Why I try to blog about books with diverse characters--Jacob Wonderbar revisited

When I posted my review of Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow (a book I enjoyed), I sweated blood. I was, although I avoided the word, suggesting that the publisher had whitewashed the kid on the cover. Here's what I said:

"As an added bonus, Jacob is a kid of color. Here's how he is described:

"He stared at his hands, a soft brown color that was lighter than his mom's dark skin and darker than his dad's light skin. It was proof that he was half of his mom and half of his dad, but since he didn't look like either of them, it also made him something else entirely" (page 22).

And you can see that in the internal illustrations, like the example above, Jacob's skin is indeed darker than that of his friends.

But would you know this from the cover? No. The boy on the cover is clearly less pink than the girl, but he looks pretty much like a white kid to me. I had no idea that he was a kid of color until I'd reached page 22. I've stared and stared at his skin tone as shown, hoping that its biscuit-like beige would become "soft brown," but it didn't, in my eyes at least."

So I wrote this, and very nervously wondered what people's reactions would be. And I waited, and waited...and there has been no reaction.

Here is the cover in question. Now, maybe a lot of people didn't read my review--I know a lot of you are readers looking for books for yourselves, so this would be a bit young. Or maybe people didn't think it was that egregious an example of whitewashing--the boy on the cover is, indeed, less pink than the girl (or the boy in the top right), and it's not as obvious as other cases of whitewashing from the past few years (ie, Liar, Magic Under Glass, and Sticky from The Mysterious Benedict Society). But heck. I still think there is no way this cover shows an accurate depiction of the kid of color described in the book.

I care rather a lot about this, perhaps more passionately in a middle-grade book like this than in Young Adult books. The reason why I care is the same reason why, back in May of 2009, I set myself on a long term mission of finding and reviewing middle grade fantasy and science fiction books featuring kids of color. And a pretty large part of this reason is that I have two children of my own.

My boys are blond and blue-eyed (more or less). They are going to have it pretty darn easy throughout their lives in terms of other people making judgements about them (other people might well judge their mother harshly for the state of their clothes and fingernails, but that's not their fault). I want to do my darnedest to raise them so that when they meet someone who is not like them--someone in a wheelchair, someone who doesn't look like them, someone who's gay--they see a person first and foremost.* And I think that giving them books that show people who are not like them is a tremendously important way to achieve such an innate, non-judgemental, acceptance of difference.

At the Diversity in YA panel I was at last night, the question of why we should advocate for diversity was posed. The answer most often put forward, both last night and in general was the importance of giving kids fictional mirrors. I agree wholeheartedly that this is an important reason to promote diverse books, and this is the main reason I keep my list--as a resource primarily for those buying the books.

But I think that my own personal reason is valid too--the importance of making "the other" not other, but friend.

For an eloquent discussion of this topic, please visit this conversation from last March between Tanita Davis, of Fiction Instead of Lies and Finding Wonderland; Hannah Ehrlich of Lee & Low Books; and Mitali Perkins, who writes at Mitali’s Fire Escape, hosted by Terry at Scrub-a-dub-Tub. As Tanita said then, "Somewhere away on the other side of the sleeping globe are people whose language and culture and stories we haven’t yet discovered, and yet books can transcend that gap, and speak a language creates a bridge." Somewhere down the street, across the town...

And so that's why I think it sucks that Jacob isn't a few shades more brown. And why it sucks that Jacob in the next book in the series is also pretty pale, although, again, still browner than the other kids.

So is this, do you think, a case of whitewashing? Do you think the publisher should add just a tad more brown? Or am I over-reacting?????

Thanks for reading; please let me know what you think!

*viz childrearing--I also want to raise them to be keenly and critically aware of descrimination and social injustice, of course. This is why for several weeks last year my oldest, who takes comfort in reiteration, kept saying at bedtime when we were snuggling "Mama, tell me again about book cover whitewashing." Sigh. At least it was better than, "Mama, tell me again about why you don't like Sarah Palin."


