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Asian-Americans on YA fiction covers

July 27, 2009

My first reaction to the Liar cover controversy: That’s shameful. An eye-catching cover, to be sure, but to use the picture of a white girl who blatantly does not match the narrator’s description at all? So. Wrong. Even more so now that I’ve had a chance to read the book.

My second reaction to the Liar cover controversy: Well, hell, it’s not as if it’s unusual for Asian-American characters to have their race obscured on book covers. Granted, not whitewashed like this, but hidden nevertheless. This might sound really callous and I sincerely don’t mean to diminish the importance of the original discussion or of Bloomsbury’s deplorable actions, but there you go.

(OT: Although it’s not Asian-American, you may also want to take a look at what Candlewick did to the cover of Sorceress by Celia Rees.)

Anyway, in response to this post about the representation of African-Americans on recent book covers, Tanita Davis wondered about covers with Asian or Hispanic-looking characters. Here’s what I’ve got for the Asian-American part of the question.

For the purposes of comparison, L. “looked at about 775 children’s and YA book covers for books that have been released or will be released this year. 80% of them had people on them. A full 25% of all book covers had white girls pictured on them, and 10% had white boys. Only 2% of the titles I looked at had African American boys or girls pictured on the covers – a sad state of affairs.”

I’m taking a different tack here than L. for the first part of this survey. I DID NOT LOOK AT A SAMPLE OF 2009 BOOK COVERS. I haven’t culled book covers with Asian faces, but am showing the covers of books with Asian-American protagonists instead. If anyone wants to do what L. did for Asian and/or Asian-American characters, I would love to see your results. For now, here are the five books with Asian-American (ergo, does not include high fantasy or Asians in Asia in other countries) protagonists:

all the broken piecesgreat call of chinashine coconut moonskunk girlsophomore undercover

Oh, look. The only cover with an entire face on it is an illustrated cover. And you know what really sucks? The only three 2009 photographic covers I can think of with an Asian model are two fantasy novels and book 3 of the Poseur series, and the latter kind of pisses me off because do you see an Asian face on the cover of the first two (published in 2008) novels?


Poseur1 back coverIt’s not like Melissa Moon is a new character, just introduced in this installment. She’s been there from the beginning, and it kind of feels like they didn’t want to put her on the front cover earlier, but now that the series must be selling enough for them to publish book 3, it’s okay to finally show an Asian. I mean, the cover copy of book 1 mentions four girls, yet who’s the one missing from the cover? (Click on cover at right to see full-scale image.) The Asian girl.

The fantasy covers, for the record:

book of a thousand days pbsilver_phoenix_cover-2

This does NOT excuse their actions concerning Liar, but I feel compelled to point out that Book of a Thousand Days is also from Bloomsbury.

And I give a pass to Penguin’s My Most Excellent Year paperback, since T.C. and Alé’s faces are also obscured.

I hesitate to conflate the three categories (Asian, Asian-American, and fantasy) because I don’t keep track of the non-Asian-American books. However, since I mentioned the two fantasies above, there is one other book I can think of with a photographic cover. Frankly, though, the first thing I notice whenever I see the Secret Keeper cover are the girl’s eyelashes. And if we’re including fantasies, there’s the new Moribito cover.

my most excellent year pbsecret keeperguardian of the darkness

As I could only identify five novels first published this year with Asian-American protagonists, I went back and included novels from 2008 in this survey.

2008 was a better year in terms of cover representation. Well, it was a better year in terms of sheer quantity of YA books with an Asian-American protagonist to begin with. By my count, there were thirteen novels if we’re using the criteria from my Asian-American protagonists in YA fiction booklist page: “This list includes recent immigrants, hapa characters, graphic novels, books by non-Asian American authors, and books with multiple narrators. YA fiction only; no children’s books, no biographies, no YA books in which an Asian-American teen is an important part of the book but not the main character/narrator (except, as noted, when a book has mulitple narrators, and one of them is Asian-American).” If we include Poseur and The Good, The Fab, and The Ugly, that’s fifteen books.

she's so moneygirl overboard1001 cranesoutside beautymy-most-excellent-yeargothic lolitaroots and wingsthe foldfirst daughterhow to salsahot sour salty sweetstopmegood enough

As for the covers… Well, you can’t tell if the girl on the She’s So Money cover is Asian, and, seriously, what does a guy have to do to get a complete face on the cover of a book? But I think, overall, better than 2009 in terms of the number of covers with recognizably Asian faces.

