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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. January 13, 2013 9:13 am

    I really tend to go along with all the stuff that has been put into writing in “Asian-Americans on YA fiction covers
    The YA YA YAs”. Thank you for all the actual details.
    Thanks for your time,Kassandra


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