Why are there no boys like me on these covers?
My seventeen-year-old brother who lives in Lagos, Nigeria, raised this question to me recently. Not in these exact words, but sufficiently close. I’d been feeding him a steady drip of young adult (YA) science fiction and fantasy (SFF) novels from as diverse a list as I could, featuring titles like Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti, Martha Wells’ Murderbot series, Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen and Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother. The question, at first seemed like a throwaway one, but as my head-scratching went on, I realised I did not have a clear-cut answer for it.
His question wasn’t why there were no black boys like him in the stories, because there definitely were. I guess he wanted to know, like I now do, why those boys were good enough to grace the pages inside but were somehow not good enough for the covers. And because I felt bad about the half-assed response I offered, I decided to see if I could find a better one.
So, I put out a twitter call for recommendations.
Can anyone point me to science fiction & fantasy novels with black teenage boys on the cover? Asking for my teenage brother. I know there’s Tristan Strong, & books from Victor LaValle & Colson Whitehead, but I need more. Most YA I see with black boys are contemporary lit.
— Suyi Davies Okungbowa (@IAmSuyiDavies) May 6, 2020
The responses came thick and fast, revealing a lot. I’m not sure I left with a satisfactory answer, but I sure left with a better understanding of the situation. Before I can explain that, though, we must first understand the what of the question, and why we need to be asking it in the first place.
Unpacking the Specifics
My intent is to engage with one question: How come there are few black boys on young adult science fiction and fantasy novel covers? This question has specific parameters:
- black: of Black African descent to whatever degree and racially presented as such;
- boys: specifically male-presenting (because this is an image afterall), separate from female-presenting folks, and separate from folks presenting as non-binary, all regardless of cisgender or transgender status;
- are displayed prominently on covers: not silhouetted, not hinted at, not “they could be black if you turned the book sideways,” but undeniably front-of-cover blackity-black;
- YA: books specifically written for young adults (readers aged 12-18), separate from middle-grade (readers 8-12) and adult (readers 18+);
- SFF: science fiction and fantasy, but really shorthand for all speculative fiction and everything that falls under it, from horror to fabulism to alternative history;
- novels: specifically one-story, book-length, words-only literature, separate from collections/anthologies or illustrated/graphic works (a novella may qualify, for instance)
I’m sure if we altered any of these criteria, we might find some respite. Contemporary YA and literary fiction with teenage protagonists, for instance, are littered with a relatively decent number of black boys on the covers (though many revolve around violence, pain and trauma). Young women across the people-of-colour spectrum are beginning to appear more often on SFF covers too (just take a look at this Goodreads list of Speculative Fiction by Authors of Color). Black boys also pop up on covers of graphic novels here and there (Miles Morales is a good example). But if we insist on these parameters, we discover something: a hole.
It is this gaping black hole (pardon the pun) that I hope to fill with some answers.
The Case for Need
Think about shopping at a bookstore. Your eyes run over a bunch of titles, and something draws you in to pick one–cover design, title, author, blurb. You’d agree that one of the biggest draws, especially for teens to whom YA SFF novels are aimed, is the character representation on the cover (if there’s one). Scholastic’s 7th Edition Kids & Family Reading Report notes that 76% of kids and teens report they’d like characters who are “similar to me,” and 95% of parents agree that these characters can help “foster the qualities they value for their children.” If the cover imagery, which is the first point of contact for this deduction, is not representative of the self, there’s an argument to be made that reader confidence in the characters’ ability to represent their interests would be significantly reduced.
The why of the question is therefore simple: when a group already underrepresented in literature and readership (read: black boys, since it’s still believed that black boys don’t read) are also visually underrepresented within their age group and preferred genre (read: YA SFF), it inadvertently sends a message to any black boy who loves to read SFF: you don’t fit here.
This is not to say that YA is not making strides to increase representation within its ranks. Publisher’s Weekly’s most recent study of the YA market notes various progressive strides, touching base with senior publishing professionals at teen imprints in major houses, who say today’s YA books “reflect a more realistic range of experiences.” Many of them credit the work of We Need Diverse Books, #DVPit, #OwnVoices and other organizations and movements as pacesetters for this growing trend.