Again, I don’t keep track of these two categories, so besides Climbing the Stairs (which has an Asian-looking design, but not a recognizably Asian cover model) and Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, I can’t think of other Asians in Asia in other countries or fantasy novels that may have an Asian cover model.

climbing the stairsguardian of the spirit

This said, I like the cover of the Climbing the Stairs paperback currently shown in the Penguin Spring 2010 catalog.

climbing the stairs pb


I’ve never done a book challenge before, but I’m going to do this one. If you’re looking for books, try this list (sadly, I’ve only read 10 of the 47 books listed. Or can I say 10.5 since I did start A Step from Heaven?).


Taking a cue from L., here’s what the books shown are about:

All the Broken Pieces by Ann E. Burg (Scholastic/Scholastic Press): Two years after being airlifted out of Vietnam in 1975, Matt Pin is haunted by the terrible secret he left behind and, now, in a loving adoptive home in the United States, a series of profound events forces him to confront his past.

The Great Call of China by Cynthea Liu (Penguin/Speak): In this novel for teens, 16-year-old Cece goes to China in an attempt to discover her roots and possibly find out about her birth parents. Born in China, but adopted at age 2 and living in Texas, Cece finds culture shock and romance as she pursues the information to satisfy her questions.

Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger (S&S/McElderry): In the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Samar, who is of Punjabi heritage but has been raised with no knowledge of her past by her single mother, wants to learn about her family’s history and to get in touch with the grandparents her mother shuns.

Skunk Girl by Sheba Karim (FSG): Nina Khan is not just the only Asian or Muslim student in her small-town high school in upstate New York, she is also faces the legacy of her “Supernerd” older sister, body hair, and the pain of having a crush when her parents forbid her to date.

Sophomore Undercover by Ben Esch (Disney/Hyperion): Despite obstacles, high school reporter Dixie Nguyen, an adopted Vietnamese orphan, doggedly investigates a drug scandal that may extend far beyond the football team.

Poseur by Rachel Maude (Little, Brown/Poppy): Four prep school girls clash when they try to form their own fashion label for a school assignment, but they ultimately discover that their differences make for surprisingly creative results.

The Good, the Fab, and the Ugly by Rachel Maude (Little, Brown/Poppy): Wealthy prep school students Janie, Petra, Melissa, and Charlotte, who together make up the newly-named teen fashion label Poseur, compete over whose Halloween bag design is the best of the lot.

Petty in Pink by Rachel Maude (Little, Brown/Poppy): [no LC summary yet]

Book of a Thousand Days by Shannon Hale (Bloomsbury): Fifteen-year-old Dashti, sworn to obey her sixteen-year-old mistress, the Lady Saren, shares Saren’s years of punishment locked in a tower, then brings her safely to the lands of her true love, where both must hide who they are as they work as kitchen maids.

Silver Phoenix: Beyond the Kingdom of Xia by Cindy Pon (HarperCollins/Greenwillow): With her father long overdue from his journey and a lecherous merchant blackmailing her into marriage, seventeen-year-old Ai Ling becomes aware of a strange power within her as she goes in search of her parent.

My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger (Penguin/Dial): Three teenagers in Boston narrate their experiences of a year of new friendships, first loves, and coming into their own.

Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins (Random House/Delacorte): In 1974 when her father leaves New Delhi, India, to seek a job in New York, Ashi, a tomboy at the advanced age of sixteen, feels thwarted in the home of her extended family in Calcutta where she, her mother, and sister must stay, and when her father dies before he can send for them, they must remain with their relatives and observe the old-fashioned traditions that Ashi hates.

