Monday, 5 May 2014

#WeNeedDiverseBooks | Whitewashing and YA

Before I say anything I'm going to say that these are just my personal thoughts. I am by no means an expert on racial issues and it's not my intention to insult or offend anyone, I'm just adding my own thoughts to the debate!

Over the weekend #WeNeedDiverseBooks trended on Twitter as authors, publishers, librarians and readers from all over the world talked about why diversity in literature - and in children's literature in particular - is important. You can find an article about it here!

So I thought today would be the perfect opportunity for me to talk about my thoughts concerning whitewashing and YA.

The majority of us, if asked, will say that we're not racist, and while I don't think most people who say that are lying it is possible to be racist without realising; especially if, like me, you're white. Most of us who are white don't tend to realise just how privileged we are.

I'm not trying to lecture anyone, and I'm certainly not trying to demonise white people. I'm a white person myself, and I think it's ridiculous to say that because someone's white they're therefore a horrible person, but I do think more of us need to realise just how underrepresented people of colour are.

YA today is fantastic at giving minorities - and I hate to use the word 'minorities' - a voice. Not only is YA well known for giving readers brilliant female characters who are more than just 'the love interest' or 'the sidekick', but many of these characters also happen to be people of colour.

So why haven't publishers and film makers noticed this?

Take The Hunger Games, for example. Katniss Everdeen is one of the best heroines to grace YA today; she's flawed, brave and loving. She's also olive-skinned, though the film franchise would have you believe otherwise. In fact fans of the series who only watch the films and don't read the books might have no idea that Katniss is a woman of colour at all.

Don't get me wrong, I love Jennifer Lawrence; I think she's fantastic as Katniss, but she is white. Other than Lawrence, several other actresses were considered for/interested in the role: Kaya Scodelario; Chloë Grace Moretz; Emma Roberts; Saoirse Ronan; Emily Browning and Shailene Woodley just to name a few.

Is it just me, or are all of those actresses white?

In her own words, author Suzanne Collins said: "In her remarkable audition piece, I watched Jennifer embody every essential quality necessary to play Katniss." (You can find the rest of that article here).

If the author's happy with the choice then I suppose the rest of us should be too. Collins knows Katniss better than any of us could ever hope to, and as I said before I do think Lawrence is a brilliant Katniss, but how do they know they wouldn't have found the qualities they were looking for in an olive-skinned actress if they didn't audition any?

Sadly it's not only the film industry that whitewashes its characters, the publishing industry does too; it's notorious for putting a white model on the cover of a book which features a non-white protagonist. Perhaps one of the most shocking examples of this is the cover of the first book in Julie Kagawa's Blood of Eden series, The Immortal Rules.

This series, set in a post-apocalyptic future where vampires roam the earth, features a heroine named Allison Sekemoto. If her surname isn't enough of a clue, Allison is Asian. Fantastic! I can't remember the last time I stumbled across a book with an Asian protagonist.

Hm. I don't know what's worse: that the cover designer didn't read the book and assumed the heroine was white, or that the cover designer did read the book and put a white model on the cover anyway.

(I have nothing against the model, of course, she's very pretty, I just don't think she's quite how readers picture Allison).

I wish I could say The Immortal Rules is the only example of a publisher choosing the wrong cover model, but sadly it happens a lot.

Let's look at Maria V. Snyder's Poison Study, the first book in her Study series. This particular series follows Yelena Zaltana, a young woman who is thrust from deathrow into a new job as the Commander of Ixia's food-taster. As far as Yelena knows she's an orphan from Sitia, the land that lies South of Ixia and is known for its magic-users and its warmer climate.

In the book it's mentioned that people from Sitia tend to have darker skin than those in Ixia, thus leaving Yelena's skin tone unspecified - meaning people can imagine her to be olive-skinned like Katniss or black like Malorie Blackman's Sephy in Noughts and Crosses - but one thing we know for certain is that she is not white.

And yet, once again, we are left with a white cover model. More than once.

Why are publishers so afraid of putting people of colour on the covers of their books? I refuse to believe that books featuring people of colour won't sell because there is an audience for books featuring such characters. Personally I don't care what the colour of the protagonists's skin is - I'll read anything! - and the majority of other readers I come across feel the same.

Representation matters, and both people of colour and white people should be on our book covers. The world is made up of so many different races that in this day and age it's ridiculous that we still think it a novelty to see people of colour in the media.

What are your thoughts on the matter?


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