‘Be Pink! Be Blue! Be Sparkly!’ – But Not for the Reasons You Think

Elizabeth Bluemle -- September 27th, 2012

The title of this blog post might raise eyebrows if you know me. I’m not really a pink-blue-sparkly kinda gal (although I admit I had my moments as a kid). But a customer and I were talking about multicultural book covers recently, and our conversation made me think of these shorthand emblems of shiny-happy in a slightly different way.

We are all aware that there are not enough mainstream books featuring kids of color as main characters. This means that every book that DOES have a brown face on the cover is extra important, extra meaningful, and ideally will draw readers across all races. And yet, it seems that so many of these book covers default to a somber palette, with muted earth tones, even in picture books. The customer pointed this out; I had noticed that with YA covers, but hadn’t really thought about picture books falling into some of the same habits.

“Where are the bright, happy watercolor covers?” she said. “Like Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, but with people?” I showed her Oscar’s Half Birthday by Bob Graham (Candlewick) and “More, More, More,” Said the Baby by Vera B. Williams (Greenwillow) and Ish and Sky Color by Peter Reynolds (Candlewick) and Kelly Bennett’s Not Norman: A Goldfish Story (Candlewick again) … and then I got a tiny bit stuck but cheated by going to my database of awesome books featuring kids of color, where I found more, but still not enough.

“Those are great,” she said. “And there need to be a whole lot more of them. Where are the really really mainstream books? All kids grab books that look like fun! Be pink! Be blue! Be sparkly!”

She is absolutely right. I love thinking about millions of little girls showing up to author events for, say, a Fancy Nancy who happened to be African-American. Or little boys toddling over to a Latino Bob the Builder. A Native American Pinkalicious! Kids really do not care which crayon is used to color a character; they care about the character, the story, and the experience of the book.

The timing of this conversation was serendipitous; just two days later, I was in New York City for a panel discussion on diversity in book covers hosted by the Children’s Book Council’s Diversity Committee. I had written an article, “Who Will Create the New Normal?” for the CBC’s diversity blog, joining four other industry members who had also been invited to contribute articles: Coe Booth (author), Joseph Monti (literary agent and former buyer for Barnes & Noble), Felicia Frazier (senior v-p and director of sales at Penguin Young Readers Group), and Laurent Linn (art director at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers). We all convened on Tuesday for a conversation moderated by Alvina Ling, executive editorial director at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

It was a wonderful and fast hour, and I loved hearing everyone’s perspectives on how and why book covers look the way they do — what is done well, and what still needs work — and how we can work together to move forward.

It seems to me — and was borne out by the discussion, by emails afterward, and talks with friends of color — that one of the most basic, important things we can do for kids is to provide them with loads of great books (and great book covers) that celebrate the bright, happy, diverse, active young people they are — and not to automatically get all serious and somber with the brown.

I can’t wait for the day when white is not the default color, when publishing is all shades of brown and white and black and tan, and this conversation has been rendered entirely obsolete. Until then, Dear Readers, you’ll be hearing from me!


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