Specifically, I am talking about YA novels that feature a girl/woman of colour on the cover. My issue with how women and girls are portrayed on book covers goes back to the first time I read “Valentines” from Nancy Lee’s short story collection Dead Girls—still my favourite reading list for an undergraduate class—and it brings about this anger that I just can’t turn off.
See, faces humanize. And yes, I understand that the model/illustration may not be exactly what every reader imagines the protagonist to look like, but that’s hardly a reason to crop the face out entirely, I feel. Especially when you’ve made the decision to include a character on the cover.
And when it comes to characters of colour, it isn’t simply a matter of objectification. It’s a matter of erasure. So, it isn’t just that the girls’ heads are partly or completely cropped out of the cover, it is also that they are hidden in shadows, or drawn as silhouettes, or the model they pick isn’t the correct race at all—we are not interchangeable and we are not a monolith—or she’s light-skinned when her character is dark-skinned, or her hair is “tame” when the character has curly natural hair, or the model is posed ridiculously, or the character is just partially hidden from view because they happen to share the cover (and story) with a white character. This isn’t to say that I don’t have books I love with covers I don’t like—and there are certainly covers that are exceptions, like the cover for Ibi Zoboi’s American Street pictured below—but if we’re talking representation matters in publishing, cover design ought to be a part of that discussion.
As always, it isn’t just that we are represented, it’s how we’re represented that matters. And on that note, here are some of my favourite YA covers that feature girls of colour:
Look, it isn’t that I’m talking about Older’s Shadowshaper again—it’s that I never stopped talking about Sierra Santiago, okay? So, can we please talk about how awesome this cover is? It gets across Sierra’s love for art, the fact that she paints murals in an urban setting, does not mess with her skin-tone or awesome hair, and that haughty lift of the chin? It’s all kinds of perfect.
My next pick is a similarly framed cover, but this one is illustrated. Cindy Pon’s Serpentine was, alongside Shadowshaper, amongst my top favourite reads of 2015.
I’ve already made my feelings on this cover pretty clear in my review:
I love that nothing obscures Skybright’s face … It draws attention to her mismatched eyes and you know she isn’t quite human, nor is she quite monstrous. Look closer at her eyes and you see her determination shine through the cover, up at you. – [X]
Also, similar to the ones I mentioned above is Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos.
Scotch isn’t looking straight at you, but neither is she hiding nor is she hidden. And if you’re looking for a cover that features not just the face of the character, but the entire body, look no further than Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch.
Tangent: Actually, Okorafor is just blessed when it comes to covers, huh? I mean, look at the gorgeousness that is Binti:
My last favourite (that is, the last one for this post) is the cover for the latest volume of Ms. Marvel.
I love the detail of the Avengers’ “A” that I missed the first time I saw the cover. I love that her pose is dynamic and gets you curious about what she is running towards. And I love that we get to see Kamala Khan in that incredibly iconic human-to-superhuman pose. (It’s also very telling about the internal conflict that Kamala has to face in this volume.) Even more significant than her—totally not sexualized—costume underneath, is that we get to see a brown girl in a salwar-kameez on the cover of a Marvel comic. This is a cover I want to put in a frame and tell all my guests about.
All this to say: more of these awesomely clever and conscientious covers for YA readers, please?