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July 21, 2011

Uncovering YA Covers: How Dark Are They?

Kate Hart
If you followed the WSJ kerfuffle, you probably recognize this quote from the article that started it all.
'Hundreds of lurid and dramatic covers stood on the racks before her, and there was, she felt, "nothing, not a thing, that I could imagine giving my daughter. It was all vampires and suicide and self-mutilation, this dark, dark stuff."'
There have been literally hundreds of responses to Gurdon's claims, but aside from a few tweets and my tongue-in-cheek response, no one has really addressed her claim that YA covers are "lurid" and "dark."

Why not?

Because, as it turns out, YA writers and readers kind of agree. A quick Twitter poll revealed lots of common cover complaints, and a cursory glance at any writing forum will produce the same. So I thought-- why not count? I'm unsure how to quantify "lurid," but let's see just how dark (and pink, and girly, and white, and sparkly) YA covers really are. I gathered over 400 covers published by old school houses in 2010.* Then, using some highly scientific Photoshop magic, I discovered...

Surprise! Even if you split them down the middle, there are still more bright covers than dark.

Now. How much real estate each title gets, if it makes it to the shelf at all, is a different matter.  But the fact remains: These covers are out there. The books are available. If you're not finding sufficiently cheery choices at your local store, try another. Ask for help. Heck, ask the internet! We can be very helpful, when we're not looking at funny cats or calling out trolls.

At any rate. Another common complaint/observation: YA covers like to cut people up. Half a head, a pair of legs, a decapitated body, or an extreme close up of a miraculously pore-less face are all popular designs-- if you get to see the model's face at all. So I counted, and...

There's nothing inherently light or dark about those stats. In fact, I intended for this post to be a silly look at cover trends. But when I crunched more numbers, I knew we'd have to get serious, because here's where YA covers are most definitely NOT dark: Race/ethnicity.

It is white girl city out there, folks.

A little explanation of the chart below:
  • Girls and boys are not mutually exclusive. In other words, a cover with a couple on it would be counted twice, once under white girls and once under white boys.
  • However, if a cover featured two models of the same gender and different races/ethnicities, I counted it under "multicultural." Those covers are not duplicated in the other categories.
  • I'm guessing I could eliminate the "open to interpretation" category if I had read every single book represented, but obviously that's impossible. This is also the reason I didn't chart another common complaint: models and settings that don't match the book's story.
  • My classifications are fairly subjective, since the only way to know a model's ancestry is to ask her and that is, obviously, also impossible.
  • Even with my likely margin of error, these numbers are horrendous.

If you combine "other race," "open," and "multicultural," you still only come up with 38 models. That's only 17% of the girls, and if you assume one model per cover, 9% of all covers. Throw the non-white boys in too? That only gets you up to 11% overall.***

I mean, even dead white girls come close to outnumbering obviously black or Asian girls. That's ridiculous. And I like pretty dresses as much as the next person, but seriously? We can't put an Indian or Latina girl in a dress? Really?

Even Seventeen magazine is beating us at inclusion. Really.

The reasons for this are myriad (just search on "YA whitewashing" for more discussion). It's not the fault of any one publisher or author or marketing department, and posts in the search above have many ideas for changing the situation. But the first step to change is proving there's a problem, and I'd be remiss to exclude these results in the name of keeping this post light. (That's a pun. A bad one.)

The overall picture here is sobering. Speaking simply in terms of numbers: YA covers are definitely not all dark-- and they are most definitely white.

Too bad Gurdon didn't throw her weight behind a real issue like this instead.


Next week, I'll try to quantify the "girlyness" of YA covers, and see if some other trends (kissing, hands, blood) are really all that common. Do you want to help? There are a few things you could do:
  • Help me count! "Girly" or "boy-y" is so subjective. Expand the first chart and tally how many you'd include in each category, then leave me your numbers and gender in the comments. (For simplicity's sake, I'm playing along with the idea of binary gender, but I'm aware of transgender issues.)
  • See any other trends? Know any other stereotypes? Leave them in the comments and I'll see if they're chartable.  Thanks!

* Nothing against e-books. There are just too many and 400+ cover images in one document was already crashing my computer. 

** Thank you, people of Goodreads, for making handy lists of YA books by year. 

*** Obviously this is slightly skewed when you count models vs covers, but the gap is big enough that the difference ends up negligible. 

**** Disclosures: a) I am the whitest white girl who ever whited. b) I've written 2 books. Both female MCs are white. I'm aware this might make me a hypocrite.