  1. I really enjoyed the book, but I don't think you are overreacting. My daughter is Chinese (I'm not) so accurate portrayal of characters is very important in our household too. So it is natural, like so much of our population. Hope others chime in.

  2. Thanks Natalie--you were the only one to comment on my original post, and I appreciated it!

  3. Maybe the lack of comments is because the book has just been released. Or a fear that criticizing another author's book will reflect badly on the commenter. In any event, having seen the cover months ago on Nathan's blog, I was quite surprised to learn (from you) that Jacob wasn't white.

    Though you'd never know it from my name alone, I'm half-Hispanic and taught mostly minority kids. I think it's a shame the cover doesn't highlight Jacob's diversity. You're right. Books are fictional mirrors and children need positive examples of protagonists who reflect the reality of their lives.

    However, I do think the cover will attract plenty of readers and once they get into the story, they'll be able to appreciate that Jacob is a character of color.

  4. Thanks for your comments, Kathryn!

    I do agree that once readers are inside, where there are many illustrations that show Jacob with darker skin, they will (if they notice or think about it) be aware that he's a kid of color.

    It would be pretty easy to convince me that a nine year old boy would not be able to tell you what was shown on the cover after reading a book, in particular a book like this, which is so fun and fast paced.

    I think is a difference between a case like this and the YA examples--kids are more often given books to read, teenagers more often pick out there own, and so different factors are at work.

  5. it was so clear from the text that Jacob was biracial that I didn't think too much about the cover. I do have plenty of biracial students who look very much like Jacob, right down to the hair with lots of body but not as much curl. I do see your point, but you might be overreacting just a little.

  6. I read your review yesterday and agreed with you about the cover. (Sorry I didn't comment then.) Just looking at you would never know he's a kid of color.

    I like what you said about needing the diversity so the other isn't the other anymore. My thoughts exactly.

  7. I think the "so the other isn't the other anymore" may be even MORE important than just being a mirror for those who don't get many mirrors. Because otherwise people get the idea that they're only SUPPOSED to read about people like them, or watch TV or movies about people like them, and you get these sheltered little communities of Sameness, and no one ever connects. That's the biggest fallacy people have to fight when it comes to cover whitewashing-- the idea that if a publisher puts a person of color on a cover, only people of color will buy it. So I think your reasons are very big ones!

    (also, maybe the lack of comments was just because Blogger was being stupid over the past day, and had nothing to do with people not WANTING to comment).

  8. Thanks for commenting, Ms. Yingling and Brandy and rockinlibrarian!

    I agree, Ms. Yingling, that it's certainly possible to accept Jacob on the cover as a mix-raced kid, after you've read the book. But before you have, it wouldn't be particularly obvious.

    And thanks for the reminder, rockinlibrarian, that blogger was being bad--I can never comment during the day myself, so that hadn't occured to me!

  9. You're right; the kid on the cover reads visually as white--most notably when contrasted with the interior illustrations. Seems pretty deliberate to me, and too bad. Thanks for your eloquent commentary on the issue.

  10. I don't think my boy readers would notice - or care - about the disconnect between Jacob's portrayal on the cover and inside. But I notice and it bugs me. Just like I have recently been really bugged by a bunch of school-themed picture books I have read, with really diverse classes, yay! but...the protagonist of the story is the very normal, very white kid. There's no reason he or she couldn't be a different race - look at all the races in the classroom...in the background...

  11. I missed your original post because I'm behind on blog reading but ARGH!

    So aggravating and so NOT COOL.

  12. I enjoy reading your posts about books very much and no, I don't think you are overreacting. I would never thing that there was a character of color looking at the book.
    Since we are a diverse family, I do look for books that are diverse. Not any many out there as I might like and not all are good. And I do the same for my blog, though that isn't easy with books about WW II.
    The cover of Jacob Wonderbar is indeed flawed for presenting a character of color as whiter than he is. I would like to know why, if the author wrote Jacob as a kid of color, he didn't object to begin with?

