When asked to write a piece on representation for Spine, I immediately wondered why I was asked? In my opinion, plenty has been written on the subject. Frankly, I’m often wrangled into similar conversations with my publishing peers. These are always awkward, so did I really want to write a piece on representation in book covers? Call it explanation-fatigue, but I really did hesitate.
But if not me, then who can write this? I’m a POC cover designer and this affects me both personally and professionally. I’m also old enough to remember when it was taboo to talk about race.
As easy as it would be to call myself just another designer, I’m more than that. I am a brown person in an industry that needs to diversify and expand its audience. Sadly, for generations the book industry hasn’t invested in representation. Publishing leadership certainly doesn’t reflect the communities they historically had under-served.
POC readers had instead perfected code-switched-reading. They simply pretended that they felt at home in a Caucasian POV, until with much practice, it became easier to draw connections to their experiences. And this created many reluctant POC readers in the United States, otherwise known as people who don’t buy books.
Code-switching (noun) the practice of changing one’s language, dialect or speaking style to better fit one’s environment.
Don’t get me wrong, they read, just not books. And if they read books, it’s often not fiction. But some persevered and became very bookish, like me. The fiction readers developed the mandatory filters and learned to code switch. We read, learned, and tested in a Caucasian POV. And then we went home and switched back with our families and communities.
We weren’t rejecting our own backgrounds. We just thought we had no choice. Myself, I learned to identify with whichever character was described as an outsider or rebel. So what if I couldn’t identify with most protagonists?
There were some cool POC supporting characters. It was nice to be included by well-intentioned Caucasian authors, even if they got the details wrong. Of course there were obscure authors of color, which parents or teachers often prescribed us. But our friends were not reading those books. They weren’t the hottest books, so we didn’t always read them. That was my generation, a generation adrift in other-ness.
This generation is different. There are many up-and-coming POC writers that are ready and excited to write popular or commercial fiction. And now the market seems to be ready to embrace them. Today POC consumers want perspectives that reflect their lives. Seems they’re tired of ALWAYS reading in code-switched mode.
But don’t worry established non-POC authors and publishers out there. Remember, that just because we’d like to see characters of color as leads and on covers, that doesn’t mean that we’ve lost our ability to empathize with characters that our not like ourselves. We want to read those books too. And better yet, we hope that non-POC people will get a chance to flex their code-switching-reader muscles and enjoy reading in our perspectives. And this exchange will grow the empathy between us.
But it’s important that these covers are not designed from a strictly Caucasian lens. To move past that, we must acknowledge the stereotypes and exoticism that historically plagued POC books. One of my favorite recent covers is that of Adam Silvera’s novel They Both Die at the End. This purple cover is moody and mysterious, and avoids any stereotypes that might make people feel misrepresented. This tale is about two queer Latinx boys, and how they spend their last day. The design casts the story as cool and contemporary, by using a fresh illustration style and clean typography.
As a young cover designer, I knew only one art director of color. Fortunately, he chose to invest in me and be my mentor. We never discussed race, but I needed his support. My mentor saw me and championed me. That relationship gave me confidence. And not much later, I used that confidence to color correct the skin tone of a very famous POC for a HUGE “BIG BOOK” cover. I was so happy to do it for the non-POC co-worker, who was humble enough to ask me. The famous POC had the same coloring as half my family, so it was easy for me to get right. And it was important to get it right, because everybody knew that face.
How do we picture POCs on books? What feels true? What feels flattering? What feels dismissive?
Though it’s a good first step, just putting people of color on the book covers isn’t enough. We have to get things right. Things like skin-tone, hair texture, and cultural ephemera. Only then can we expect our whole audience to feel respected. How do we avoid stereotypes, without shying away from what really speaks to a community? It’s a balance and it’s tricky. There will be mistakes. And publishers will need help, and they will have to be humble enough to ask for help.
One cover that does cultural balance well is the cover for The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Nguyen is a really amazing Vietnamese-American author, whose voice is both contemporary and old school romantic.
A few years ago, the cover of his novels could have been exoticized. One version of the stereotype cover could have been a photo of a cropped Asian woman’s face with a sexy overly red mouth in very ornate historical-looking garb. She could have been coy and seductively posed. I am describing a specific cover, but there are many like it.
The Refugees cover instead has a girl on a bike. The illustration is fun and loose and universal. But ask any Vietnamese person, and they’ll tell you the girl is wearing as simple version of an áo dài, which is traditional Vietnamese garb. But we can see her face and her pose is active. The designer has given this girl agency and life, with just a few design choices.
While I agree that we should show people of color on book covers, because it signals inclusion and doesn’t alienate readers. The New York Times best-sellers lists of 2018 prove it. I think we’re going to have to find intelligent ways to show these faces, without losing the mystery and cleverness of good book covers.
And there are a handful of examples out there. One that’s brilliant and I hope heralds the future of POC covers is the design of Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds.
If you haven’t read this book, well you’re missing out. Jason Reynolds can write anything well. Here he uses free verse to write a novel about a turning point in a boy’s life. And I am partial, because I covered another of his books. But all the awards can’t be partial too, right?
And to go with all if Jason’s talent, there is a straight-up-beautiful cover. It’s not just attractive it’s smart. And when I say that, I mean conceptually strong. The designer not only puts a dark-skinned boy on this cover, he also shows the poetic descent of the story using those elevator buttons. And also captures the altered mind-state of the protagonist in the brushed steel of the wall.
It’s so good and meaning-filled; it makes me happy as a person of color, and yes, as a designer too.
But maybe the real standout cover of the year in the diversity spectrum was the cover for the Young Adult novel When Dimple Met Rishi. This cover fully embraces the commercial possibilities of a diverse readership.
The cover is fun and accessible, with just enough of a nod to identity, without becoming a caricature. This book is a fun modern love story between two Indian-American kids. One is more traditional than the other, but both are navigating becoming adults and deciding how closely they want to be tied to their roots. And check out the back of the jacket! That’s a smart way to keep mystery on the front and still show the kids’ faces.
There is both depth and lightness in this book. No wonder it was on everybody’s to-read list, and is a New York Times bestseller. I’m sure it won’t be the last book to find success by straddling this line in a new diverse book market.
Want to learn some of what inspired this post? Watch Jason Reynolds talk about reluctant readers. Then read Kumail Nanjiani’s explanation of why broader representation is just good business. Lastly, let NPR explain to you How Code-Switching Explains the World.
Maria Elias lives and works in New York City. Before falling in love with book design she worked in news and magazine. Her work has been recognized by AIGA 50 Books/50Covers, the Type Directors Club, and the New York Book Show. You can read more by Maria Elias on her blog Book Design Heroines.