Moribito: Guardian of the Darkness by Nahoko Uehashi (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine): The wandering female bodyguard Balsa returns to her native country of Kanbal, where she uncovers a conspiracy to frame her mentor and herself.

She’s So Money by Cherry Cheva (HarperCollins/HarperTeen): Maya, a high school senior bound for Stanford University, goes against her better judgement when she and a popular but somewhat disreputable boy start a profitable school-wide cheating ring in order to save her family’s Thai restaurant, which she fears will be shut down due to her irresponsible actions.

Girl Overboard by Justina Chen Headley (Little, Brown): Syrah Chen, the fifteen-year-old daughter of a Chinese-American business tycoon, wants to be a professional snowboarder, but after an accident and the painful breakup of a relationship, she struggles to overcome fears about her identity, her sport, and her family.

1001 Cranes by Naomi Hirahara (Random House/Delacorte): With her parents on the verge of separating, a devastated twelve-year-old Japanese American girl spends the summer in Los Angeles with her grandparents, where she folds paper cranes into wedding displays, becomes involved with a young skateboarder, and learns how complicated relationships can be.

Gothic Lolita by Dakota Lane (S&S/Atheneum): Sixteen-year-olds Chelsea and Miya have a lot in common, from their love of blogging, loss of loved ones, and the Shonin rainbow warrior books, to nationalities, even though they are half-way across the world from each other.

Roots and Wings by Many Ly (Random House/Delacorte): While in St. Petersburg, Florida, to give her grandmother a Cambodian funeral, fourteen-year-old Grace, who was raised in Pennsylvania, finally gets some answers about the father she never met, her mother’s and grandmother’s youth, and her Asian-American heritage.

The Fold by An Na (Penguin/Putnam): Korean American high school student Joyce Kim feels like a nonentity compared to her beautiful older sister, and when her aunt offers to pay for plastic surgery on her eyes, she jumps at the chance, thinking it will change her life for the better.

First Daughter: White House Rules (Penguin/Dutton): Once sixteen-year-old Sameera Righton’s father is elected president of the United States, the adopted Pakistani-American girl moves into the White House and makes some decisions about how she is going to live her life in the spotlight.

How to Salsa in a Sari by Dona Sarkar (Harlequin/Kimani TRU): Archrivals Cat and Issa are forced to learn to live with each other–and respect each other’s heritage–when Issa’s Indian mother decides to marry Cat’s Latino father.

Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet by Sherri L. Smith (Random House/Delacorte): Disaster strikes when Ana Shen is about to deliver the salutatorian speech at her junior high school graduation, but an even greater crisis looms when her best friend invites a crowd to Ana’s house for dinner, and Ana’s multicultural grandparents must find a way to share a kitchen.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before by David Yoo (Disney/Hyperion): Despite his nonexistent social standing at Bern Hight School, Albert spends the summer working with his crush, Mia–the popular ex-girlfriend of Ryan Stackhouse–but as soon as Albert makes headway in his relationship with Mia, Ryan is diagnosed with cancer and pulls Mia, and her attention, away.

Good Enough by Paula Yoo (HarperCollins/HarperTeen): A Korean American teenager tries to please her parents by getting into an Ivy League college, but a new guy in school and her love of the violin tempt her in new directions.

Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman (Penguin/Putnam): In India, in 1941, when her father becomes brain-damaged in a non-violent protest march, fifteen-year-old Vidya and her family are forced to move in with her father’s extended family and become accustomed to a totally different way of life.

Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit by Nahoko Uehashi (Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine): The wandering warrior Balsa is hired to protect Prince Chagum from both a mysterious monster and the prince’s father, the Mikado.

41 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2009 3:49 am

    Excellent post. I had noticed the Celia Rees discrepancy while working in the bookstore.

    I know this might not fall under the umbrella of “Asian American” (particularly because they take place in Australia, plus they’re older than the books you are surveying) but I was impressed with the covers of Ten Things I Hate About Me and Does My Head Look Big In This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. Both covers feature the hijab pretty prominently.

