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A Fuse #8 Production
Inside A Fuse #8 Production

2014 Kids of Color: Things Are Looking Up

You know why I’m looking forward to 2014?  It’s not the fresh start that comes with every turn of the globe.  It’s not the incipient birth of my second child (I lie . . . it is that, but for the purposes of this piece we’re going to pretend that it’s not).  It’s not the fact that I’ve mistakenly thought it was 2014 already for half the year (this is what early galleys hath wrought).

It’s none of these.  It is, in fact, the plethora, the godsend, the sheer number of books with kids of color on the middle grade covers coming out in 2014.

None of you have been blind to the fact that when a middle grade novel stars a kid of color, there is a 75% chance that you’re not going to see their face on the book jacket.  Heck, Allie Bruce’s posts on the subject are worth the price of admission alone.  Then there’s the fact that sometimes even finding kids of color can be a challenge (see: 2013 Middle Grade Black Boys: Seriously, People?). With that in mind I’ve been watching the galleys for the 2014 season and I am feeling cautiously optimistic.  While the books that I’m about to list here are still just a miniscule percentage of the swath of middle grade (by which I mean, novels for kids between the ages of 9-12) titles out there, they mark a 400% improvement over . . . um . . . ever.  Here’s what I’m seeing for Spring 2014 alone:

A Medal for Leroy by Michael Morpurgo 

Nicely done.  Big full-face with the dad in the background.  Makes it clear it’s historical without feeling off-putting.  Of course the cover originated in Britain, but we’ll take what we can get.

Eddie Red Undercover: Mystery on Museum Mile by Marcia Wells 

The first in what appears to be a series, this is a SUPER rarity.  Dark-skinned boy (who is NOT a sidekick or best friend) alone on the cover of a book that actually looks fun and not meaningful or historical.  And a mystery at that?  Somebody buy me a lottery ticket quick, because I think my luck’s about to change!

The Blossoming Universe of Violet Diamond by Branda Woods

I don’t care that it’s just half a face.  It’s still a nice cover and I’m all for it.

Saving Baby Doe by Danette Vigilante 

Contemporary Latino boy?!  This is also wildly uncommon.  Kind of dig the gorgeous cover design as well.

The Crossover by Kwame Alexander

What, you thought we got rid of all the silhouette-stand-ins-for-black-kids covers?  Think again.

The Lion Who Stole My Arm by Nicola Davies

Another silhouette, but at least the title and cover blurb (which may or may not be on the American edition) are awesome.

Susan Marcus Bends the Rules by Jane Cutler 

Look at this cover long enough and you might be convinced that the “Susan Marcus” mentioned in the title was the African-American girl at the center of the other girls’ attention.  Nope.  That girl isn’t even our heroine.  A bit misleading but I sort of like the image so I’m torn.

Winter Sky by Patricia Reilly Giff 

A close kin to the silhouette cover is the back-of-the-head cover where, again, you cannot determine the character’s race.  That said, I actually like this one.  Look at her head and hands and her race is instantly apparent (it’s a little harder to see here but trust me that when you see the actual book it will be clear).  And due to the fact that there are 5 billion YA novels with white girls running away from the viewer, nothing wrong with a middle grade novel doing it’s own similar thing.

Painting the Rainbow by Amy Gordon 

Like the “Susan Marcus” book, the boy pictured here is not the hero of the tale but someone being investigated (so to speak) by the two girls in the boat.  This is, by the way, the only book with an Asian or Asian-American character I’ve seen with the sole exception of . . .

Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier Ying Chang Compestine and Vinson Compestine

It’s historical (a rare fantasy set in Maoist China) and distinctly unique.

Almost Super by Marion Jensen 

Maybe she’s not the heroine proper but the character of Juanita Johnson fills me with hope.  She and Gum Girl should get together sometime and save the world.

Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin 

Winner of the Most Blurbs for a Galley award of 2014.

Zane and the Hurricane: A Story of Hurricane Katrina by Rodman Philbrick

There is an understanding these days that you cannot CANNOT write a middle grade novel about Hurricane Katrina without the book being about a dog in some way.  This title is no exception.  It does, at first, look like a series of silhouettes but if you look at the actual book you’ll see it’s more detailed than that.  I’m giving it points too for just looking like a book a kid might actually want to read.

Conclusions?  As I mentioned before, Asian characters are more difficult than usual to find this publishing season.  I was tempted to include The Dirt Diary by Anna Staiszewski in that rare category but I haven’t read the book so I wasn’t certain that I was correct.  I’ve also not seen any books about Native American kids, but unless you’re Joseph Bruchac or Louise Erdrich they won’t be putting your face on the cover anyway (Written in Stone was 2013’s rare exception).

I would also be amiss in not mentioning the fact that these are just books that are featuring kids of color on their book jackets. I’m not mentioning the books that feature multicultural kids within the pages (just not on the covers). These would include titles like Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere by Julie T. Lamana and The Sittin’ Up by Sheila P. Moses amongst many others. Books that I am incredibly grateful for, but feel like the publishers missed a golden opportunity somewhere down the road when it came to their covers. Ah well. There’s always next year.

By the way, I just know that since I’m listing this books from the galleys I’ve received that there are bound to be some covers I’ve missed. So lay ’em on me! What’s also out there that I’m failing to note?

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. Hey Betsy,
    I’ve been tracking this as well, and here are a few additional novels to keep in mind:
    GAME WORLD by CJ Farley
    and my own THE GREAT GREENE HEIST.

    Happy Holidays, and congratulations on the new addition to your family.