  13. Hi,
    I haven't gotten to the original post, yet and I don't think you're over-reacting. This isn't just an omission, it's an outright untruth! I'm curious though: Was there a multicultural cast of characters in the book?

  14. Thanks for stopping by, all of you!

    Campbele--it's clear in the text that Jacob's biracial, and he's shown as darker skinned in all the interior illustrations. Apart from one hint at the end that the central girl might be Chinese American, it seemed to me that everyone else defaults to white.

  15. Having found what I thought was a cover that whitewashed and obscured the fact that the book contained a trans character last year my two cents would be to email both author and illustrator about this. The author can tell you if the cover represents an accurate vision of the character they created and the illustrator can tell you just what's been done to cause the discrepancy between the illustrations inside and on the cover. I found that the author I contacted was pretty invested in making sure people understood that the cover did not match the characters he'd created, once someone asked him.

  16. I'm behind on blog-reading due to my travel to Cambridge for DIYA (and thank you for coming! It was great to see you!) but I agree that the boy on the cover would not make me think he was bi-racial (whereas the quoted text and interior illustrations DO make that clear). So I am glad that you have posed this question.

    I want to post something myself on the topic of diversity in fiction, since I feel like in my nervousness at the tour stop there were things I didn't manage to convey that I've been thinking about -- mostly about how for me part of the goal is to change the (straight white) default. Hopefully I can make time to do that soon!

  17. Jodie--thanks for sharing your story. I will think about your advice!

    Deva--it was great seeing you too, and I'll look forward to your thoughts!

    (I won't be able to comment anymore till I get back from work, but thanks to all who stop by!)

  18. Your point about making the other not other reminded me that some boys seek out books with people who look like them (i.e. boys) on the cover. Reading from other points-of-view would be helpful here, too.

    Have people done any studies about how kids respond to book covers and how they make their choices? Maybe people do naturally gravitate to books with covers that seem familiar and a conscious effort is required to change, like in the case of boys buying solely "boy books."

  19. I think part of the problem, Tabitha, is that parents (espeically parents of boys who aren't easily drawn into reading) might panic a bit and try not to do anything that might keep their kid from reading a book! Ie, for their white boy, they buy white boys. Or at the very least, boy books for boys.

    I think left to themselves kids are less picky than people think....I have a vague feeling that covers aren't that closely examined by kids.

  20. Just wanted to correct something I said in my response to Campbele--I was confused about the possiblity that Sarah, shown as blond, might in fact be Chinese--but she is actually described exactly as she is shown--that was mistake on my part. Sorry!

  21. I just find it hilarious that people can argue that 1) whitewashing isn't bad, yet 2) it only ever goes in the direction of the character being more white. Obviously it's a problem if it's only ever making the characters look more like the (minority) dominant culture.

  22. I didn't comment on the first post because I just discovered your blog today! I just book this book on hold at the library - I'm always looking for good Sci-Fi AND for good diverse books. I have to admit - a friend recommended your blog because I'm looking for some good fantasy books for 4th graders with a diverse cast of characters so I came here and immediately clicked on the "reading in color" label. When I saw the cover of this title I just kept scrolling. It was obviously sci-fi instead of fantasy but it also seemed obvious from the cover that there were no POC in this title. I'm glad to know that I was wrong, though, and will remember it when I revise our Sci-Fi bib!

  23. Thanks for stopping by, and for scrolling down, Librarian Pirate!

    As well as the Reading in Color label, I've made a page for multicultural sci fi/fantasy organized by reader age-- http://charlotteslibrary.blogspot.com/p/reviews-of-multicultural-fantasy-and.html

    I hope it's of interest!

  24. This is another book I wouldn't have considered adding to my list if it weren't for your review.
    Your hard work is helping other readers like myself out there. Thank you so much.

  25. Thank you, Akoss, for letting me know!


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