    • July 27, 2009 4:18 am

      Oh man, I so knew there were Asian-but-not-Asian-American titles I missed. I’ll either update this post (or write an additional one, if people can list the titles I missed) that’ll include Ten Things I Hate About Me.

      And, as you’ve pointed out, Randa Abdel-Fattah’s books are about Asian characters in Australia, so I’ve changed my wording above from “Asian in Asia” to “Asian in other countries.”

      • July 27, 2009 12:09 pm

        Skim! How could I have forgotten about Skim by Tamaki and Tamaki?

        And Sharon Shinn’s upcoming Gateway is a fantasy about an Asian-American teen.

        Okay, I need to do an additional post later.

  2. July 27, 2009 4:02 am

    The best part of the LIAR controversy: it’s bringing things like this to discussion. Love this post. Thanks for sharing!

  3. July 27, 2009 4:08 am

    I’ve just spent about an hour reading about this on various blogs, starting with the cover of Liar. It’s absolutely infuriating… and I can’t help but feel like so little of white people in the US recognize this as a major issue.

    Having taken a new job 3 months ago, I’ve been trying to quickly add books featuring non-white characters to the YA shelves. This is necessary anywhere, but especially in my town where 35% of the residents are Black, Latino, or Asian!

    It’s ridiculous that even if you have these books available for borrowing, they’re often whitewashed or without the characters face on the cover.

    I’m really happy that so many librarian bloggers are talking about this – the more exposure, the more chance people and publishers will change. Thanks for this post.

  4. July 27, 2009 4:19 am

    Whoa. Even for a non-scientific type of thing, this shows a trend. DEFINITELY 2008 was a better year for Asian/Asian American YA novels. What a surprising and disappointing dearth there is this year.

    I, too, was slightly disappointed with the covers of She’s So Money and Secret Keeper, but the YA likes the decapitated/half-headed girls much too much to actually be reasonable and show full faces. I really hope that Sophomore Undercover‘s paperback run has a different cover — how often do we see Asian GUYS on the cover of anything?

    Thanks for doing this. Makes me thoughtful, thoughtful…

    • July 27, 2009 12:16 pm

      how often do we see Asian GUYS on the cover of anything?

      I KNOW! I’m not sure if I’ve blogged about this before or not, but I so want to see more books about Asian-American guys. I mean, I think it’s pretty sad that there are so few books about Asian-American teens to begin with (after remembering about Sharon Shinn’s Gateway, I’m up to six books for 2009, seven if you count Poseur #3), but the numbers for books about Asian-American guys are even more pathetic.

      So, publishers, what are the chances of a YA book about an Asian-American teen guy in the near future? Bonus points if he’s not a geek.

      • January 25, 2010 8:28 am

        How depressing, I was going to ask if you’d just focused on “female-targeted” young adult fiction or if you literally could not find a single book featuring an Asian-American male.

  5. July 27, 2009 6:27 am

    Thanks for this post. I have read several of these books, but now you’ve made me want to read all the rest – very badly! :o)

  6. July 27, 2009 8:56 am

    Great post. Important topic. I LOVE the cover for Silver Phoenix.

  7. July 27, 2009 10:41 am

    I’ve wondered if the brown-girl covers for my FIRST DAUGHTER books made booksellers hesitate, as the first one came out before Obama was even in the race.

  8. Patty McClune permalink
    July 27, 2009 10:49 am

    At first I was also put off by the cover. The model on the cover is not at all the nappy-haired, androgynous- looking girl described in the book. However, the person doing the describing is the narrator, Micah, a self proclaimed liar. That’s the whole premise of the book….is Micah anything she says she is? If readers consider that premise, then who’s to say what Micah really looks like?

    • July 27, 2009 12:07 pm

      Patty – I deleted the last two sentences originally in your comment because they were spoilers for Liar. Perhaps once the book has been out for a couple of months and people have had a chance to read it, we can do a book discussion with spoilers in the comments, but for now, I’d rather readers have a chance to discover Micah’s possible lies and truths for themselves.

