handle difficult questions honestly rather than trying to brush them under the rug.
So I said, “That’s a complicated question with a complicated answer. Let’s talk about it.”
I found a paperback version of Return to Sender and showed them how on the cover, sunlight falls upon the white main character (Tyler), illuminating his face and blonde hair, while the Latina character (Mari) has her back turned, so only her ponytail is visible.
“Can you tell that this book features a character of color?” I asked.
No, they answered. I held up the hardcover version of Return to Sender, featuring a picture of a bird. “What about this version—can you tell it features a character of color?”
The answer was no.
Then, I asked them the same question about the character featured on the book Heat (Penguin, 2006) by Mike Lupica.
No again. I did the same with Jacqueline Woodson’s Locomotion (Putnam, 2003). By this point, most of the kids were incredulous.
“They don’t want people to know that the book is about a black kid?” someone had asked.
“It’s impossible to know for sure what goes into the decisions about any cover,” I answered. “But yes, in a lot of cases, publishers hesitate to put characters of color on covers.”
Then, came the collective “Why?”
“Why do you think?” I answered.
They all looked at each other. Then, one brave girl volunteered. “Do they think it won’t make as much money?”
To give us a common vocabulary, I introduced the word “whitewashing” and pulled up the infamous images of the galley of Justine Larbalestier’s Liar (Crows Nest, 2009), which originally featured a white girl rather than a girl of color, despite what the book explicitly states. (The cover has since been changed and reprints now feature a girl of color.)
In her reflection on that discussion in that evening’s homework, one sixth grader wrote, “Society is almost afraid of putting a dark-skinned or Asian character on the cover of a book. I feel like these are minor forms of segregation.”
To follow up with that lesson, I put together a slideshow of problematic book covers that reduced characters of color to abstract images. We talked about hair, and how often the hair from a black character is covered, as in Chains (S & S, 2008) by Laurie Halse Anderson—or simply concealed by a silhouette, like in Bird in a Box (Little, Brown 2011) by Andrea Davis Pinkney.
“Now I kind of want to be a publisher so that I can break some of these stereotypes,” wrote one student.
Over subsequent months, (the teacher) Jamie and I held student-directed diversity sessions about various topics: book covers, gender bias, what sorts of actions they can take to protest injustices, a field trip to Barnes & Noble, and a class visit from two editors at Knopf.
Some of the most memorable student reflections came from the Barnes & Noble field trip:
“I know some girls who will want to read ‘just for boys’ books, because maybe they like sports, or aliens, or trucks. But they will not want to read that book, because it says ‘just for boys.’ ”
“I saw very few books about diverse sexual orientations…”
“On the covers, I saw thin, pretty girls. I didn’t see any overweight girls or anyone with acne. I think that these covers shape an idea of perfect in a girls mind, and make them want to be like that, even though everyone was born perfect.”
“I didn’t see a book with a biracial main character… it is not fair in any way.”
“All the teen books showed girls as if they always had problems that they needed a guy’s help with in order to solve.”
The exchange with the Knopf children’s book editors Erin Clarke and Michelle Frey allowed the kids to see the complexities involved in cover-making. Clarke and Frey brought covers they liked, covers they didn’t, and books that had had dozens of covers bandied about. The kids got to pass around six potential covers for one not-yet-published title and give feedback on what worked and didn’t work. They also learned that editors are also sometimes frustrated by cover decisions; Erin and Michelle shared one book that had could have had an artistic, colorful cover, but was given a “pretty girl” cover, to both of their frustration. The kids found that the discussion validated their concerns and made them feel that their opinions were valued.
The school year-long project concluded with the kids writing “This I Believe” essays about an aspect of the project that had captured their interest and imagination. I was glad I had not ignored that young girl’s difficult question that had─months ago─opened this so-called Pandora’s Box. Addressing this complicated question about skewed publishing practices allowed the kids to think critically and develop their own opinions about books, toys, movies, television, and the entire world around them. At the end of the learning unit, the kids had new eyes and greater perspectives.
“I never really noticed all the stereotypes in the book world until this project,” wrote one student. “I don’t think I’ll ever think about books the same way!”
Allie Jane Bruce is Children’s Librarian at the Bank Street College of Education. She earned her library degree from The Pratt Institute and tweets from @alliejanebruce.