Oh Great, Another Pretty White Girl: The YA Cover Art Conundrum

17 Nov

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. And perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise. Predominately Caucasian beauties decorate advertisements, TV shows, movies, CD covers and magazines–why stop at books?

Here’s why. Books give readers the singular chance to create their own personal image of the character in their head, filling in gaps left by the author. If the story is written well, these characters will 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 admirable characters–should look like. Portraying these characters as unattainably beautiful women creates a barrier between the reader and the characters before the readers even open the pages!

It’s not just that these faces are flawless and that the bodies are perfect, though. Whitewashing, which has long been a trend in the magazine world, also seeps into YA cover art. This fantastic article on the ALA website 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 of these–the article has a thorough rundown of examples. 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).

YA writer Ellen Oh also wrote about this issue on her blog. She makes an interesting point that fiction aimed toward children and middle school kids doesn’t suffer this problem as often.

The thing about this trend is that it doesn’t have to be this way. There are some beautiful examples of cover art, both minimalist and intricate, that don’t fall into this trap:

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Above, for example, are two uses of silhouettes that aren’t masking race but are rather used to make a visually striking cover. I personally love the way silhouettes look from an aesthetic perspective, but the trend of using them to hide an ethnic protagonist is less than wonderful.



Here are two opposite but engaging covers, one very minimalist and one more elaborate and atmospheric. I’m not here to say that every great book cover should revolve around inanimate objects, but a book doesn’t need an airbrushed model on the cover to pique readers’ interests. 

And 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 just a “girl’s book,” although this notion is swiftly changing. Take, for example, these two popular and well-marketed books featuring strong female characters:

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These books are marketed to look like the action-packed stories that they are, 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.


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