      As for Micah’s looks, prior to last week, that could have been a possibility, but the author herself says that Micah is not lying about her nappy hair and androgynous looks.

      • August 14, 2009 3:28 pm

        Not only did Larbalestier say Micah wasn’t lying about her looks, she said she deliberately made sure that Micah being a short-haired black girl from the US was believable, that these basic facts about her would be constant to the reader even if some other things weren’t.

  9. July 27, 2009 10:56 am

    This is wonderful–thanks for this fascinating post. Really well put together.

    Something I really like about the cover of First Daughter is that a) the girl is very clearly South Asian, b) she is not decapitated, and c) she is very much a regular (Asian-)American girl. In that way I find it a very successful cover.

    I’ll have to think about the book challenge you linked to…

  10. July 27, 2009 12:10 pm

    Fantastic post! Thanks for mentioning and participating in the challenge. Please remember to leave us a link.

    So many titles to add to my ridiculously long tbr. Happy to say I see many I’ve read and enjoyed.

    Thank you.

  11. July 27, 2009 3:11 pm

    Here’s another interesting thing I noticed: None of these covers depict Asian GUYS…who surely read.

  12. July 28, 2009 5:06 am

    A book coming out next spring has an Asian guy on the front. Chasing the Tiger by Laura Manivong is a HarperCollins book. See her site:

  13. July 28, 2009 5:06 am

    Forgot to say it was Middle grade though!

  14. July 28, 2009 5:29 am

    Thanks so much for pointing this out, as an ABC [American Born Chinese] I have always wanted more books featuring Asian Americans.

    Oh yeah, and you should add Fashionista [part of the GoldenGirl series], which is coming out in like August or something…that has a full asian face/half body.

    Anyways, thanks again for the post!!

    Wdebo 🙂

  15. July 28, 2009 5:30 am

    Oh, and I forgot to add, The Great Wall of China’s “chinese” girl doesn’t even look chinese!! Why is her skin so white????!!!

  16. July 28, 2009 8:27 am

    THANK you for such a wonderful piece.

    Re: the LIAR cover, I just commented on an excellent Baltimore Sun Blog–the author asked Y/A authors to speak on
    having the races and cultures of their characters changed on their cover.

    My first book starred a tri-racial guy who was so not white and check out the cover of JOHNNY VOODOO.

    More than 10 years later, my most recent book GOTHIC LOLITA features a girl who is Asian, but definitely NOT Japanese!! I actually took my own photographs of a girls featured INSIDE the book, which goes to show that even when the author chooses a visual representation it will not always be honored.

    Publishing is in deep trouble, in spite of the editors efforts to market, rewrite and package, and hopefully the tide will swing back to authenticity and creativity…for everyone’s sake!

  17. July 28, 2009 9:12 am

    A Step from Heaven is a fantastic book — one I and my fellow judges nominated for the National Book Award in 2001 (along with Marilyn Nelson’s incredible Carver).

    I’m so glad that you and others are putting this in perspective for us all.

  18. July 29, 2009 8:55 pm

    awesome :]

  19. July 30, 2009 12:49 am

    Thanks, everyone, for commenting and mentioning books I missed.

  20. August 1, 2009 12:48 am

    I just read Scott Westerfeld’s Extras. It’s about Japanese teens in the future, and the fourth in a series. I haven’t read the others so don’t know if there are other POC in the rest of the books. The cover of Extras has an Asian girl’s face. I also noted that Westerfeld is married to Larbalestier. Would love to hear the convo. btwen them on the subject of book covers!

  21. August 1, 2009 4:28 am

    Great post.

    I really enjoyed Karim’s Skunk Girl but I don’t like the cover. I just don’t think that cover is going to make anyone want to pick up the book.

    Just finished Pon’s Silver Phoenix, again I really enjoyed it but the cover doesn’t do it justice. There are two male leads, but neither is featured on the cover, cutting down on the possibly that boys will read it. I almost missed it thanks to the pink but I read great thinks about Silver Phoenix, I picked it up.

