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Uncovering YA book covers
May 17, 2012 8:21 PM   Subscribe

Previously, WSJ asked if YA novels today are too dark- with abuse, violence and depravity. A YA writer took it literally and researched the color distribution and demographic of young adult novels.
posted by ichomp (34 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
The dead boy/girl thing was weird. Good find.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 8:33 PM on May 17, 2012


Is "latin@" something people actually write?

Otherwise, yeah, book covers are a thing unto themselves.
posted by GuyZero at 8:54 PM on May 17, 2012


On a similar note, remember that the ancient greeks were colorblind.
posted by 23 at 8:58 PM on May 17, 2012


I read "Latin@" as "Latinat."

Author, specific characters have specific meanings, and you cannot use "@" to mean "a or o".

Now remembering when some friends parsed "Alex&er" as "Alexampersander"
posted by explosion at 9:05 PM on May 17, 2012 [5 favorites]


Impressive but why?

Book covers are there to reach a market like a wrapper on a bag of chips. The desire is to access ones money most efficiently.

The Minority Represantation In 2011 YA Book Covers graphic seems to the closely mirror the demographics of the USA as it exists today.
posted by pianomover at 9:08 PM on May 17, 2012


"Latin@" is not something the author just made up. A lot of people who prefer the "Latino" or "Latina" over "Hispanic" use it as a gender-neutral term. I didn't even blink at it.

The Minority Represantation In 2011 YA Book Covers graphic seems to the closely mirror the demographics of the USA as it exists today.

90% of the United States is white?
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 9:09 PM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


On a similar note, remember that the ancient greeks were colorblind.
What? that's one (really old) article about Homer, not about all "Ancient Greeks". But actually, it's very ignorant of modern science. We now know that languages actually develop adjectives for various colors at different times. Japanese, for example, still hadn't split blue and green. The Greek language at the time of Homer hadn't split blue and green, but that didn't mean people couldn't see the color. Those words just didn't exist for homer to use.
Author, specific characters have specific meanings, and you cannot use "@" to mean "a or o".
Since when? I mean, she's a published author and you're... not? Seems to me that she has more authority over the English language then you do. Certainly more influence over the future direction.
posted by delmoi at 9:13 PM on May 17, 2012 [2 favorites]


Came in to see if anyone made the joke that you can't judge a book by it's cover, yet.
(oh no its me)
posted by NikitaNikita at 9:16 PM on May 17, 2012 [3 favorites]


Faces are probably obscured or cut off to allow the reader to form their own image of that character based on the text. The specifics need to be a little vague for this to happen unimpeded.

This book design convention is also helpful whenever a character is supposed to act as a stand-in for the reader, Gordon Freeman style.
posted by quosimosaur at 9:22 PM on May 17, 2012


pianomover, only 63% of the US population described themselves as "white, non-Hispanic" on the most recent census. So the representation isn't very close to the current demographics.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:27 PM on May 17, 2012


pianomover, only 63% of the US population described themselves as "white, non-Hispanic" on the most recent census. So the representation isn't very close to the current demographics.

And that's the whole US population. The young adult population is probably even less white.
posted by John Cohen at 9:30 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


@delmoi: That was a joke; I figured it wouldn't pass the crazy test.

The argument, though ridiculous, was significantly expanded on by successful British Prime Minister William Gladstone. His book touching on the topic is here, though I couldn't find the right section.
posted by 23 at 9:50 PM on May 17, 2012


Great point, John Cohen!
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:52 PM on May 17, 2012


quosimosaur, the category romance genre (Harlequin/Mills and Boon) covers almost always show faces clearly, so I don't think the "it's important not to show faces to encourage reader identification" impulse is at all self-evident across the industry.
posted by Sidhedevil at 9:55 PM on May 17, 2012


When I read the post I expected a statistical analysis of the text of the books, not their covers. Something along the lines of how often are words like "black" "red" "white" "blue" etc. down to "tawny" or "mauve" used in literature now and 50 years ago.
Should be easy enough to do today.
posted by sour cream at 10:25 PM on May 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hmm that is very true, Sidhedevil. I suppose there is sometimes a trade off when it's almost as important for a cover to say "Look here at these two smoking hot individuals getting passionate!" It's a lot harder to do that without faces.
posted by quosimosaur at 10:31 PM on May 17, 2012


I'm not up for arguing the ethnic make up of YA readers as I don't think it matters much.

