Part I: Are All Covers Created Equal? Bank Street 6th-Graders Weigh In On RACE.
In October, Jamie Steinfeld’s sixth-grade Humanities class began to study book covers with Allie Bruce, Children’s Librarian, and Anshu Wahi, Diversity Director. What began as a conversation about how people of color are portrayed on book covers soon expanded to include conversations about portrayals of girls, boys, Queer characters, overweight characters, and more.
“What I learned today really changed how I look at book covers. After we finished the conversation in the library, I had so many questions to ask.”
“I learned a lot from the library session about covers, and how they affect people’s first impressions of the book…”
“I learned that book covers are a lot more important than they seem.”
“I feel like all books have a huge impact on our society.”
We learned that some covers “hide” the fact that characters in the book are dark-skinned…
“Why do the people who make covers sometimes make the people of color not have the spotlight? Like LOCOMOTION, why couldn’t we see the African-American face?”
“The cover of LOCOMOTION caught my attention… It just stuck with me. It just seemed so wrong.”
“I think the cover could be hurtful because there is a light shining on the boy’s face, who is from Vermont, and the girl, who is from Mexico, has her back turned.” (On RETURN TO SENDER)
“Society is almost afraid of putting a dark-skinned or Asian character on the cover of a book. I feel like these are minor forms of segregation.”
“Do illustrators think that if a person of color is fully shown, it won’t sell as many copies?”
“The skin of dark-skinned characters is not always allowed to look dark on book covers.”
We learned that silhouettes can disguise a character’s race or hide his/her features…
“One thing I didn’t like about the cover [of CHAINS] was how they didn’t show the features of the girl on the cover.”
“I felt a little uncomfortable looking at the covers of SAME SUN HERE, BIRD IN A BOX, and CHAINS. I wouldn’t go to extremes and say I was mad at the publishers, but I was definitely a little shocked when I first saw the books and then later realized that all of the characters in the books were people of color. I didn’t really understand why they thought it was OK to do that, like people wouldn’t notice. I mean, I guess you wouldn’t really notice unless you read the books, and by that time, you would have already bought the books.”
We will never be the same again:
“I realized a lot about the way covers are made and now I kind of want to be a publisher so that I can break some of these stereotypes.”
“I never realized how much book covers matter to me until today.”
“Now I can tell my family all of the information I learned today and all of the secrets about covers… WOW!!! This really makes me think! I hope we do this again so my head won’t explode!”
Stay tuned for Part II, in which we do, indeed, do this again. Nobody’s head explodes.
Edit: Part II is now up! Check out what the kids think about gender in covers.
Edit the second: Part III, in which we visit a large bookstore chain that shall not be named, is up!
Edit 7/16: Part IV is up. Awesome editors have an honest conversation with the kids.
Edit 7/29: The wrap-up, Part V, is now up. We ruminate and reflect.
EDIT from 2015: Check out the followup series, in which we reflect on how this curriculum has evolved over the past few years, here.
-Allie Jane Bruce