You might be asking yourself why on earth it matters that diverse books feature people of color on their covers. Well, unfortunately, it matters quite a bit. All too often, book covers for books about people of color are boldly white-washed, or the race of the person on the cover is deliberately obscured, or the publisher steers clear of having a person on the cover at all.
These ridiculous measures are usually taken in the name of sales. Publishers make the excuse that readers won’t buy books about POC, much less books with POC on the cover. Basically, they're saying that if you want readers to buy a book about characters of color, you have to trick the readers into thinking it’s a book about white people.
Yep, this seriously happens, especially with novels and especially in genres dominated by white authors and characters. Just take a look at Ursula K. LeGuin’s open letter about the white-washing her Earthsea series. LeGuin admits that she “eased the information about skin color in by degrees” in the pages of the book itself “hoping that the reader would get "into Ged's skin and only then discover it wasn't a white one.”
So, when an author and publisher come together and dare to actually represent a non-white character on the cover, it’s no small feat. Happily, it seems times are a-changing — at least a little bit — and you can now see many more book covers proudly declaring the non-white ethnicity of the characters within.
1. No-No Boy by John Okada
The 2014 edition of this classic featured a drawing of the face of a Japanese man, like the main character Ichiro Yamada. The story followed the “no-no boys” who were imprisoned in the United States for refusing to serve in the armed forces and swear loyalty to the U.S. after the Japanese Internment.
2. Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros
The vibrant young Chicana woman on the cover teases the lively content within. Caramelo is a story about stories and a story about the dizzying nature of truth when it comes to family.
3. Kindred by Octavia Butler
Happily, most of Butler’s many novels actually feature people of color on the covers, even the ones published in the '70s and '80s. Kindred was published in 1979, and it has always featured a Black woman on the cover. As a bestseller and one of Butler’s most popular books, Kindred disproves the myth that sci-fi heroes have to be male and white to win an audience.
4. The Gangster We Are All Looking For by Thi Diem Thuy Le
A young Vietnamese girl graces the cover of this book, representing the young girl through whose eyes you experience the story of a family of Vietnamese refugees coping with their new life in California.
5. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga
There are several editions of this book — all of which prominently feature an African woman or an artistic representation of an African woman on the cover. This, of course, should come as no surprise, since Dangerembga book isn’t afraid of representations and ideas that might make others uncomfortable. A portrait of post-colonial Zimbabwe, Nervous Conditions lays bare the many conditions and issues that face Zimbabwe and other African countries in the wake of colonialism.
6. Native Speaker by Chang Rae Lee
The story of a man straddling two worlds, Native Speaker wrestles with the two-world conflict of the Korean American immigrant experience. Featuring an image of a Korean man overlaid with a smaller shadow image of a young man in a cowboy outfit, the cover of the 1996 edition fits the story perfectly. A 1998 edition also features a Korean man walking at night on the street of an unidentified city.
7. The Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs
Almost every book in this series features a rendition of the main character, a young Blackfoot woman, on the cover.
8. Typical American by Gish Jen
My favorite cover of Typical American is the one above — the smiling eyes of a Chinese man. It perfectly captures the humor of the novel and asks readers to rethink what a “typical American” looks like.
9. Krik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat
Several of Danticat’s other novels feature beautiful images of women of color on the book covers, but this one actually features an image of the author herself!
10. The Heartsong of Charging Elk by James Welch
The Native American man on the cover is presumably a representation of the Oglala Sioux protagonist of the novel’s story. His laced-up European outfit in the photo subtly symbolizes the culture clash the main character faces as he finds himself abandoned in a foreign land and longing for home.
11. Clear Light of Day by Anita Desai
There is at least one other edition of the book that features a young Indian woman on the cover, but I prefer the one above. The image looks like it was cropped from a family portrait, a perfect cover for a story about sisters and family during the civil war in India.
12. Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Though not nearly as popular as her famous novel Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichei's Purple Hibiscus is one of her earlier works, published in 2005. It’s the story of how Nigeria's violent coup impacts 15-year-old Kambili and her family.
Image: Crystal Paul for Bustle