There's something fairy-tale-like about it, which is perfect, because fairy tales are all about innocence and ill will and the inevitability of terrible things. They're all about the moment when a girl is no longer who she once was.
- Nina LaCour, Everything Leads to You
Reading Everything Leads to You last year was my first time at the Nina LaCour writerly party and about three pages in I was already psyched to be there. It's smart and sweet, and it's full of decadent, sensory loveliness...
Yearning is a red-haired girl sitting on the hood of her silver sedan, reading about Marilyn Monroe. A cherry orchard at night, houselights in the distance. It's the painstaking neatness of a paint-by-number sunset...a cautious step into the sun-filled lobby of a famous hotel.
Lovely, lovely, lovely.
Let's talk about this book cover though.
It's gorgeous, right? Beautiful palette, interesting, delicate hand-lettering, and a photograph that conveys a sense of possibility and beginnings - all perfectly appropriate for this book.
I just have one question. Who IS that in the photograph? Everything Leads to You is the story of Emi, a girl from Los Angeles who is just breaking ground in her career designing and dressing sets for movies. The author gives very few specific details about Emi's race or appearance, but then there's this:
"I didn't even know you were black," he says.
"Yeah," I say. "My grandpa's black, so I'm a quarter."
He leans back to get a better look at me. "Yeah, I can see that," he says.
"Who's this?" he asks, pointing to a photograph of Toby and me...and I see it as Jamaal must be seeing it now: Toby several shades darker than me, his hair thicker and curlier, his eyes dark brown to my amber.
"My brother," I say...I could tell him about all the teachers who had Toby first and who tried to mask their surprise when they discovered that I was his little sister. Or the times when I was a kid when strangers mistook my mom for my babysitter. But I decide to keep it simple for now.
"The mysteries of genetics." I shrug.
Emi's racial identity is certainly not the central focus of this story, but this quiet scene has weight because that tension - the disconnect between who she is and how people perceive her - feels real and present to me as she learns to navigate the world. The image that the model on this cover projects is white and blonde and, truth be told, looks a little like me. The problem is that I am not a character in this book.
Obviously, I don't know the details here. I don't know this model. I don't know her life or background. I can't read the minds of the publisher or the cover designer who likely have a wealth of vision and experience. I don't know how decisions were made or the substance of their conversations. But, the truth is that regardless of intention or motivation, this cover feels like a missed chance to be precise and thoughtful about a cover image and its connection to the character in the story. At best, it feels disconnected and non-specific, and at worst it's maybe a little deceitful and indicative of a dangerous assumption about readers and what will catch their eye - like parading a lip-syncing Lina Lamont on stage in Singin' in the Rain because of a fear that the audience won't connect to Debbie Reynolds, unknown and unfamiliar.
We can do better, right? We can do better for readers and writers, who are themselves infinitely diverse and complex. When authors write characters whose identities express the complexity of our world and the stories it holds, we can do better representing those identities on the cover.
The cover for Everything Leads to You was designed by Theresa Evangelista. Cover photo by Aleshyn Andrei. Hand lettering by Elnora Turner.
Image via Goodreads.com