by Megan Creasey
Your mission, should you choose to accept it: Go into your local library or bookstore and briefly browse the young adult section. Do you see a trend in the cover art? Are you finding yourself wondering if you’re in the magazine section as you stare at each different white, airbrushed face?
I can’t blame you. The trend of putting photographs and illustrations of impossibly beautiful white girls on the covers of YA books started quite a while ago and is still going strong. Perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, predominantly Caucasian beauties decorate advertisements, TV shows, movies, CD covers and magazines. Why stop at books?
Here is why. Books are one of the last media refuges in which the recipient is allowed to conjure their own images of characters, filling in the gaps left by the author with personal details. If the story is well-written, these characters feel realistic and relatable, at least in some capacity. When designers slap a pretty white girl on the cover, they set a standard of what these female characters –often strong, flawed, and driven people– should look like. Portraying these protagonists as flawless, fair-skinned clones not only makes the book look as shallow as a teen magazine cover, but it also creates a barrier between the reader and the characters before the book is even opened!
The facial features and types of beauty represented portrays a lack of racial diversity, which is even more disturbing. Whitewashing, which has long been a trend in the magazine world, also seeps into YA cover art. On the American Library Association website, Annie Schutte discusses how racially diverse characters are often portrayed as whitewashed on YA covers, or in silhouette, masking their race. You needn’t look far to find examples, and just in case you haven’t been in the YA section of a Barnes & Noble lately, the article has plenty of examples to prove its point. I myself have reviewed several books with art guilty of this; see the cover art in my review of The Lost Girl, which has an Indian protagonist depicted only in silhouette on the cover.
YA writer Ellen Oh also wrote about this issue on her blog, Hello Ello. In her entry “Why The Pretty White Girl YA Book Cover Trend Needs to End,” she makes an interesting point that fiction aimed toward children and middle school kids doesn’t suffer this problem as often. This makes the YA art trend even more troubling, for it seems that these beautiful, white, airbrushed girls are appearing more often on YA books —books aimed at the age group the most obsessed with appearance— than any other genre.
Here’s the thing: It doesn’t have to be this way. From a visual perspective, there are plenty of things that convey a book’s mood and plot besides a model with perfect hair and high cheekbones. From a marketing perspective, there are plenty of examples of successful books with cover art, both minimalist and intricate, that don’t fall prey to this trend:
Above, for example, are two uses of silhouettes that aren’t masking race but are rather used to make a visually striking cover. In general silhouettes create an aesthetically compelling image, but when it trends as a way to mask the protagonist’s race, it becomes problematic.
Here are two more engaging covers, one very minimalist and one more elaborate and atmospheric. Not every book cover need feature inanimate objects, but neither does a book cover need an airbrushed model on the cover to pique readers’ interests.
Let’s talk about the readers for a second. Not only does the “pretty white girl” cover perpetuate distorted ideals for female readers, but it also alienates any potential male readers from becoming interested. Some boys might assume that a female main character means it’s a “girls’ book,” although this notion is swiftly changing. Take, for example, these two popular and well-marketed books featuring strong female characters:
Both Divergent and The Hunger Games are heart-pounding dystopian thrillers and are marketed as such, yet I see far too many books (fantasy in particular) that boys would enjoy if not for the cover art that screams “THIS IS A GIRLS’ BOOK FOR GIRLS ONLY” (I’m looking at you, The Girl of Fire and Thorns.)
Young adult as a genre continues to grow both its market and the age of its readership. As someone who’s not involved in the cover art and marketing scheme of YA, I can only hope that this detrimental “pretty white girl” fad will give way to some beautiful, innovative, and appealing book art that celebrates the diversity of the characters and stories found in YA literature.
Creasey, M. (2013, September 29). Review: The Lost Girl. Retrieved from http://storystall.wordpress.com/2013/09/29/review-the-lost-girl/
Kite, Lexie, Kite, Lindsay. (2011, February 1). Beauty Whitewashed: How White Ideals Exclude Women of Color. Retrieved from http://www.beautyredefined.net/beauty-whitewashed-how-white-ideals-exclude-women-of-color/
Oh, E. (2012, March 7). Why the Pretty White Girl YA Book Cover Trend Needs to End. Retrieved from http://elloecho.blogspot.com/2012/03/why-pretty-white-girl-ya-book-cover.html/
Schutte, A. (2012, December 10). It Matters If You’re Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers. Retrieved from http://www.yalsa.ala.org/thehub/2012/12/10/it-matters-if-youre-black-or-white-the-racism-of-ya-book-covers/
 “Beauty Whitewashed: How White Ideals Exclude Women of Color,” beautyredefined.net
 Schutte, Annie. “It Matters If You’re Black or White: The Racism of YA Book Covers,” yalsa.ala.org
 Creasey, Megan. “Review: The Lost Girl,” storystall.wordpress.com
 Oh, Ellen. “Why The Pretty White Girl YA Book Cover Trend Needs to End,” elloecho.blogspot.com