In the same breath, though, these soundbites are cautiously optimistic, noting that the industry must look inward for underlying reasons why easy defaults remain commonplace. Lee&Low’s recent Diversity in Publishing 2019 study’s answer to why unquestioned go-tos still reign supreme is that the industry remains, sadly, 76% Caucasian. For a genre-readership with such exponential success, that makes the hole a massive one. Of the Top 10 Best Selling Books of the 21st Century, four are YA SFF franchises by Rowling, Collins, Meyer, and Roth, the most among all listed genres. In 2018’s first half, YA SFF vastly outsold every other genre, amassing over a quarter of an $80-million sales total. This doesn’t even include TV and film rights.
I once was a black boy (in some ways, I still am). If such a ubiquitous, desired, popular (and don’t forget, profitable) genre-readership somehow concluded a face like mine on its covers was a no-go, I’d want to know why too.
Navigating the Labyrinth
Most of the responses I received fell into three categories: hits & misses, rationale, and outlook. Hits & misses were those who attempted to recommend books that met the criteria. If I had to put a number to it, I’d say there were around 10+ misses to one hit. I received many recommendations that didn’t fit: middle-grade novels, graphic novels, covers where the blackness of the boy was up for debate, novels featuring black boys who were not present on the cover, etc.
The hits were really great to see, though. Opposite of Always by Justin A. Reynolds was the crowd favourite of the recent recommended titles. The Coyote Kings of the Space-Age Bachelor Pad by Minister Faust was the oldest recommended title (2004). One non-English title on offer was Babel Corp, Tome 01: Genesis 11 by Scott Reintgen (translated to French by Guillaume Fournier, published in the US as Nyxia). Non-print titles also showed up, like Wally Roux, Quantum Mechanic by Nick Carr (audio only). Lastly, some crossover titles like Miles Morales: Spider-Man by Jason Reynolds (MG/YA) and Temper by Nicky Drayden (YA/Adult) were present. You’ll find a full list of all recommendations at the end of this article.
Many of the hits were worrisome for other reasons, though. For instance, a good number are published under smaller presses, or self-published. Most are of limited availability. Put simply: a high percentage of all books recommended have severely limited wider industry coverage, which twanged a sour note in this orchestra.
The rationale group attempted to approach the matter from a factual angle. Points were made, for instance, that fewer men and nonbinary folks are published in YA SFF than women, and fewer black men even so, therefore representing black boys on covers may increase with more black male authors of YA SFF. While a noble thought, I do argue that various YA authors, regardless of race or gender, have written black boys as protagonists, yet those didn’t make the covers anyway. Would more black male authors suddenly change that?
Another rationale pointed toward YA marketing, which many stated mostly targets teenage girls because they are the biggest audience. I’m not sure how accurate this is, but I know sales often tell a different story from marketing (case in point: 2018 market estimates show that nearly 70% of all YA titles are purchased by adults aged 18-64, not teenage girls). If the sales tell a different story, yet marketing strategies insist upon a one-note approach, then it’s not really about the sales, is it?
Lastly, the outlook responses came mostly from readers, authors and publishing professionals who are long-time advocates of increased inclusion in publishing. The overwhelming consensus was that, while there is no complete absence of black boys on YA SFF covers, the real problem is the difficulty in pointing them out. It was agreed that it speaks volumes that we have to do this deep-dive just to find an okay amount of recommendations. Many left with a feel-good note, though, since more authors and professionals dedicated to inclusion and visibility are finally getting their feet into the doors at Big Publishing. Thanks to advocates like People of Color in Publishing and We Need Diverse Books, the future looks exciting.
So, I’ll end this on another feel-good note by offering an ongoing list of recommendations that fit the bill. You’ll find that most are absolutely worth a look-see. This list is also open for public updates, so feel free to add your own recommendations. And here’s looking to the decision-makers at Big Publishing to make this list even bigger.
Suyi Davies Okungbowa is a Nigerian author of stories featuring African(esque) gods, starships, monsters, detectives and everything in-between. His godpunk novel, David Mogo, Godhunter, is out from Abaddon in July 2019, and currently available for pre-order. His internationally published fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Lightspeed, Fireside, Apex, Podcastle, The Dark, and other periodicals and anthologies. He is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Arizona, where he teaches writing to undergrads. He tweets at @IAmSuyiDavies and is @suyidavies everywhere else. Learn more at suyidavies.com.