    All The Broken Pieces cover, confuses me. I’ve picked it up and put it down a few times. There’s a baseball on the cover but nothing about baseball on the jacket flap, that is just wrong

    I loved the QP covers of The Book of Thousand Days and Climbing the Stairs.

  22. August 2, 2009 6:37 am

    Thank you for such a terrific roundup and for this perspective on the whole covers discussion. I agree that the cover of the paperback edition of Climbing the Stairs brings us closer to the girl, only no south Indian girl of that generation (my mother’s generation) would EVER have worn those earrings. Ayyo!!

  23. August 4, 2009 5:52 am

    Great posts and lots of books for me to add. Thanks for linking to Color Online. Hope readers will drop links to their reviews for our Color Me Brown Challenge.

  24. August 4, 2009 5:57 am

    Okay, so I asked you all twice to participate in the challenge. I’m a scatterbrain.

    Really glad you linked to us because that’s how I found my way here and I can’t say how much I enjoy your blog. Thanks for what you do.

  25. Mel permalink
    August 8, 2009 8:18 am

    The hardback cover for Hale’s Book of a Thousand Days that I’ve seen in stores is this one (the headless torso that supposedly readers will identify with). I read the back cover, and didn’t get any impression whatsoever from it at the main characters were anything other than a standard white Euroish princess and her white Euroish maid (other than maybe, maybe the names, but they’re not a reliable indicator in fantasy). I put the book down again.

    And that’s a Bloomsbury cover, too. I wonder why they changed the cover for the paperback? It looks like they also changed the blurb, because the hardback says nothing about Central Asian Steppes (which would have seriously tempted me, anyway, to buy the book). Maybe it didn’t sell as well as they’d hoped when it looked like every other generic white princess novel?

  26. August 13, 2009 4:07 pm

    I only just know discovered this post and I think it presents a valid point. I think that often times Asian Americans race is hidden on book covers (Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before, a frog? hmmm). I didn’t know She’s so Money was about an AsianAmerican girl based on the cover (I did think she was due to the author’s background whichi was sterotypcial of me I know). It’s a shame and it needs to stop. At my blog, Reading in Color, I try to review YA books about people of color. This post just gave me a huge list of books to read to expand my reading habits (so far I’ve only read The Fold by An Na and Shine, Coconut Moon both books I really enjoyed) and hopefully convince other people (specicifally people not of the same cultural background as the people in the books I review) to try and read something different.

  27. August 16, 2009 10:13 pm

    I’ve thought about this before, too. I think in some ways it’s even harder for Asians and Latinos to find themselves on book covers because they look more similar to white people. If a company puts a white girl on the cover of a book with a black protagonist, everyone notices, but if the protagonist is Asian or Latin, people will just look back at the cover and go, oh, I guess she does look sort-of Asian. I’ve seen two of the books you pictured in countless places, and never had a clue that the protagonist was Asian. I mean, c’mon, one is even a close-up of the girl’s eyes. There is a real problem if it’s not evident that a girl is Asian when the cover is a close-up of her eyes, because this is one of the most dominant Asian features. Looking at it now, I think, oh, I guess she does look sort-of Asian. Grrr


  28. permalink
    August 17, 2009 5:01 pm

    ummmm…wow long post. Okay I just wanted to bring up the fact that the poseur books didn’t really wait to put the asian girl on the third cover because they didn’t make a point of putting the main characters on it anyway. The only models on the covers that look like (roughly) lik one of the 4 are charlote and petra on the first cover. lets not forget that melissa is half black, so they didn’t tr to misrepresent anything, or thats what i think…

  29. mfogelsong permalink
    August 28, 2009 8:13 pm

    Minorities are represented in teen fashion magazines, as reporters on Channel 1 News, and even in video games. What are publishers so afraid of?

    The book I’ve written and am trying to publish is about a Eurasian girl who falls in love with an Arab-American boy. Should be interesting to see what they do with that cover, eh?


  1. More book covers and thoughts on Liar « The YA YA YAs

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