Today in the first ever (woot!) edition of RLB Book Club, we have The Best of All Possible Worlds (2013) by Karen Lord on the table! Or, maybe it’s in your lap as you lay in a hammock? Spring!
This is Lord’s second book. Her first, Redemption in Indigo, won boatloads of awards, including: the 2011 William L. Crawford Award and the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature.
And because this book’s cover is Bananas, we’ll also be discussing the state of book covers & the publishing industry.
This is a smart, and, at times, quite sexy, piece of science fiction which follows a team of government officials in their mission to aid a certain group of humans, called the Sadiri, who have been recently displaced due to the cataclysmic destruction of their home world. With their population all but destroyed, the surviving Sadiri, who are mostly male, are attempting to rebuild their society with the help of the government on the planet Cygnus Beta.
In this universe, there are several different strains of humanity which seem to have been evolving separately over time, developing unique cultural, physical, and mental traits. For example, the Sadiri are telepathic, and this aspect is a key component to the success of their society. Telepathic bonds form the basis of their relationships, and the Sadiri would be incomplete without them.
The story is told from the point of view of First Officer Grace Delarua, a government official who serves as a cultural liaison on the mission to discover any surviving Sadiri attributes in other human populations in order to preserve the Sadiri way of life. If they find traces of the Sadiri ability to form telepathic bonds in the population of Cygnus Beta, the Sadiri may be able to preserve their cultural practice of telepathic bonds by intermarrying.
Now this all might sound a bit serious, and it is, but due to the fact that Grace is a very likable and amusing protagonist, her warmth and humor bring a lot of emotional depth to the story, making it feel downright Jane Austeny at times. Jane Austen in space! Who could resist?
Now, keep in mind that this book is about preserving cultural identity as we move on to:
I know. What? What? Okay, so it’s overexposed (so you know it’s about the fuuuuuturee) and the font is a horrible computer-y font on top of a half-face and a tiny clip art elephant.
What I really must call shenanigans on is this cover model. This cover model is someone who I DO NOT KNOW after having read this book. Is she supposed to be a robot? (And if so, where is she going in that great smokey night-eye?) Spoiler: There are no robots in this book! Certainly this cannot be officer Grace Delarua, who describes herself as being brown haired, browned eyed, and cedar brown skinned?
Whitewashing characters on book covers is not a new problem. Take for example the original cover of Octavia Butler’s Dawn (1987), whose protagonist is a black woman:
Author N.K. Jemisin mentions Dawn (and its cover) in this excellent blog post on the practice of whitewashing book covers. She describes how the discovery of Dawn changed her life:
“I didn’t realize the protagonist was black until 20 pages in. Didn’t realize the author was black until years later, though I suspected it after reading the book. (Gay people have “gaydar”; black people have “blackdar”. Trufax!) But reading this book, and the author’s subsequent books, rocked my world. I realized, thanks to Ms. Butler, that I could write science fiction and fantasy if I wanted. That we have a place in the future too, and our past is more than slavery and Civil Rights. I will say this point-blank: if I had not discovered Octavia Butler then, I would probably not be publishing a novel now. Might not even be writing.
Obviously I would have found her more easily if the cover art had been representative. I can’t help wondering how many other kids like me missed the chance to see something of themselves in SFF [Science Fiction & Fantasy] back then, because they had no idea SFF was about anything but white people.”
N.K. Jemisin’s experience reading Dawn is a perfect example of why young people need books. I also remember the first time I read a book that really spoke to me in this way. It was the first time I recognized something of myself somewhere outside of my own head. That experience is such an important part growing up: realizing there’s a place for You. That is huge. Huge for any young person, because we all felt (& feel) like weirdos, but super huge for a person like N.K. Jemisin, who didn’t know it was okay for her to enjoy an entire genre because that genre didn’t seem to include anybody besides white people in jumpsuits. I cannot stress this enough: I felt like a complete weirdo as a teenager in many, many ways (and frequently still do) and this feeling was offset (and still is!!) by reading stuff that I identified (identify) with.
A few years ago, author Kate Hart analyzed the covers of popular Young Adult books and created some depressing charts, including this one:
This chart is from 2011, but a cursory glance at the YA section in a bookstore would probably tell you that things haven’t changed much in two years. These numbers partially reflect the fact that the majority of YA books feature white protagonists. But, let’s not forget that there have also been puh-lenty of instances in which the main character’s racial identity has been completely changed on the cover, as in Jaclyn’s Dolamore’s Magic Under Glass (2011):
There was so much backlash after Bloomsbury released this cover, which features a white model despite the fact that the book’s main character is African-American, that the cover was withdrawn and replaced.
So, that’s an example of when images of people of color are erased entirely, which is really fun! But even when a P.O.C. makes the cover, you might not be able to tell.
Well, that’s better, except, SCARF.
So. This is the cover of the edition of The Moorchild (1996) by Eloise McGraw that I picked up at the public library in my neighborhood when I was, oh, maybe ten? Eleven? I did not have a Goodreads account at the time. I did not read book reviews in the New York Times! I picked this book out because of the cover. Because there’s a little girl in the middle of it with wild hair and brown skin, long toes, and almondy eyes, and everybody is looking at her like she’s doesn’t belong there. That is why I picked it. The Moorchild is a fantasy story about a girl who is half-human, half-fairy, and was left in the place of a human baby by the fairies, who wanted to take a human baby, to do… whatever fairies do with human babies? What I remember most is the way this story helped me begin to process my feelings of being biracial myself, (“half”), and I still remember the feeling of these ideas blossoming in my brain where there had only been half-felt pangs before: I didn’t look or feel entirely one way or the other, just like the character in this book.
“Sticking a white girl on the cover of a book about a brown girl is not merely inaccurate, it is part of a long history of marginalisaton and misrepresentation. Publishers don’t randomly pick white models. It happens within a context of racism….
That is what this is about: pervasive racism in every aspect of our world so that young kids grow up thinking they are inferior because they see so few reflections of themselves.”
– Justine Larbalestier, whose book, Liar (2010), was also released with a cover that she did not approve of because the model was white and her character was not.
People need books. Young people really need books. There are books being published about young people of color, DON’T HIDE THEM from the kids who are craving and needing and searching for them.
Karen Lord’s book, The Best of All Possible Worlds, (with the robot girl and the smokey night-eye on the cover) is not a YA book, it’s for adults. Her first book received tons of critical acclaim. Why the misrepresentation on her second book’s cover? It seems that even an established writer cannot escape the racism that permeates our media today.
It is heartening to know that there are publishers out there who are challenging the status quo. Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low, is one example. Tu Books publishes fantasy, science fiction, and mystery novels with diverse characters and settings for a young audience.
From their website:
The best way to encourage a love of reading is to provide stories that all readers can identify with. Books can be both a mirror and a window to other worlds for readers. Tu Books hopes that by publishing books for children that feature multicultural characters and settings inspired by the world’s many non-Western cultures, we can offer a mirror to some, and open a window to many.
Lee & Low is also dedicated to providing educators with tools to promote diversity and literacy, challenge stereotypes, and encourage discussion about racial issues in the classroom.
Which is great. Because we need more windows, and more mirrors. I’ll leave you with the UK edition of the The Best of All Possible Worlds, which features a hummingbird.