books · Publishing

When Book Covers Fail Characters

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.

The Education of Margo Sanchez by Lilliam Rivera
Harmless Like You: A Novel by Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
Dear Martin: A Novel by Nic Stone

23 thoughts on “When Book Covers Fail Characters

  1. So one of my favorite books is Stalking Jack the Ripper, but the cover features a pale white girl when it’s explicitly stated multiple times that the main character is half-Indian and demonstrates her connection to her culture *eyeroll emoji* Why, when representation is getting better in literature, does it have to be another thing that’s whitewashing? *yells into the void*

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I tell myself that they aren’t thinking because the alternative is…well. At least people are discussing the issue and putting more pressure on publishers and designers to get these things right.


  2. I really appreciating you writing about a subject of such importance. This type of discrimination against other than white races is absolutely unacceptable and it makes me sad that it exist even in book covers. All in all, great post, as always. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sadly, this is one of those topics that I suspect people will have to keep revisiting. Change in the arena of publishing often happens at a snail’s pace, but I tell myself that even that slow erosion makes a difference.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Eep. So I recently read When Dimple Met Rishi, and while the cover is adorable, it actually does have an issue.

    The main character wears glasses, never contacts, as specifically mentioned several times in the story. If you look at the back cover, the main characters are depicted appropriately there. It was so great to have a cover with an Indian-American girl on the cover, I wish they hadn’t messed it up with casual ablism. I don’t address this in my review, but Sinead brings it up in hers (linked from mine).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, no! It’s too bad to hear that about When Dimple Met Rishi. I’m a glasses wearer – couldn’t survive without them – and it is always surprising how much books shy away from depicting people wearing glasses. Thanks for letting me know!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As a glasses wearer myself – I find that profoundly annoying! The only time glasses are worn on covers is when the character is supposed to be geeky… The cover I think really has ticked the box is the recent one for Philip Pullman’s The Broken Bridge – it’s a lovely outline of a black girl. And given it’s about her sense of belonging in a small Welsh village, her ethnicity really matters.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Awesome article and other article shares in this post. Covers can be so infuriating because they are the first thing to catch your eye. I was going through some cheap cover making sites and between 15 I counted only one site that more than four black stockphotos and it wasn’t the site with 100+ cover templates for purchase.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. They really do and I find that often they’re mostly light people of color with straight hair or curly, not kinky, hair like women from yogurt commercials.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for a great post. I’m publishing my first book, so the cover is very important to me. Luckily my book is about simple observations of everyday life. I have a lot to work with, considering I observe everything from babies to zombies. Thanks again, and take care.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this! A few semesters ago I took a Young Adult fiction class that I fell in love with and we were often dumbfounded by the covers. We also started looking at the ‘evolution’ of covers as they are reprinted. I find it fascinating how the book and the cover are literally bound together, but sometimes are completely disconnected.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, seeing how covers change is incredible. Sometimes they shift just to reflect aesthetic trends, but in other cases, there seem to be more profound motivations behind the changes. And you are right; being partnered doesn’t always mean that the book and cover are a good match.


  8. Hmm, I seem to detect a hint of backlash against white people here. Google “book titles showing racism against whites,” and you’ll find very little. What you WILL find in abundance are articles and books chastising “insensitive and uncaring” white people, and instructions to “re-indoctrinate oneself” by reading such dogmatic books as those on the list below:

    I do wholeheartedly agree that book covers/titles should reflect the content within. Failure to do so is misleading and a disservice to the reading public. Of course, I’m a white male, so what do I know? 🙂


  9. I remember how irritated I was over twenty years ago while reading young adult books that the picture on the cover never seemed to match the description of the protagonist inside. It’s nice to know that I am not the only one.

    Liked by 1 person

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