***** I know there are all sorts of scientific ways to calculate brightness, lightness, darkness, and etc., but since Photoshop gives a handy brightness reading, I used that. The largest sample the eyedropper tool will read is 101x101px, so I cropped covers to 101px tall and took a sample from their center. 

I'm likely to repeat this experiment with 2011 covers someday, so if you know a faster way (besides eyeballing it), I will love you forever.


  1. Holly Molly!!!
    I wish I had something more intelligent to say... but I don't.

  2. This is an awesome post. Great work gathering these statistics. Honestly, I've always preferred an illustration or random digital art over a photograph of a model. But, yeah. That's a lot of white girls. I'd be interested to see if the majority of authors in the YA genre are Caucasian and thus more comfortable writing Caucasian characters, creating a correlation with the cover models.

  3. Wow. This is amazing, Kate! I can't say that I'm surprised by the results you found, but still the numbers are stunning.

    Thank you for taking the time to put this together!!

  4. You are brilliant, and I love these collages and graphs and charts you do. It's very interesting (not to mention pretty)!

  5. I am very impressed by your math and your presentation - it's beautiful, careful, and easily grasped - everything that facts and figures should be.

    I do not believe that being a white person writing about white people, yet complaining that there is not enough representation for other races, makes you a hypocrite. It cannot be true that only non-whites have a 'legitimate' complaint here. We all must say what we believe about this issue.

  6. Loved your YA color wheel, but this is much more, erm, enlightening.

    I'd like to say I'm surprised that possibly dead girls happen on covers nearly as much as non-white girls, but I'm just disappointed.

  7. Brilliant work. Thank you for doing it!

  8. FINALLY some actual statistics on the colour issue! (I mean ethnicity, not actual cover colours.) I've always been bothered by that, especially since a lot of the books published these days don't necessarily have to be set in white homes. In fact, it doesn't really matter what ethnicity the characters are, because the story is bigger than that. It's disappointing that marketing still focuses on white girls for the covers.

  9. I'm not helping the market diversify at all. I'm just a white chick who can only write white chicks if I want my characters to be believeable.

    If I lived anywhere other than the North West, maybe I'd have more ethnic friends and be able to write their characters honestly. If I tried it now, I'd do everyone a disservice.

  10. And thank you so much for all the work you had to have put into this project. Too bad Gurdon didn't put any time into her article research.

  11. This is fantastic, Kate. Thanks for all of your hard work putting this together!

  12. EXCELLENT post. And thank you for taking the time to do all this work! It's nice to have some actual numbers.

  13. Please please PLEASE take the time to look at Justine Larbalestier's book, LIAR, and the uproar the original U.S. cover caused.
    For those without the time to read the articles, the main character of LIAR is a black teen with short nappy hair, and despite Larbalestier's opposition and preference, Bloomsbury Publishing decided on a cover featuring a white girl with long, straight hair covering part of her face. After advanced reader copies went out, readers started to wonder why the girl on the cover was white. Word spread, and due to angry feedback from hundreds (thousands?) of people, Bloomsbury ultimately decided to hold a photo shoot to re-do the cover with a black model. The new cover:
    The story of this cover change is a victory for YA literature, but it is truly a shame that it took such controversy and anger to make Bloomsbury change their mind. Ms. Larbalestier was one of the few (or only? I've never heard a story like it) lucky enough to attract attention on this particular book, and it makes me sad to know there must be many other authors that suffer the stereotype set by publishers that are afraid a black girl can't sell books. When will they lose the ignorance?

  14. This is so great! Not really surprising though, unfortunately.

  15. kate, you are brilliant and amazing. thank you for all this hard work, and for drawing attention to the multiculturalism in YA issue.

  16. Holy cow. Woman, you rock.

    Some of these statistics, however, do not rock at all.

  17. This is amazing, Kate. (Unlike the statistics).

  18. Fantastic post! Thanks for taking the time to figure it all out and then share it with us!

  19. Hi Kate. Thanks for this post and all the hard work that went into it. I'm in an area where the Internet goes to die. So when I saw this post I was glad the Reaper didn't take away my service before I could comment and retweet.

    This may sound hypocritical of me, given Kathleen's comment earlier(and the fact that I'm a black author with a white girl on my book cover). But I agree that there isn't enough color on YA covers. However, this is only true because not a lot of books (in the grand scheme of things) are being noticed in the mainstream featuring multicultural characters. I know of a few (Liar, Midnight,Kindred...) And I hate to say this, but it's 'white girl city' out there for a reason.