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      Varian I saw an early cover for The Great Greene Heist and it has taken ALL of my willpower not to post it here. I pray nothing changes that initial cover because it makes me inordinately happy. But good call on Game World and I didn’t even know about Charmed Life #1. Off to find!

  2. Nice!

  3. Thank you for including me in this wonderful, wonderful, list! I’ve got some really good reading to do in 2014. 🙂

  4. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says

    What about PORT CHICAGO 50 by Steve Sheinkin. Mustn’t forget about nonfiction. Tsk tsk.

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      I’ll make you a deal and do a separate nonfiction list. Let’s see… there’s already The Richest Girl in America, and The Girl from the Tar Paper School, and Angel Island, and . . . .

  5. I am so glad to see other eyes besides mine taking on these covers and stories. I was so tired of waiting for kids of color books I decided to write one: Taj Cleans the Garage a multicultural book about a little boy whose chore turns into a magical adventure and he has to choose between what he and his friend want to do and doing the right thing.

  6. So glad to see these, Betsy! Some great reading ahead, and let’s hear it for these publishers for doing a better job of reflecting kids of color on the covers. Looking forward to buying a bunch of these.

  7. I love that you’re putting up this list now! Hopefully these are permanent covers

  8. Just came across another novel showcasing kids of color on the cover: Middle-School Cool by Maiya Williams.

  9. Your instincts were right on about Anna Staniczewski’s Dirt Diary–the main character is half Korean. (I’m friends with the author, and she has confirmed it personally as well as in several comments online.)

    We don’t do a lot of middle grade at Tu, but last year we did have The Monster in the Mudball, which starred a British boy who was half Chinese. I have hopes that we’ll eventually be doing a sequel, as well (though of course that depends on how the first book does).

  10. At a workshop we found that kids don’t really read books w/ people of color on the cover. Kids do judge a book by its cover. I’ve noticed that many book publisher don’t even put people on the cover.

    • Can you clarify, Dominique? What kind of workshop was this? What kids did you talk to? Did they give reasons for not wanting to read books with kids of color on the cover? What’s the justification for those reasons?

      I don’t think this is true across the board, so to say “kids”–implying all kids–don’t read books with characters of color on the cover is a little overgeneralizing to me. I wonder what books were used for examples–were they historical fiction, award winners, books that kids often consider to be boring or “school” books?

      • Elizabeth Bird says

        That’s my experience as well. What we have also found is that books with kids of color on the cover often look boring. The design influence just isn’t there, so the kids aren’t avoiding the books because someone is of a different race. They’re avoiding the books because they’d rather pick up the one with the exciting fight scene or fascinating fantasy aspect.

      • Forgive me, I didn’t mean to imply all kids. It was a workshop for writers. The woman had several book jackets for each book she discussed (because she worked for a publishing company). She explained to us how and why book covers were chosen. She mentioned one book that had a black female on the cover and said the book wasn’t selling much, which goes along with what the librarian posted about books w/ people of color on the cover remaining on the shelf. The book wasn’t a historical fiction book or anything boring.
        I don’t discuss this with kids but I work in a middle school and I pay attention to the books that they read for leisure. I don’t see them choosing to read books with people of color as protagonists.
        Sadly, when my own book is published, I don’t want an image of a person on it because I don’t want anyone to look at it and assume they know what its about. Unfortunately, the book cover (I’ve learned) is not my decision.

    • There’s a really great blog post by Joe Monti–who is just starting a new Simon & Schuster imprint but who was formerly the YA buyer at B&N–in which he discusses the cover issue, and he makes a great point that I think speaks to both what Dominique is saying and Betsy’s observation that the books often look boring. Here’s the post.

      I think historically we’ve trained kids to look at books with kids of color on the cover to be boring–historical, teaching something rather than about fun. Depressing, about suffering. Joe says: “The simplified truth to the quandary about book covers is that good covers sell books, and bad covers hurt book sales. A good book with a bad cover may overcome it, but it will not reach the sales potential it could have had with a good cover. A mediocre book with a good cover will increase sales.” (The whole post talks about how important a good design is–worth the read.)

      Not that depressing subjects aren’t important or interesting, but when you don’t have full representation–when the only books about POC are the historical fiction about slavery and civil rights, or contemporary books about poverty and drugs–we train kids to think “all books about POC are boring.” (i.e., educational)

      Which is why books like those featured in this post–particularly Eddie Red, Secrets of the Terra-Cotta Soldier, and Almost Super–are so important, I think. They broaden that representation, and show kids of color being heroes, having fun, going out to save the world.

      In YA, it’s similar–our own KILLER OF ENEMIES by Joseph Bruchac is about a kick-butt Apache superhero, and the cover has a Native girl in full action, shooting at a giant monster eagle. I have had so many people tell me how much they love that cover, and that it’s so important to see Native American characters doing fun things (if you’d call having to hunt giant monsters in the post-apocalypse “fun”!). That is, it’s not yet another book about historical Native Americans, implying that Native Americans only exist in the past, not the present or the future.

      • Elizabeth Bird says

        And if I can interject for a moment – that cover on Killer of Enemies is the best. Precisely what I want to see more of. Well done, y’all.

  11. Wow. I could only find Omololu’s Transcendence and Fish Finelli for 2013, and I specifically have been looking for books with a variety of children ob the covers. 2014 does have several, including Giles Fake Id, and Bradley’s Call Me By My Name, which is more YA.

    • Elizabeth Bird says

      I just saw the Scholastic fall list of titles and they have at least 4 middle grade novels with African-American kids on the covers. Fantastico.


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