Tag Archives: pretty white girls

Review: You Look Different In Real Life

27 Dec

Yep, once again the oh-so-teen Pretty White Girl cover had me entering this book with low expectations. In cases like this, I love it when I’m wrong. Jennifer Castle’s You Look Different In Real Life ended up being a story of five very real teenagers who are discovering who they are and how documentaries about them have affected how they think of themselves. This review contains spoilers.

urlJustine and four of her classmates were featured in a documentary when they were kindergartners called Five at Six, then again in Five at Eleven. Now, five years later, the five are sixteen and the two ambitious filmmakers are back to make the third installment. However, a lot has changed in five years. Justine, who had always charmed audiences, feels like a disappointment and a nobody. She and her former friend Rory are no longer talking. Nate has transformed himself into a cool kid who no longer hangs out with Felix, and Kiera seems to be aloof from them all.

This does not bode well for the film. The five students who used to be so transparent and genuine are now hesitant to share their lives with the filmmakers. Interviews and footage reach dead ends, and the filmmakers are coerced by their producers to

The turning point in the book is really where the story and the characters begin to shine. When Kiera takes off to find her missing mom, the other four go off after her by themselves, and Justine takes the camera with them. It’s only here, on their trip to New York City in a borrowed van with an emergency credit card and a video camera, that friendships start to be repaired and secrets are revealed. Justine begins to repair her friendship with Rory. Felix reveals that he’s gay and that’s why he and Nate have become frosty toward each other. The four witness Kiera reunite with her mom. It’s a powerful choice that Castle makes, having things only come together when Justine and the other four take the film and their lives into their own hands.

This book has a lot of fantastic things going for it: A realistic portrayal of autism through Rory, who is also a great character in general and is far more than “That Autistic Character”, believable and compelling character growth and development, and interesting commentary on the added difficulty of defining yourself when you are conscious of what others think of you.

The concept of teens being followed by a documentary crew is especially relevant in this age, in which teens watch reality shows with dubious amounts of actual reality in them, create YouTube videos and blogs in the hopes of internet fame, and can have the minutia of their day available to all on Facebook and Twitter. How much do we allow others’ opinions or expectations of us define who we are, and how can we use the media tools available to us (as Justine takes the video camera) to create real communications that repair and reconcile?

You Look Different In Real Life is a very satisfying read–I would definitely recommend it for teens and lovers of realistic fiction.

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.

 

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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.