Last year, I started a series of infographics about YA book covers, mostly as a tongue-in-cheek reaction to the Wall Street Journal's "Darkness in YA" controversy. But the further I got into compiling statistics, the more alarmed I became at the covers' monochrome approach to models. All total, I found 224 white girls-- and only nine of any other race or ethnicity.
Nine. As compared to at least 30 white girls in fancy dresses.
So this year, I decided to widen my search. Starting with The Elevensies and this Goodreads list of 2011 YA releases, I looked at 900+ covers, focusing only on US releases within the 2011 calendar year.* Originally, I planned to count every self-published, indie, Big 6, or other book on the list... but somewhere in the 600s I started losing my mind and decided to keep stats only on presses whose acquisitions are announced in Publisher's Marketplace. This still left me with 624 "traditionally published" books to count.
As you can see, last year's finding that YA covers are no more "dark" than they are "light" still stands.
And while it's not an exact count, this chart gives you a general idea of how self-published covers compare in hue.
But the color diversity ends there.
I had hoped that without "gatekeepers," self-publishing and indie presses would make up some of the ground in minority representation. Instead, out of the 200+ non-PW titles I surveyed, not a single one appears to portray a person of color.
Now, I realize this chart is not representative of all self-published and indie titles. A real assessment of self-published titles should start with Amazon (if anyone cares to take that on, I'm glad to spread the word of your results!). It's likely the chart says more about Goodreads voters*** than it does about representation-- but that possibility doesn't cheer me up much either.
So how are the gatekeepers doing?
Better... but not great.
Last year's counting was overly complicated; this year, I counted each model individually-- for example, a cover with two white girls and one latina would be counted three times overall, but my divisor of 624 remained the same. There's certainly a margin of error present in my perceptions, my questionable eyesight, and the sheer overwhelming mess of a 900+ line spreadsheet, but still.** Even if you can think of two or three examples I missed (and I hope you can!), this is just dismal.
Of the groups represented enough to show up in a pie slice, black characters/models are not only fewest in number, they're barely even on their own covers.
Latin@ and Asian characters/models do slightly better-- not much increase in numbers, but at least they're allowed to look at the camera.
It probably goes without saying that MENA, Native American, Indian, and other races/ethnicities fare the worst.
You might notice I haven't mentioned disability. That's because any visual representation = 0. Not even a token wheelchair.
There is one obvious LGBTQ cover included (on both the Asian and Latin@ charts); for more statistics, check out Malinda Lo's charts from September.
I don't think the representation failings of modern publishing are the fault of any one person or group. Authors, agents, editors, marketing, designers, book buyers, stores, libraries, teachers, students, and readers all bear some responsibility, but I present these charts with the intention of furthering a collective discussion, not to lay blame.
Thankfully, there are lots and lots of extant posts for you to read and consider regarding the causes of these trends. It seems like I link one every single week in the YA Highway round up; if you're not a follower, here are a few from the past couple of months:
- Ellen Oh: "Why The Pretty White Girl YA Book Cover Trend Needs To Stop"
- Stephanie Kuehn: "Thoughts on Trayvon Martin: Continuing the Discussion on Race and YA Covers"
- LibraryFanGirl: "The Whitewashing of YA Literature"
- Adios Barbie: "Why Are We Still Whitewashing?"
- Geekquality: "Hollywood Whitewashing (Yes, It Really Hurts)"
- Malinda Lo: "Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover"
- Sharon G. Flake at the NYT: "There Need to Be More Nonwhite Protagonists"
- Rachel Stark: "Cover Trends in YA Fiction: Why the Obsession with an Elegant Death?"
That should get you started.
Also: I said this last year in the small print, but some readers missed it, so this year I'm saying it big and bold: I am a big 'ole hypocrite straight white middle class girl who's written two unpublished books about straight white middle class girls. But they aren't the only books I'll ever write (and I haven't finished a third since last year's post). In the meantime, I am trying to be an ally in the best way I know how. Suggestions for improvement are always welcome.
So! As a community, we suck at race and ethnicity. How are we doing in terms of gender? Well, if you're looking at sheer numbers, then ladies, we are doing awesome.
I mean, sure, 20% of our models appear to be missing a limb or part of a head, but at least a couple of guys get the axe treatment too.
And only 15.5% are turned away from the camera... which is up 5.5 from last year, but that's not a big deal...
And there's nothing inherently wrong with 14% of the ladies wearing a fancy dress...
Unless you compare that 14% to the aforementioned 3% or so that makes up the entirety of our POCs, in which case it's a little alarming.
But hey! Only about 6.6% of our girls appear to be dead this year! Which is... still more than our POC representation! But only 1% are actively drowning! So... that's... kind of a win?
Honestly, I really don't think there's anything inherently wrong with girls in dresses or artfully cropped shots or even otherwordly underwater pictures.
But the dead girl thing. That really wears on me.
I haven't updated last year's "girliness" charts because I think between the color breakdown above and the object breakdown below, you can draw your own conclusions. But I will make a few observations:
- Filigree. It's so hot right now.
- Flowers. Only half as hot as filigree.
- It turns out there's only one "l" in filigree but the object chart crashes my computer every time I open it so I'm not going to edit the image. Please forgive me, grammar gods.
- Trees, water, hearts, moons, snow, sparkles, blood, necklaces, the ocean, birds, fire, grass, stars, leaves, reflections, clouds, and hands are the other most popular cover images. I thought butterflies and masks would figure much higher. (Also, I did some dumb things like counting trees and branches separately. Same with swords, blades, and daggers. Your mathematical mileage may vary.)
The discussion in last year's comments was pretty thorough, and I'm not sure there's much more to add here (though feel free to weigh in, provided it's done respectfully -- my troll tolerance is non-existent). Relevant links are also welcome.
Thanks for reading, and if you write a response or related post, link it below or submit it for Friday's round up!
edited 5/20: If you are commenting on this post, please read my follow up first. It addresses some FAQs and provides more information.
* This meant several of The Elevensies were excluded, as their release dates were actually late December 2010.
** Obviously compiling charts such as these puts me in the uncomfortable position of judging who looks "black/asian/latin@ enough" to "count." As such, I've taken book blurbs and plot descriptions into account in an effort to make sure my own perceptions and prejudices are balanced as much as possible.
*** I am one of those voters, as are pretty much all my friends. Nobody get your panties in a twist.
**** I know authors don't have much say in their covers. Where possible, I've purposely used books that belong to friends or that I've recommended, because I don't want anyone to feel like I'm picking on their title or cover.
***** All original cover images are copyright their various holders.
****** An analysis of character, author, and publishing professional race/ethnicities would be a really helpful corollary to these charts, but short of finding a job that pays me to read and track all these books, it's just not in the cards (honestly, I don't think even these charts are in the cards for next year, unfortunately-- my family wants me to pay attention to them or something? I don't even know.)
Let me know if you want to be my wealthy benefactor, however. I am ALL ABOUT IT.