    Maybe the reason for these covers is similiar to what Lesli said above: "I'm just a white chick who can only write white chicks." That's cool. Or maybe the authors only see white girls in overdone dresses in their heads when they sit down to write their stories. That's cool too. Or maybe the marketing whiz kids of these publising house believes and capatilizes on the notion that "white sells". I don't know the answer. But I do hope that what we see on YA covers changes or equals out.

  20. Wow, those figures really are stunning. @_@ (but I guess, not all that surprising based on my own experiences walking the YA aisle at my local bookstore). Still, it's so good to have actual, solid stats behind this issue. Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to compile this! Here's hoping it gets seen by the big publishing houses and at least starts getting some changes implemented.

  21. I'm glad someone is looking at the real issues in YA.

    My newest protagonist is half-Chinese. I hope it gets published and she's on the cover. In a fancy dress.

  22. Wow, what a well thought out post. I can only imagine how long putting those charts together must have taken. Thanks by the way.

    I have to say though, as much as I do enjoy both bright and dark covers, I would also like to see more people of color on these covers as well, speaking as a writer of color myself. :)

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  24. And yet, both of the Young Adult books on your website only have white people on the covers.

    It's a lot easier to point out a problem that it is to do something about it.

    Few people are going to assume that with a problem this big, the onus of responsibility is on them. And there are those who will choose to write characters whose backgrounds and ethnicities are more similar to their for fear of being accidentally insensitive to another race or culture - and sometimes, these characters can be unintentionally offensive. So what's the solution?

  25. I only went through the first group of covers (100% to 67%) before giving up because I was going cross-eyed, but my tally is

    Total covers: 125
    "That's a girl's book": 92
    "That's a boy's book": 10
    "Could go either way": 23

    I tried to make my judgements quickly and based only on the cover, not on anything else I might know about the book. Patterns I noticed:
    -- any cover with a girl on it registered as "girly," but covers with boys on them might register in any category
    -- I had a hard time classifying books as "boy-y," tending instead to sort them as "girly vs. unmarked"

    I also categorized them in a few other ways based on the images and colors of the covers and what text I could make out, hoping to get a slightly more objective breakdown than my "I don't know, it just feels like a girl book" listing, and came up with:

    Pictures of girls only: 59
    Pictures of boys only: 7
    Pictures of boys and girls: 24

    "Feminine" objects/images: 21
    "Masculine" objects/images: 5

    (Some of the objects I marked as "feminine" included hearts, flowers, cosmetics, and dresses. Objects I marked as "masculine" included weapons, electronics, and sports equipment. I didn't include clothes and jewelry being worn by a person unless they seemed like the focus of the cover.)

    "Girl words": 22
    "Boy words": 5

    (These categories refer to words in the titles and include names, the words "boy" or "girl," and nouns used only to refer to one gender, like "brother," "daughter," "princess," etc. Some of the "boy word" covers refer to boys in a way that makes me think they're really about girls -- My Boyfriends' Dogs, for example, was counted as having a "boy word," but I think the main character is probably a girl who has some boyfriends who have dogs. The reverse is not true -- I think all of the "girl word" covers are about girls.)

    Pink: 27
    Blue: 55

    (I tried to count any amount of pink or blue that I noticed -- background, text color, shirt on a cover model, whatever. I started out just counting pink, then wanted something to compare it to and added blue, but I don't think it's actually a useful comparison -- the vast majority of the blue covers are books I categorized as "girly." A lot of them use water or sky as the background or have the text in teal or light blue. The books I categorized as "boy-y" actually tended to be red, orange, and yellow. However, it may be worth noting that, while there are lots of blue "girly" books, there are zero pink "boy-y" books.)

  26. I wonder if there's a correlation between the race of the author and the race of their characters.

    I also wonder if there are more white characters because there are more white published authors.

    Or Male writers writing male POVs vs female writers writing female POVs and the other way around too.

    Lots to think about!

  27. Thank you for counting, elsajeni!

    So many thoughts to respond to here-- I think a lot of the questions raised have been discussed in the links at the search I mentioned, so I didn't rehash them here. Thank you all for checking this post out, and if you decide to write further about the issue on your own blog, feel free to link it here or tweet me with the link.

    Anna: If you'll notice, I already called myself out on my own hypocrisy in the footnotes. Further, my books are not published, nor are they the only two books I'll ever write in my life. Obviously I think the solution is to be an ally when I can't be a direct part of the solution. What's your answer?

