Beverley Naidoo, Web of Lies (Puffin 2004)
Someone recommended this book last year during the kerfuffle over Bloomsbury’s US cover of Justine Larbalestier‘s Liar. That book’s narrator and main character is African American, but the girl on the kerfufflised cover was unmistakeably white, giving rise to animated discussion of the many fronts on which racism us still being combatted in children’s and young adult literature (not just someone is wrong on the internet), including debate about the doctrine long propounded in Australia as well as the USA that books with non-white characters on the cover won’t sell. A number of well informed participants in the conversation gave us lists of books that are on the side of the angels – Web of Lies was one of them. That kerfuffle, by the way, had an excellent outcome: Bloomsbury replaced the offending cover with one that didn’t tell young readers of African heritage that they were profoundly anti-photogenic. A lesson had been learned.
Or had it? It turned out that when I finally got around to reading this book another kerfuffle had arisen over another whitewashed cover from, yes, the same publisher. This time the book is actually published. It might seem like a storm in a teapot, some blogospheric ephemera, but there’s an important issue here. A young woman named Ari published an open letter to Bloomsbury on the blog Reading in Color, which said in part:
Can you imagine growing up as a little girl and wanting to be white because not only do you not see people who look like you on TV, you don’t see them in your favorite books either. You get discouraged and you want to be beautiful and be like the characters in the books you read and you start to believe that you can’t be that certain character because you don’t look like them. I love the books I grew up with, but none of them featured people of color. I found those later, when I was older and I started looking for them. Do you know how sad I feel when my middle school age sister tells me she would rather read a book about a white teen than a person of color because “we aren’t as pretty or interesting.” She doesn’t know the few books that do exist out there about people of color because publishing houses like yourself, don’t put people of color on the covers. And my little brother doesn’t even like to read, he wants to read about cool people who look like him, but he doesn’t see those books in bookstores and now he rarely reads.
The whole letter is worth reading. So is Justine Larbalestier’s post.
With all that in mind, Web of Lies is impressive. Not only does it have a Black youth on its cover, but it’s a gripping yarn whose main characters are African asylum seekers in England. I don’t know what Ari’s little brother thinks is cool, but there’s a fair chance that – when he’s less little – he’d be interested in Femi, the boy who gets mixed up with what used to be called bad company, and finds himself on a slippery slope involving petty theft, then drugs and violence. The author is white, originally South African, and has clearly done more than academic research into the experiences of African teens living in London. The story rings true and powerful, and if anyone was thinking of putting it in a niche category because its characters aren’t white, they’d be doing the world a disservice.
I know, it’s a bit odd to spend most of a post that’s nominally about a book talking about other things entirely, but I suppose what I’m trying to do here is to admit that I wouldn’t have read this book if not for the kerfuffle, and while part of the reason is that I don’t read much YA literature, another part is that I’ve unwittingly bought the propaganda that books about Black people are only for Black people to read. Wittingly, of course, I don’t believe that for a moment and have read many books that should have made me wiser.
Update: Within hours of my blogging about Bloomsbury’s bloomer, they have withdrawn the controversial cover. To quote their web site:
Bloomsbury is ceasing to supply copies of the US edition of Magic Under Glass. The jacket design has caused offense and we apologize for our mistake. Copies of the book with a new jacket design will be available shortly.
Thanks to Alien Onions for the news. (Though you know the problem isn’t that the jacket ’caused offence’. You can’t do much at all without offending someone. I would have preferred them to say something like ‘the jacket design was unintentionally hurtful’ or even go so far as to use the word ‘racist’.)