Is There An Ugly Truth Behind The 'Liar' Cover?

Today’s Youth Advisory Board post is from Megan Reid who weighs in on the recent controversy sparked by the misleading cover chosen for the U.S. version of the dark YA novel Liar by Justine Larbalestier. As always, you can communicate directly with any member of the Ypulse Youth Advisory Board by emailing them at youthadvisoryboard at ypulse.com…or just leave a comment below.

Is There An Ugly Truth Behind The ‘Liar’ Cover?

Liar+by+Justine+LThe first time I read Liar by Justine Larbalestier, I stopped a couple of pages in, flipped to the cover, back to the passage I was reading, and then back again to the cover. The description of Micah, the book’s main character, and the pretty cover image of a light-skinned, long-haired girl didn’t match to a degree that it was distracting. (“I’ve been mistaken for a boy before….I got the nappy gene so I keep my hair cut close to my scalp.”)

I know that covers that depict characters can’t always be totally accurate to what an author writes. But the fact that publisher Bloomsbury played with the race of a main character (who is bi-racial, but clearly identifies as black…or at least not white) is a pretty serious and unnecessary change. The uncomfortable, yet totally obvious question is: Why make it at all?

Bloggers like Mitali Perkins and writers at The Brown Bookshelf think it’s a sales choice, and I agree. Since covers help sell books, clearly somebody thought that putting this girl on the cover, and not a model who resembles Larbalestier’s character, would help “Liar” be more popular. Following that argument through, this change to Micah’s race by doing what Jezebel and Perkins called “whitewashing” suggests that publishers assumed that audiences prefer not to buy books with people of color on the covers. And for many, even in “post-racial America,” that’s probably true. To me, it’s sad but not surprising that businesses might pander to prejudices of those who think that white faces (and white protagonists) are somehow more appealing. YA author John Green called it “racism as a marketing strategy.”

Besides racial issues, there are other ways the cover feels like a big mistake. I think it’s patronizing to teen readers in general. Gen Y audiences aren’t dumb, and can generally tell when things are inauthentic, from lame ads on social networking sites, to overhyped bands. Did they really expect YA readers wouldn’t notice how “off” this cover is when compared to the book, even without the controversy and commentary?

Of course, there’s Bloomsbury’s response claiming that they always meant to “[strive] for ambiguity with the cover.” Maybe Micah really is white, and her race is just another part of her lies. Editorial Anonymous and Larbalestier herself basically put that theory to rest. But if what Bloomsbury says about its intentions is true, I think they could have gotten that idea across in a different way, and more thoughtfully considered the implications of changing a character from black to white.

Taken by itself, without the frustrating U.S. cover choice, I still think Liar would have gotten the attention of YA readers. It’s dark—much darker than Larbalestier’s last book How to Ditch Your Fairy (which could come as a shock to her middle school readers). I found it at least as psychologically twisted as most adult thrillers I’ve read, and I legitimately had dreams about it for days. Micah’s a great character, and her lies are disturbing, but at the same time so heartbreaking and fascinating that I waffled between disgust and sympathy for most of the book. It’s hard to go into detail about the twists that made Liar such a compulsive read without spoiling the plot. Even after reading it twice, I’m still unsure about Micah’s “true” story.

I recommend it, but I also recommend that readers keep thinking critically about how books about non-white teens are sold, and maybe, too, about questions like these from Larbalestier’s blog:  “Are the big publishing houses really only in the business of selling books to white people?...How welcome is a black teen going to feel in the YA section when all the covers are white?”

About Meg

megMegan is a college student, freelancer and hardcore bookworm. She began writing fashion articles for her hometown newspaper at age 15, and her work has since appeared in publications like Boston magazine, Mountain Living and CosmoGirl. Meg also loves theatre and the arts, and when she’s not sending postcards, devouring YA novels, or reading up on 19th-century cultural studies, she’s probably dragging someone along on a late-night ice cream/Starbucks run. Meg has lived in three (soon to be four) countries and five states, though she currently resides in Arizona.

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6 Comments

  1. Mitali Perkins

    Thanks for this. In my article STRAIGHT TALK ON RACE, written for School Library Journal, I pointed out how marketing people are forgetting how different your generation is than ours when it comes to race:

    “We serve a generation of young people who experience race differently from how we grown-ups did. Today’s teens are more diverse than we were at their age. The New York Times recently reported that the ‘enrollment of Hispanic and Asian students in American schools has increased by more than 5 million since the 1990s.’ In 1993, there was a 52 percent chance that two students selected at random would be members of a different ethnic group. By 2006, that likelihood had risen to 61 percent.

    An increased mixing and mingling isn’t occurring only in school, but also in youth pop culture. Tune in to this generation’s artifacts—the music, television programs, movies, and video games they enjoy. Listen to their jokes. One of the first things you’ll notice is that the lines aren’t drawn between what kids can or can’t say when it comes to ethnic humor, but between who can say it.”

  2. public pushback for Justine Larabeister’s LI

    [...] Or even here. [...]

  3. Keri

    I agree with everything pretty much everyone has said about the controversy.  I’m pretty happy I stopped doing my favorite YA book covers of the month a while back (too busy) because I totally would have picked this one.  It is a great cover for a book.  The problem is that it is the complete wrong cover for this book, and wrong for all the most awful reasons.

    Interestingly, I think that representation of African-American women on book covers has been increasing in the last two years and it seems like it will continue to grow.  I’m thinking of the lovely Kimani Tru books, Drama High, Hotlanta, Ni-Ni Simone, It Chicks, Bluford High reprints, some of the Christian fiction ones like Stephanie Perry Moore (of course, increasing from abominable still means we have a long way to go). 

    I would love some books with African-American boys on the cover.  Particularly ones that boys themselves will want to pick up.

    Then we need to get to work on Latino teen fiction.

  4. sharron hall

    Your points are very valid and interesting, however there is also the fact that some mixed-race individuals do look white and regardless of how they identify themselves we need to see mixed-race individuals of all hues. Of course if more people read the book and get and an understanding of the mixed-race experience because of the cover then that can also serve to raise awareness of some of the very issues you are talking about. If there had been a black face on the cover when the character was mixed-race probably nobody except maybe mixed-race people would have raised any concern. Yet if a mixed-race person with a black and a white parent can be called black why can’t they be called white. The cover would not stop me buying this book nor showing it to my readers and if it is a good book the cover won’t matter it will sell itself. After all that I do agree with the points you raised I just think that there are other ways of looking at the situation.

  5. Paula

    The dialogue on the cover and the evident issues attached to how some publishers market has been refreshing. These things must be discussed, in order to make progress.

    Although I feel for Justine, because some people are unfairly judging the book based on the cover - I’m pleased that such thoughtful discussion has ensued.

  6. Bodies & Books « Imagine Today

    [...] Bloomsbury, this cover art has nothing to do with sales but, rather, reflects a desire to “[strive] for ambiguity with the cover.” I know that this response from Bloomsbury was meant to defend the company against [...]

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