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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

Book Jacket Nattering: Invisible Boys

So I’ve finally gotten around to reading Crow by Barbara Wright.  It only took me a good nine months to do so but with the award season coming up I’m trying to give a good look to all the serious contenders (Bomb, I’m gunning for you next).   Why the long delay?  Well, sad as it is to admit it, whether consciously or unconsciously, I have a tendency to judge a book by its cover.  I don’t mean to, but when you see as many titles for kids in a given year as I do you find yourself relying on some pretty odd reasons to chose to read one book over another.

Not knowing much about the book, and having only glanced at its cover in passing, I guessed at the plot.  My assumption was that it was the story of a Chinese-American immigrant, possibly a messenger of some sort, probably historical.  It wasn’t until I started reading that I realized that I was way way off the mark.  Historical it may be, but our hero is an African-American boy in the South.  Why the confusion?  Well I took another much closer look at a jacket I’d only glanced at before.  It’s one of those rather tasteful covers that appeal to adults 79% of the time more than kids.  Artist Edel Rodriguez has penned an elegant pen and ink of Moses Thomas riding hell-for-leather on a bicycle.  He’s clearly black too.  No hiding or covering him up.  So why my confusion?

Maybe it had something to do with the fact that finding a young black man on a middle grade novel this year is a rarity.  I’ve seen a large swath of titles from every American publisher there is (as well as a few Canadians) and this report is the sum total of all the middle grade (not early chapter book, not YA) fiction fare I have found that shows the hero front and center.  Note that the low numbers have a lot to do with the fact that even finding any stories starring black guys is difficult.

After Crow, which I would call the book starring an African-American boy that has the greatest award prospects in 2012, we have another work of historical fiction, Jump Into the Sky by Shelley Pearsall.  I was a big fan of Pearsall’s earlier novel All of the Above and was particularly thrilled to see this next one. Cast thine peepers upon this:

Isn’t that a beauty?  There’s the face, front and center, no bones about it.  Now if there’s one problem with have with jackets, if they aren’t being sneaky about a character’s race (more on that soon) then they’re hiding the fact that the book takes place in the past.  And what I like so much about Jump Into the Sky is that I feel like the jacket makes a great compromise.  It doesn’t look like it takes place in any particular time period, and that’s fine.  Sure beats having inauthentic details cluttering up your narrative (paging The Romeo and Juliet Code).  Here we have mostly just a face representing a story that takes place on the homefront during WWII.  Beautiful.

If you think historical African-American boys are difficult to come by, allow me to introduce you to the wide and wonderful world of contemporary fiction.  Last year, at the very least, we had the marvelous Ghetto Cowboy to show.  This year things get tricky.  I would greatly appreciate some suggestions, actually, because in all my searching his appears to be the one and only book I could find starring (not merely acting as a supporting character) an African-American male hero.

It’s called Buddy by M.H. Herlong.  Buddy is an excellent example of how not to do a MG cover.  Apparently it is very difficult to talk about Hurricane Katrina in a book if you don’t include a dog.  I am referring, of course, to last year’s Saint Louis Armstrong Beach by Brenda Woods which told the tale of a boy and the dog that separated from him during the flooding.  Now that book wasn’t afraid to show its hero.  Maybe it made a mistake in not showing the dog more prominently, though.  After all, cute dogs sell books.  Everyone knows that, right?  Well that’s all well and good insofar as your dog is supposed to be cute.  Trouble with Buddy is that here we have a dog that isn’t.  Cute, I mean.  Described as scraggly, here you see a severe case of Because of Winn-Dixie Syndrome.  Just because a writer says that a dog looks like something the cat upchucked, that doesn’t mean the art director is going to pay attention.  And yes, Buddy is indeed described as sporting a white heart shaped patch on his face, but here it is ridiculously cute, not to mention prominent.  Oh, and not our hero Li’l T.  Do you see him?  Look closely now.  If you squint at just the right angle you can kind of make him out in the background.  Pity his face wasn’t considered as cute as a dog’s.  Apparently the writing in this book is utterly fabulous too, so make a note.

Contemporary series fill a bit of the void.  Haven’t read it myself, I will freely admit, but as covers go this isn’t terrible.  Amar’e Stoudemire has a new paperback series out called STAT (Standing Tall and Talented).  The author’s an NBA All-Star and the books follow in the vein of the Tiki and Ronde Barber books in that they’re about the author as a kid.

Speaking of which:

What about African-American girl heroines?  Again, the situation isn’t stellar but maybe they do slightly better.  From the fantastic covers on The Mighty Miss Malone and Lone Bean (extra points for contemporary setting AND glasses) to Kizzy Ann Stamps with a dog who knows how to share some cover space (though sadly Letters to Missy Violet eschewed an interesting jacket) there are girls with faces.  Apparently you can’t write a novel about them without putting their names in the titles, though (Missy Violet being the exception there as well).

I haven’t brought up EllRay Jakes or other early chapter books because I’m keeping my focus squarely on the 9-12 year old reader set.  Still, when we think of the HUGE numbers of books with white kids on their covers, a dinky four to five examples of 2012 titles seems, to put it lightly, a bit lacking.

Now what have I failed to mention?  Lay it on me.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I don’t have much for you from the world of middle grade sci fi/fantasy–just The Stones of Ravenglass, by Jenny Nimmo, where you get to see the back of a black boy’s head, and The Terrifying Return of Tippy Tinkletrousers shows George….

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Wow. I’d seen that Nimmo cover many times and didn’t even notice the kid on there. And Pilkey, alas, is early chapter book fare. You see my conundrum.

  2. CLUBHOUSE THREAT, FUNNY MAN, and FUNNY MAN GETS ROLLING, published over ten years ago, but they’re written for 9-12. Check out their covers. 🙂 Aloha!

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      Thanks Margo but I’m looking for stuff in the 2012 publication year. Lots of good stuff in the past, certainly.

  3. Thanks, Betsy, for addressing a pervasive and troubling fact. Having been told outright in the past that a black face on a book cover can limit sales, I don’t doubt that change will come unless there’s economic evidence to the contrary. Thoughtful reviews like yours might actually change any misconceptions that these books are about and for a limited readership. Thanks for shining a light on the issue and on these books.