Book covers are bizarre little monsters. Maybe they have to be because they straddle so many different roles. A cover has to reflect a book’s unique facets, but it also has to fit into the standards for a genre. It has to have aesthetically interesting qualities, but it also has to make readers want to buy the novel.
I’ve talked before about how publishers and cover designers can sometimes miss the point of the novel – the original cover Nnedi Okorafor’s The Shadow Speaker, for example, depicted a white woman when the protagonist is black – and this problem is still being replicated in the book industry.
Emmalee Shall of Emmalee Designs recently wrote an in depth analysis of how these misinterpretations happen with covers. Emmalee is a graphic designer who, among other things, creates book covers. Emmalee uses the cover for Jodi Picoult’s Small Great Things as a jumping off point for the discussion of how race and book covers intersect. As she puts it,
“Picoult (or more likely her publisher) decided to use a geometric design with colored squares. To my knowledge, this was the first time that Picoult wrote a book with a black main character. It was also her first book written to address racism. For a book dealing with something so deeply human, it seems odd that there would not be any people on the cover. Almost all of Picoult’s other books have had images of people on the covers—and all of those people have been white.”
The rest of the post delves into how covers like Picoult’s come to be, the difficulty of finding diverse stock images, and how publishers often fail to represent people of color well. The full piece is really worth a read.
The article also corroborates author Kate Hart’s findings on covers in young adult fiction. In her analysis of YA novels published in 2011, Hart found that the covers featured “224 white girls– and only nine of any other race or ethnicity.” To make an understatement, those numbers are pretty terrible and don’t even reflect the diversity found within YA fiction.
But all hope isn’t lost in the land of cover design. If you need to cleanse your palate, the following books are a few recent or upcoming publications that do character depiction right.