  28. Girl, you are the undisputed graph and chart queen in all the (blog)land. <3

    An excellent, thoughtful post, as per usual. This one really must have taken you some time to put together. Thanks for being you. :)


  29. Kate - I didn't get a chance to respond earlier, but I am once again blown away by your ability to break down a seemingly complicated and subjective idea in a simple concrete and visual way. <33

  30. these charts you make are amazing. and this topic in particular made for a fascinating blog post. thanks for putting so much work and thought into it. it was really interesting to see the breakdown.

  31. Thank you SO MUCH for doing this! As an Asian American, I've always been bothered that I would never belong in most of the fantasy worlds I loved to read about, simply because the everyone who existed in those worlds were white. And I always got ridiculously happy whenever an Asian character showed up, even if they were secondary/token characters (better than none at all). I wrote a blog post that touched on the issue here:

    But yeah. Thanks so much for this post. :)

  32. I don't think the prevalence of whiteness means people should consciously try and cram people of color in there (that's about as dishonest as writing to a trend instead of writing what comes naturally), but it does mean more people who feel they're not represented should not be afraid to fill that gap! Obviously there is a niche begging to be filled. I've seen it said (and this is why I write) "write the story you want to read that hasn't been written yet." Anyone who feels they "don't belong" in various written worlds should get to changing that :) Chances are us white girls will be thrilled to read it.

  33. Kate, I lovelovelove your infographics and I think you are brilliant. Elsajeni, you too! These statistics are fantastic. And you are so right that Gurdon's feelings would have been more productive had she targeted an issue like this one.

    There's been a lot of discussion in comments about what an author's role in changing these statistics should and can be (and about our shared white guilt for possibly not doing enough), so I want to weigh in with my own perspective as a publishing professional. As interested as I'd be in seeing the correlation between number of white writers and number of non-white main characters, I'd be just as interested in seeing the correlation between the number of white editors/agents/marketers/salespeople/publishers involved with these books and the number of non-white main characters. I've written about how I think publishers, as the curators for popular literature, share the responsibility for cultivating multicultural readers and producing books with diverse characters here:

    Thanks, all, for the great discussion!

  34. Also, Kate, do you mind if I repost two of your graphics on my blog and link them to you? I want to point my readers over here so they can see this themselves.

  35. Wow! This is a fantastic post. I applaud your determination.

  36. This is a really fantastic (and important) analysis! As a woman of color, I would love to see more minorities on YA covers and hope publishers make that change!

  37. And now I'm going to ask the question I'm sure everyone is thinking but no one is asking:

    How the %*#& do you have time to research and make really cool graphs, write books, blog for YA Highway & yourself, tweet, and do mundane things like eat and sleep?

    I guess the question really should be, where'd you hide the time-turner? Some of us would like a go with it too. #exhausted

  38. Content of this post (which was in itself amazing) aside, this post was REALLY fun to read and really well-organized, and the graphics were incredible. Thanks for this!

  39. Nice post. It's rather telling about our world.

  40. This is a fascinating post! Thank you for the breakdown! So on the big graph, how many layers did you have going in PS? lol

  41. Wow. This post is amazing. Thank you very much for you putting all of this together/looking at the details. I appreciate it!

  42. I love this post and your breakdown. Thanks for taking the time to do this (whilst crashing your computer!) - it's extremely insightful and helpful to see all the statistics gathered in one place.

    Love the graphic that does the breakdown of Non-white girl vs. Possibly dead girl vs. Girl in fancy dress. I've seen so many of the fancy dress covers that I've come to call them Sad Girl in Pretty Dresses (aka SGiPD). I really honestly do NOT understand why this type of cover is so popular and trendy with designers/art directors/editors. I mean hey, I'm all about looking at a pretty dress, but only when I'm doing some online shopping for a wedding outfit, y'know?

  43. Hey, what's the title of the book nine books from the right and three rows from the bottom? I couldn't see it, and it looks really familiar.
    And I really like the color chart of covers - it was really nice to see that someone cared so much about all of these topics to compile a chart and do all the math and come up with the stats. Congrats!

  44. Like! That was an impressive illustration.

  45. Helping you count! (Great blog, by the way)

    My non-scientific method was to look at the covers and try to picture a girl reading it, then a boy reading it. If I could picture one or the other, they got marked in the Girl or Boy column. If I could picture both, I put it in the Either column.

    Girls - 319
    Boys - 38
    Either/both - 83

  46. Couldn't believe the breakdown. Very informative blog. Thanks for doing the homework.

  47. Kate, I always love the posts you do like this! So well-researched and thought out.

    Love it!


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