Is There An Ugly Truth Behind The 'Liar' Cover?
- July 28th, 2009
- 6 Comments
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?
The 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?”
Megan 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.