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Deconstructing Black Representation on YA Book Covers

By Giulia Caparrelli, Beccy Fish and Juliette Tulloch

Diversity on book covers may be improving slowly, but it’s still problematic. YA (Young Adult) fiction in particular, often fails at portraying Black characters on covers or simply reuses tried-and-tested elements such as Black silhouettes. This results in many young Black readers feeling unrepresented and unheard. During adolescence, books can serve as a first step into learning one’s place in the world and reading becomes a process of discovery and growth. When YA books lack proper representation, young Black people feel that their experience is invalidated.

Thanks to the work of not-for-profit organisations such as We Need Diverse Books, YA books are now featuring more diverse characters in their stories, but work still needs to be done to improve representation on book covers. Below we analyse a few YA covers portraying Black people to assess both their merits and limitations.

Published on 21 September 2021 by Scholastic Press, Things We Couldn’t Say is the latest YA novel by the acclaimed American author Jay Coles. He is best known for his debut novel Tyler Johnson Was Here, where he explored police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement through the life of a young man. Similarly, his latest novel is centred around Gio, a Black bi boy who tries to navigate his feelings of love for the mother who has abandoned him and for a new friend he is currently hanging out with. Written in first person, the story provides an open window into an adolescent’s mind and allows readers to witness his coming-of-age story and identify with it.

Not only is this novel a good example of diversity in YA, but it also offers a positive representation of male vulnerability and feelings – too often hidden in favour of a ‘macho’ stereotype. The book cover highlights this aspect of openness used in expressing this young man’s feelings as a close-up of his face takes up the entire space. His facial expression is mixed, both frustrated and defiant. Though superimposed on his face are many tear-like golden drops, the effect is not that of sadness but rather of triumph over trauma; of hope over struggles.

Published recently, 14 September 2021, by Harper Collins, White Smoke by Tiffany D. Jackson, the New York Times bestselling author, provides a modern twist on the haunted house story. The story follows Marigold Anderson as her family moves to a new home while her mother writes a new book. But the house is more sinister than anticipated, and the deadly and racist history of the dwelling slowly reveals itself. Our character on the cover is not illustrated, nor is she a silhouette. White Smoke uses instead a photograph to help remove the idea of Black characters being just an outline. Purple smoke is the dominant background colour, matching the darker atmosphere of the story.

The cover also displays the house skulking within the smoke, partly hidden behind the title, lurking beneath Marigold who appears fearless looking towards the reader. Within the horror genre, men usually feature as the brave characters taking control of the situation, with the stereotypically ‘more vulnerable’ women dying early. It is therefore refreshing to see a woman as our protagonist.

"The placement of Bree’s face on the front cover offers a stark distinction from many popular debuts focusing on Black characters that often stick to block colours and elect to present a character that all young adults can easily relate to."

Legendborn is Tracy Deonn’s debut fantasy novel, published by Simon & Schuster and winner of the 2021 Coretta Scott King/ John Steptoe Award for New Talent. Featuring secret societies and flying demons, this YA novel is described as a “modern day twist on the Arthurian legend.” The fantasy genre is lacking in leading Black characters, particularly women, and the detailed cover illustration embraces Deonn’s stellar characterisation of Bree Matthews. Literary conversations arising from the broader Black Lives Matter movement acknowledge that while it is important to publish and read about the racism that Black people face everyday, it is just as important to integrate these marginalised voices into every subject matter in an effort to decentre white voices.

The composition of light and shadow emphasises that this fantasy story will be about good versus evil, perhaps even an internal struggle between the two forces based on the contrasting colours surrounding her hands. Most importantly, the placement of Bree’s face on the front cover offers a stark distinction to many popular debuts focusing on Black characters that often stick to block colours and elect to present a character that all young adults can easily relate to. That said, it is clear that it is common practice to depict Black characters through illustrations when there should be just as much of an emphasis on using non-illustrated covers.

Want to support local Black-owned book shops and publishers? Check out Round Table Books, Little Drum Publishing, No Ordinary Bookshop, Jacaranda Books Art Music and MyBookbasket.



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