Last night, someone sent me a link to Jodi Meadows’ new book, Before She Ignites. I didn’t really understand the context until I saw the cover.
The cover, which is gorgeous, features a Black Girl in a pretty dress. Awesome.
But the fact that the cover appears to be the first of it’s kind and it belongs to a white author serves to reinforce the absolute whiteness of publishing. Because even when it wants to increase representation, publishers look to white authors to fill that need.
And that is the exact opposite of what should be happening.
See, there is a dearth of Black fantasy and Science Fiction writers getting published. The numbers tell the story. We can chalk it up to lack of quality or Black authors not wanting to tell stories, but I think we all know that for the lie it is. After all, the Fireside Fiction report came out and confirmed what we've long suspected to be the systemic inequity in the short story market. That is why FIYAH magazine stood up. And the stories in there illustrate just how amazing Black authors are.
But back to YA.
The dearth of girls of color on book covers, pretty dress or not, isn’t a new discussion, especially among PoC. Here is the Root talking about the whitewashing of the Liar cover in 2009. In this blog post from 2012, I talked about the need for more diversity on book covers in response to criticisms of dead girls on book covers. Ellen Oh discussed it as well in 2012, comparing YA books to middle-grade. And this YALSA post from 2012 talks about the trend and how it reinforces beauty standards that center whiteness.
Now, five years later, we’re getting a pretty black girl on a book cover for the first time and that honor goes to a white author. Consider the implications of that. It means that for PoC to get access to something we’ve agitated for within publishing we have to wait for white authors to normalize it. That isn’t equality.
That’s table scraps.
“But Justina,” you say, “authors don’t pick their covers.”
“But Justina,” you say, “the reason that author got the first cover of a pretty Black girl in a dress is because there aren’t any Black authors publishing those books.”
And that is exactly the problem.
Authors write their books, and then someone has to decide to publish those books and put a cover on them. That the first Black girl in a pretty dress cover went to a white author is a marker of the inequality in the system, a system where gatekeepers prioritize and center whiteness even when opening their aperture to include books featuring marginalized voices. This is no different than a book like When We Was Fierce or The Continent making it all the way to publication. They are canaries in the coal mine of publishing, pointing out that even when folks are trying to do better they’re still reinforcing the same problematic notions of white supremacy that led to racial inequity in the first place.
And that will always bear discussing.