The author or as is many times the case in YA authors choose the characters themselves.

The jacket is designed to appeal to the buyer most likely to consume the product, right or wrong.

See The Last Airbender.
posted by pianomover at 11:55 PM on May 17, 2012


How ironic is it that only one book featured an black/African character on the cover and they were Albino
@delmoi: That was a joke; I figured it wouldn't pass the crazy test.
Ah. Too subtle.
And that's the whole US population. The young adult population is probably even less white.
Yeah, the younger you get, the higher the proportion of minorities. In fact, young enough and white people are actually less then 50%. Thus Fox News guy: We need more white babies! Hispanics make up the largest chunk of young people.

Looking at the census data for 2010 for 12-16 (this year) we see:
┌──────┐╔═══════╦═══════╦════════╦══════════╦═══════════╦═══════╗
│Ages  │║ Asian ║ Black ║ Euro   ║ Hispanic ║ Mixed (2+)║ Native║
╞══════╪╬═══════╬═══════╬════════╬══════════╬═══════════╬═══════╣
│3-8   │║ 4.7%  ║ 15.1% ║ 51.7%  ║ 25.7%    ║ 3.9%      ║ 1.3%  ║
╞══════╪╬═══════╬═══════╬════════╬══════════╬═══════════╬═══════╣
│13-21 │║ 4.1%  ║ 15.6% ║ 58%    ║ 19.5%    ║ 2.7%      ║ 1.2%  ║
└──────┘╚═══════╩═══════╩════════╩══════════╩═══════════╩═══════╝
that's 2009 data, with (with 0-5 adjusted to 3-8, etc. "Euro" means Non-Hispanic white, mixed (2+) means mixed with two or more races)
The author or as is many times the case in YA authors choose the characters themselves.

The jacket is designed to appeal to the buyer most likely to consume the product, right or wrong.
Yeah which means only about 58% white, according to the census figures. It sounds like you're understanding of US demographics is several decades out of date.
See The Last Airbender.
You mean the multi-racial cartoon that was super popular with kids? Or are you assuming that minorities are too poor to afford books?
posted by delmoi at 12:34 AM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not that I agree with WSJ's point or any other point, but that first info-graphic is as dishonest as all hell. There so many covers covered black, with just a drop of say red, that gets put in the red column instead of dark. You can see quite a large fraction of the covers mis-categorized. I side with her intentions, yay diversity is important, but I don't trust her integrity as far as her findings go. Especially when results have 104%, using expanding to a tenths of a percent on some, but then round to the nearest ten percent on others in the same graphic.
posted by BurnChao at 12:42 AM on May 18, 2012


Not that I agree with WSJ's point or any other point, but that first info-graphic is as dishonest as all hell. There so many covers covered black, with just a drop of say red, that gets put in the red column instead of dark.

Calling it "dishonest" is kind of ridiculous.

From a mathematical perspective, there isn't really much you can do. Color and brightness are orthogonal, that is, the hue and the 'darkness' of a color are independent of each-other (and that's ignoring saturation, a third orthogonal variable in color space)

Basically, the colors we see are based on three independent-ish components: red, green and blue. Those components are isomorphic with other coordinates, like Hue, Saturation, Brightness (HSV) and Cyan Magenta and Yellow (often a non-orthogonal 'black' is added so you end up with CMYK)

Anyway, graphing pictures on the basis of color is even more problematic. You have a dominant and secondary color, then you end up with different dimensions, cut out saturation, and you still have 4 dimensions.

Anyway, there are actually two separate graphs: one graph for covers with a saturated dominant color, sorted by hue, and one graph for covers that have very low saturation (basically black and white) and are sorted by brightness.

So my guess is she just eyeballed it, and if it had any color, even just a small amount of it, it went in the colorful bin, and if it didn't it went in the black bin.

Might have been better to do one graph for hue, and another for overall brightness, then pick some cutoff for "dark". That way you could say "X% of covers are 'dark", along with a second chart for hue.

I don't really think it's reasonable to say that failing to so is likely the result of dishonesty. Grouping colors on a single axis is basically impossible.
posted by delmoi at 3:44 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not sure why you're talking about YA readers being young.

Pretty sure the target demographic for YA books isn't YAs but As who only read YA books.
posted by Legomancer at 4:52 AM on May 18, 2012


In answer to the actual question: I don't know if YA novels are too *dark* but they are certainly too *herdlike*. So if someone writes a dark novel and it does well, everyone has to go swooping after them and write copycat novels. It's pretty soul-destroying seeing all the "quirky demonology!" novels flood the shelves right after the "quirky witchcraft!" ones clear out.

