Diverse Editions Pulled Before Release; Author David Bowles, Others, Speak Out Against New Covers of “Classics”

Barnes & Noble and Penguin Random House planned to get young readers interested in the classics by making them more inclusive with new covers featuring people of color. The idea backfired badly.

The backlash to the announcement of literary “classics” with covers featuring people of color was immediate, a response that seemed to only surprise those responsible for Diverse Editions. The books will never see the shelves.

Barnes & Noble released this statement the same day they were scheduled to unveil the new covers and host a panel discussion about them in their Fifth Avenue store in New York City:

“We acknowledge the voices who have expressed concerns about the Diverse Editions project at our Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue store and have decided to suspend the initiative. Diverse Editions presented new covers of classic books through a series of limited-edition jackets, designed by artists hailing from different ethnicities and backgrounds. The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard. The booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles. It was a project inspired by our work with schools and was created in part to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month, in which Barnes & Noble stores nationally will continue to highlight a wide selection of books to celebrate black history and great literature from writers of color.”

The original idea of advertising agency TBWA/Chiat/Day was sparked by the hiring of a black woman to play Hermione in the Harry Potter play. At the time, author J.K. Rowling responded to the ensuing controversy by saying she never specified in any of her books that Hermione was white. The advertisers went to Penguin Random House with a plan to create interest in "classics" by finding those where the characters weren’t explicitly noted as white and reimagining them with covers featuring people of color. The plan was approved and led by multiple people of color, including TBWA chief diversity officer Doug Melville and staff at Penguin Random House. 

To find the right books, they used artificial intelligence to analyze the texts and determine whether a characters’ race and ethnicity were explicitly stated. The titles that came through with little to no reference to race were put on the Diverse Editions list. They included Alice in Wonderland, Romeo and Juliet, Three Musketeers, Moby Dick, The Secret Garden, The Count of Monte Cristo, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Emma, The Wizard of Oz, Peter Pan, Treasure Island, and Frankenstein. According to Melville's LinkedIn page announcing the panel, diverse artist were commissioned to create 42 new covers for the 12 titles "to reflect America's Diversity."

“The books are white because they are written in the white milieu,” said author David Bowles said, standing in the Fifth Avenue store where the books were to be sold. (It was the only store designated to carry the titles with their new jackets. The original plan called for the books to be donated to schools and libraries after Black History Month was over.) “They’re about white culture. You don’t have to call out the character as white because the default of every book, especially of that era, is that those people are white. When they’re not white, their color is called out and usually in offensive ways from a modern perspective.”

The decision-makers involved didn’t think of the possible harm to young readers from these new covers.

Author David Bowles. Photo: Kiera Parrott

“Imagine a black girl, a Latina, who picks up a copy of The Secret Garden and sees this beautiful black girl on the cover and gets the book and is all excited about it and reads it and realizes it was a book about a white girl who has a racist family and racist beliefs herself,” said Bowles, who one of many to protest the idea, some calling the covers blackface. 

“To be inclusive is to understand how words relate power, how plot structures provide privilege and while some themes may be universal, books are not ‘classics’,” Edi Campbell, associate education librarian at Indiana State University and founding member of the We Are Kidlit Collective, tweeted.

Justina Ireland, author of Dread Nation and its just-released sequel Deathless Divide, finished a thread of tweets with this: “This is erasure of the worst way, even worse than being ignored. Because it’s centering white experiences and stories and then erasing the culture of people of color in order to make a buck all while pandering to an expectation of inclusion that was never part of the plan.”

Taking these public domain books and hiring an artist to do new covers is “relatively inexpensive,” Bowles said. “They’re not taking a risk financially. But they’re taking a risk in terms of the harm they can do. What happens to a little girl who reads that? What’s it do to her self-image, her self-worth, if she’s being promised representation in a book in which she’s not being represented?"

Bowles came to New York this week to meet with representatives of Macmillan and its imprint Flatiron about their controversial book American Dirt . As one of the speakers for #DignidadLiteraria, he helped get the publisher to agree to increasing Latinx representation among authors, titles, and staff.

“Making people feel the urgency that communities of color feel so they will act on that urgency, that means sometimes applying pressure in ways that are uncomfortable to everybody involved,” he said.

He was still in New York to meet with his publishers when the Diverse Editions were announced. He spoke up again.

“I kind of feel like when your moment comes to step up, you kind of have to,” he said. “I was drawn into the thing and it’s an awkward thing for me. I have books coming out from Harper Collins and Penguin Random House. [But] I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t say something about it. I can’t be part of the system and not point out the problems with the system.”

Before Bowles arrived at the store in the early afternoon, the scheduled panel about the redesigned books had been canceled. Not long after that, the entire initiative was over. It was a victory for a tired Bowles, who admits he is frustrated and disappointed doing this work but feels compelled to keep going.

“There’s a point at which you say nothing’s going to change, but the thing is things do change,” he said. “The publishing industry has changed. It’s going a lot more slowly than we would like it, but it has changed. Maybe what we just need is for more of us to join together. … Communities of color, their allies, all people [have to] just stand together and say, ‘We’re not going to back down until you make significant changes this time. You’ve got to be more serious about this.’ “

Author Image
Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is news editor at School Library Journal.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


Clara Stein

We are a diverse world with people of different colors, yet we’re all humans, we belong to one race called the human race; why then try to group, separate, make-believe, supplant what’s real for what’s our perception of inclusiveness? Let children read books with characters of all colors that inhabit this earth. Spoon-forced children to read books by tricking them is not fair. These children will grow up and see they were misled to think the characters of those books were one of their own ‘color.’ Does it matter? No! It’s the beauty, the content of the books that are relevant, not the color of the characters portrayed on the cover pages.

Posted : Feb 07, 2020 12:57


Santos Lorenzo Halpar

Is this for real? Like, this is actually a controversy? People are actually, literally upset regarding this?

Tribalism sure is wonderful.

Posted : Feb 06, 2020 07:56


RELATED 

Get connected. Join our global community of more than 200,000 librarians and educators.

Get access to 6000+ annual reviews of books, databases, and more

As low as $12/month