Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Crossing the Color Lines

The world of YA is all abuzz about the cover for Justine Larbalestier's new book Liar:

Specifically, the issue is with the cover. It's not that it's a bad cover, in fact, it's a perfectly lovely cover and will probably sell a lot of books. The controversy comes with the fact that the main character in the book is an African American girl with short black hair. I'm not going to go into the controversy surrounding it, mainly because Justine herself talks about it better than I ever could on her blog. If you have a few minutes (or half an hour), take a look at her post and all of the comments that follow. This has all got me thinking about race and it's role in my books.

I don't think about race that much when I write. For those of you who know me, you may be surprised by that. I actually don't think about race all that much in my daily life, which may also be surprising - here's the photo from the back of my picture book that may illustrate why it's surprising:

My family is nothing if not a study in race relations, but most of the time we're so busy trying to finish homework and get to soccer/baseball/hip-hop practice that it doesn't come up. We're lucky to live in a place that is really diverse and allows us not to think about it so much, so that when someone gives us the fish-eye out in public it comes as somewhat of a shock. I've been with my husband for fifteen years, so you'd think I live in a very racially aware world. You'd think.

I have a confession to make. When I got the first art for When It's Six O'clock in San Francisco, I was startled that Randy had drawn the San Francisco character as African American. Don't really know why I was surprised - Randy DuBurke is African American illustrator, and he has won a John Steptoe award - a prestigious award given to a black illustrator as part of the Coretta Scott King annual literary awards. I was thrilled when they chose him to do it. The book is about children all over the world and features Asian kids, African kids, South American kids and Pakistani kids. I even made my sole editorial note to him saying that the character from Sydney has an Aboriginal name, to make sure he drew her that way. But I was still surprised that Jared was Black. Pleased, but surprised.

The first novel I ever wrote is called Armadillo Season and deals with race in an interesting way - the main character is raised white in a small Texas town, but finds out later that his father was black. You only have to look at my youngest son to figure out where the inspiration for that story came from. Hopefully, someone will buy it and someday it will become a real book. Dirty Little Secrets has a love interest who is Asian-American (although you may not even notice) and the YA I'm writing now has a biracial love interest, mainly just because. All of these characters I felt that I could tackle, but I'm not sure I could write a first-person book in the voice of a character from another race. Apparently I can write from a boy point of view, but for some reason it feels like it would be just too difficult to write convincingly from another race. Just like I tried to write a book set in a place where it snowed, - because I'd never lived in snow, I couldn't make it authentic and had to change the location of the story.

Anyone who thinks that just because we have a brown family in the White House that we live in a post-racial society (I read that word on Justine's blog and I love it) is mistaken. It's a fact that brown faces on book covers don't sell as well as white ones. It's a fact that there are not enough authors of color, and that those who do manage to make it in the biz are relegated to the Urban Fiction part of the bookstore. It's also a fact that even I assumed that just because a kid in a book is from San Francisco, that he would be white.

On this date: In 1868, the 14th Amendment is adopted, given African Americans full citizenship and the rights therof. (I didn't pick this date on purpose.)


Julie_c said...

I read about the LIAR issue on Fuse 8. On one hand, I hope the publicity sells more books. But as an artist - there are just SO MANY other artistic roads to go down. Why did they go this way? (I read that this line always uses black and white images of girls. Geez, people, go ahead and break the friggin' mold already.)
I need to go read Justine's blog.

I LOVE LOVE LOVE your family photo!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Cyn,
What a lovely family you have. They all hold such pride for you in their eyes.

Anonymous said...

What an honest post. It's interesting to see you awareness of this issue take form. I wonder how it will continue to affect your work? I'm looking forward to seeing what you write next!

I was actually led to your blog from a posting somewhere about "When It's six o'clock...". I can't help but think it would be a great addition to my high school media center. Students have such a difficult time with the concept of time zones!

cynjay said...

Thanks guys - the boys are cute when they're not punching each other.

Campbele, I'd never thought about it for high school, but since it covers a lot of bases, maybe we need to expand our marketing - great thought!