That said, there are plenty of novels that didn't come out this year and are still perfectly readable. Visit a library rather than a bookstore.
posted by DU at 4:54 AM on May 18, 2012


Regarding the "dead girl" covers: aren't teenagers notoriously morbid? Of all the stuff in the piece, the "dead girl" covers was the one that gave me the biggest "yeah, so?" reaction. Of course dead-girl covers are huge; dead-girl stories are huge. Kids eat that crap up. Self-pity and the dawning of awareness of mortality: touchstones of tweenerhood.

"If I were dead, they'd all be sorry!"

Heh. I remember thinking that way.

God, I love being an adult.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 4:57 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


"Is "latin@" something people actually write?"
Sure looks like they do, especially among college programs.
posted by aurelian at 6:06 AM on May 18, 2012


I don't see using @ as a ligature any more surprising than using æ.
posted by aurelian at 6:08 AM on May 18, 2012


Something interesting about this topic that I've noticed is the quantity of books that will be about a black or brown, native, asian, etc character, and have that character depicted on the cover as white. This happens pretty frequently if the book isn't part of a "line" geared specifically at black women. (I'm not sure about male-targeted books). Of course, "frequently" means "frequently if the main character is nonwhite", which is still pretty rare. I see it most in fantasy novels.
posted by windykites at 7:40 AM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]


Not sure why you're talking about YA readers being young.
Because most of them are? My guess is that books marketed to younger people are going to be read by mostly younger people (and seemingly, mostly teen girls). If you have some non-anecdotal statistics, let's see 'em. But even something like Harry Potter, which people made a big deal about, most of the people you see that are really into it were definitely in the demo when the books started to come out, at least from my perspective.

And what's the deal anyway? Why not read some books for grownups?
posted by delmoi at 1:25 PM on May 18, 2012


Super glad to see this here. The author of these charts is one of my closest friends. She'd update us frequently as she worked on this project, and there was much punching of things. I've been bullying her to join MetaFilter for ages so hopefully this does it.

It's not just the covers, of course. There is indeed a huge lack of non-white protagonists in young adult novels, particularly in Big Books. That's changing, though incrementally; however, a non-white protagonist is less likely to be displayed on a book's cover in a recognizable manner, as Kate's charts show. Worst are the cases like windkyites alluded to above, where a publisher actually uses a white model when the character is a POC. See Justine Larbalestier's Liar and Jaclyn Dolamore's Magic Under Glass. Maybe market research says white kids on covers sell better than non-white ones, but you know what? Fuck that noise.

Fortunately, this is a hot topic in the YA industry right now, with an ever-growing number of writers tapped into the conversation. A comment I see again and again is white writers feeling intimidated writing non-white protagonists (secondary characters aren't as scary), and that they should stick with what they know, lest they inadvertently insult another culture or merely "get it wrong." I agree writing primary characters of different races requires extra thought and sensitivity, and I angst about it in my own writing A TON. But as hard as it is, I'll bet it's a whole lot harder being a non-white teen who can't see themselves in their favorite books, particularly the blockbusters with huge marketing budgets.
posted by changeling at 3:40 PM on May 18, 2012 [2 favorites]


And what's the deal anyway? Why not read some books for grownups?

Well, I do read a lot of books for grownups, but books are not just... interchangeable. The Hunger Games is not being written for adults. Harry Potter was not written for adults. Uglies could not be written for adults, nor could Starters. But these books are widely read by adults and you'll find all of them topping popular lists at Goodreads, Lendle, Shelfari and other reader-populated communities. These lists are populated by adult, not teen, readers. YA fiction has really enjoyed a new popularity among adult readers, particularly adult women readers and book clubs, in the last 5 years.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:43 PM on May 18, 2012


Regarding the "dead girl" covers: aren't teenagers notoriously morbid?

oh, for sure. I loved & loved dark books, and have no problem with dark covers, except for the stacks of boring Twilight knock-offs. (like these reissued classics covers. ew!)
what's striking, though, is the lack of dead boys. it's always girls, you know?
posted by changeling at 3:48 PM on May 18, 2012


Oh yay, Kate Hart. changeling & Kate & I are all YA BFFs and agent sisters. Glad to see this here.

