How do these things relate? Well, Jaclyn Dolamore's debut novel, Magic Under Glass, is YA steampunk. (I have heard some arguments for calling it "Victorian fantasy" instead. Haven't yet read it, so I'm going by what the various categorizing entities say.) It's also one of that sadly rare species, the fantasy novel with a protagonist who isn't white. Unfortunately, its publisher, Bloomsbury, saw fit to give it a cover featuring a white girl. Even more unfortunately, this is the second time Bloomsbury has done this in less than a year.
When Justine Larbalestier's YA novel Liar came out from Bloomsbury in 2009, fans raged at the original cover, featuring an obviously-white girl with straight hair in place of the book's "nappy-haired" mixed-race protagonist. The author joined the outcry, and Bloomsbury ended up giving Liar a new cover.
At the time the Liar incident started appearing on some of the blogs I read, I shook my head, disappointed but not too surprised. But this is ridiculous. I know that the cover of Magic Under Glass was probably decided already when people let Bloomsbury have it over Liar, but what? Did they think no one would notice? They didn't issue an apology or an assurance that they will fix things in the paperback. What's up with that?
The range of literature published in this country featuring non-white protagonists is disproportionate to the population, to say the least. Things get even worse if you'd love to read about people of varied ethnic backgrounds, but don't care for "gritty" books, books that make you cry your eyes out, or books that are largely about racism. Yes, racism exists, and it's important that it be recognized. But why shouldn't a person of any race be able to just pick up a freaking fantasy novel and read a freaking fantasy story (or mystery or romance or whatever floats that person's literary boat) featuring someone whose skin falls outside of the cream-to-khaki color range? By making one of a few such books look like it is about a white person, Bloomsbury implies that people of color don't belong in this genre, or that this genre isn't for them. I'll say it again: what's up with that?
Naturally, one doesn't want to punish the author by boycotting her book. She's not the one being racist here, and is probably distressed by the misrepresentation of her protagonist. Some bloggers suggest that concerned readers contact Bloomsbury. Probably a good idea, but I also think it's important just to make noise about this whitewashing business and let Bloomsbury know readers have noticed and We Are Not Amused. Hence my commentary here.
If you want to see what some other people have to say about this issue, check out this Open Letter to Bloomsbury Kids USA, and the posts here and here and here. There are also these suggestions on how white bloggers should not take this news.
To end on a happier note, steampunk! As part of my YA Lit class, I've joined the listserv for the Young Adult Library Services Association. It is neato. At one member's request, the listserv's contributors have volunteered titles of YA steampunk, which were then compiled into a snazzy list. Check it out!