Gendering Book Covers, Diversity in YA and my Dragon Con Experience

My friends and I being the Steampunk!Avengers
My friends and I being the Steampunk!Avengers

I went to Dragon Con a few weeks ago. It was such an incredible experience. I got to cosplay with my friends (didn’t we look awesome?) and stare in awe at the amazing costumes that people had put together. I walked around the Dealer’s Room and Artist Alley, and I danced my ass off at the Yule Ball with one of my close friends, a random token white guy, a tiny lesbian belly dancer, and a guy dressed as one of the Doctors. (The rest of our group stood at a table because they can’t keep a beat to save their lives).

Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance to go to a lot of panels; I managed to go to two of them (in the YA Lit track, of course). One panel was about diversity in YA Lit and the other was about gendering book covers. I wanted to tell you all my thoughts and feels about these panels.

Diversity in YA
Panelists: Shaun David Hutchinson, EC Meyer, Ron Garner, Tricia Wooldridge, and Susan Fichtelberg
Panelists (right to left): Dragon Con Moderator, Shaun David Hutchinson, EC Meyer, Tricia Wooldridge, Susan Fichtelberg, and Ron Garner

This is a panel that not a lot of my friends seemed interested in. One did go with me but I think he just didn’t want me to wander off by myself. But anything that’s discussing diversity catches my interest, and I needed to go. I don’t regret it at all.

Essentially the panelists discussed the lack of diversity in the publishing world and the lack of diversity in YA lit.

Diversity, as the panelists defined it, is a description of a character’s race, sexuality, religion, mental health, and gender but that description is not at the center of the story and it’s not the main point of the story.

There’s this idea that white, heterosexual, and cisgender is neutral that angers a lot of these authors. They described that sometimes authors are scared that if their characters don’t meet this “neutral” standard then their stories won’t get published. Part of the problem is the lack of diversity in publishing companies especially at the top levels. There’s also this idea that parents don’t want kids to read about sexuality and race and religion issues. They don’t want their kids to be exposed to the others because they’re scared that they won’t understand.

So where does that leave us?

As a young woman who is Hispanic, Catholic, with a mild mental illness, questions about my sexuality and coming from a lower-middle class single-parent household, the lack of diversity pains me. It don’t see myself represented in the media very often. The bits and pieces I could connect with are stereotypes and side characters. They’re not treated as people.

I can tell you that when everything that makes you something other than “white, hetero, and cis” is dehumanized or the butt of the joke, sometimes you dehumanize yourself. If you don’t see yourself represented as a person, then on bad days, you have issues seeing yourself as a person. I look in the mirror and I see an “other.” That’s not okay.

The panelists gave me some hope. People like me are fighting for diversity in their books. Girls want complex female characters that don’t lose their femininity. Members of the LGBTQ community want something other than the “gay best friend.” Hispanics and POC want their races to be more complex than the hypersexualized and/or violent thug from the wrong side of town. Authors want to give us a voice. Parents and publishing companies need to open themselves up to and promote the beauty and interest that is diversity. It was nice to see that authors want this as much as readers do.

Cover Flipped
Panelists (right to left): Dragon Con Moderator, Lilah Vandenburgh, Sarah Nicholas, Debbie Viguie, Delilah Dawson, and Lou Anders
Panelists (right to left): Dragon Con Moderator, Lilah Vandenburgh, Sarah Nicholas, Debbie Viguie, Delilah Dawson, and Lou Anders

So this was a more lighthearted panel (but no less important). The topic for this panel was that books with female protagonists or “girly” storylines get “girly” covers (i.e. The girl in the ballgown).

The panelists were clear: there’s nothing wrong with feminine covers. The problem is that people often think that the books will be bad because they’re feminine.

Publishers for some reason or another think that since their target audience is young girls (boys tend to go to the adult section rather than the YA — we can thank the patriarchy for that), then their covers have to be “girly” and hyperfeminine or they have to have an overly attractive guy with his shirt off.  Delilah Dawson had major issues with this as she wasn’t given final say on the cover of the her first book and shirtless macho man happened.

When they do this, the cover has absolutely nothing to do with the book. most of the time. It doesn’t help that authors don’t get much of a say in covers. The artists don’t even get to decide what they think the best cover will be. The panelists said that artists are given a general idea of what the cover should look like, and they have to follow those  directions.

I believe it was Lou Anders that said that the purpose of covers is to guide the correct or intended reader. It’s like a flower attracting the proper insects. When covers are misrepresentative, then the book will attract the wrong reader. Sure they might pick it up, but if the cover lied and the book doesn’t fit their taste then they’re not going to go back for more.

I agree with the panelists in that there’s nothing wrong with girly covers. Series like the Rebel Bell series and The Selection series have the girl-in-a-ballgown covers and they work with the stories. But when covers are gendered to the point that they distort the stories, it’s doing the authors and the publishers a disservice. My biggest example of this are the Vampire Academy and the Bloodlines covers. The books are brilliant but I think that the covers have a lot to do with the fact that not everyone wants to pick these up. I had a friend who heard two girls talking about a book at Barnes and Noble and was fascinated. Then she picked up the cover. The swirly pink writing with the mint green and yellow background threw her off. The story was supposed to be intense and fascinating but the cover made light of it.

We all know we shouldn’t judge books by their covers but we can’t help it. Covers are flowers and we are the bees.

That’s it for my Dragon Con panel overview. I hope you enjoyed it! I’ve been meaning to write this for awhile but I couldn’t quite get my thoughts together until now. Thanks, loves!