Regarding the "dead girl" covers: aren't teenagers notoriously morbid? Of all the stuff in the piece, the "dead girl" covers was the one that gave me the biggest "yeah, so?" reaction. Of course dead-girl covers are huge; dead-girl stories are huge. Kids eat that crap up. Self-pity and the dawning of awareness of mortality: touchstones of tweenerhood.

To me this is a particularly Victorian formulation. Not just a dead girl, but specifically a dead white girl in an expensive dress. It's not just a reflection of the morbidity of teenagers but of teenage girls who seem to want to be delicate, fragile, breakable, passive, and rich.

This is particularly problematic when there are more "dead white girl in a dress" covers than there are covers with people of color on them.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:24 PM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]


Hi all -- Very cool to see the discussion going on here. I'm the victim of changeling's bullying author who made the charts, and she talked me into explaining a little about how and why I did the project. It really started as a joke, in response to last year's WSJ kerfuffle mentioned up top, and it wasn't intended to be terribly scientific. I just wanted one step up from "these colors go here because I said so," but that's still the basic organizing principle.

The original goal was honestly just to show that while bookshelf stores might look monotonous, there really is a wide variety of covers out there-- and a wide variety of YA, period. As someone in a thread elsewhere suggested earlier today, folks who think YA is terrible and formulaic have been to the bookstore, not the library.

What I didn't expect was that a quick count of cover models was going to be so eye-opening. I knew going in that lack of POCs was a major complaint, but the numbers were staggering. This year I considered not doing the project again, but it almost felt like a responsibility, so I looked at 4x as many covers hoping that a larger sample would show something less depressing... annnnd no such luck. Even with a huge margin of error-- say I missed 50 POCs somehow -- the numbers would still be dismal.

Anyway, in the end the main goal became drawing attention to the issue, and it has definitely done that, which makes me happy. I hope it makes book buyers think about what they're picking up, and makes publishing people consider what's available to pick up in the first place, and makes writers think about what they're giving publishing to work with.

Oh and (sorry this post is so long, but) the latin@ thing-- yeah, I definitely didn't make that up. I did some time in the Latin American Studies department before I abandoned academia.
posted by treehouse girl at 7:47 PM on May 18, 2012 [5 favorites]


Hey, I forgot to mention- the trend that I was talking about is something I've seen in both YA and adult books.

And, as for why YA lit matters to us as adults- I think most of us can agree that teens are pretty easily influenced, and that they tend to look to the media for behavioural cues, as well as to help them understand how they fit in the world. And that the lessons they learn can stay with them for a very long time. Do we want to train young people to expect to be under-represented, or do we want to teach them to expect more than that? Do we want to make it any harder for them to access positive, current, relatable role models than it already is?
posted by windykites at 10:55 PM on May 19, 2012


A comment I see again and again is white writers feeling intimidated writing non-white protagonists (secondary characters aren't as scary), and that they should stick with what they know, lest they inadvertently insult another culture or merely "get it wrong."

This is a really interesting perspective for me; I hadn't realised that this was a concern, and it gives me a greater appreciation for books I do read that feature nonwhite characters, written by white authors.

Truthfully, I'm always excited when I find an interesting, well written novel with a non-white protagonist, and I'm always a little disappointed, pissed off, and even offended when it (as it usually does) turns out the book was written by a white person. I feel as though I'd been cheated somehow- almost mocked. It's hard for me to explain why I have this feeling, and it doesn't stop me from reading or purchasing the books, but it's there.

I think a part of the frustration is knowing that there are POC authors writing equally good books that are being shuffled over out of the big-marketed stream into the mostly-ignored, poorly advertised "lines" instead of being accepted in the commons. And a part of it is a feeling (however unfair) that once again POC are being used- even exploited- for the entertainment of white people. Not in a "dance, boy, dance" way- it's a much more subtle feeling than that, and I can't fully articulate it.

I think another part of it is that every time I find a piece of media that depicts a POC as a positive character, I get a little thrill- it's one more for the list. "Yes," I think, "we're that much closer to finally being accepted on common ground!"- and then it turns out that it was all a joke, it was just some white person playing pretend, it's still not actually ok for a real person to not be white.

Of course, all of those reactions are totally outside of the reaction that understands that this is a story, and this individual author doesn't necessarily have a political agenda in telling the story- it's just a story, and if it's a good one, that's the most important thing. And, besides, I overlook far worse when reading classic lit.
posted by windykites at 11:13 PM on May 19, 2012


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