Barnes and Noble, America’s largest bookseller, is withdrawing a new series of classic book covers aimed at promoting diversity less than 24-hours after its launch, following a backlash from writers who say simply changing the skin color of characters like Romeo and Juliet or Frankenstein does nothing to address the publishing industry’s underlying diversity problems.
The new “Diverse Editions” series was announced on Tuesday to honor Black History Month and due to hit shelves on Wednesday. The project saw 12 classic young adult novels receive new covers, the protagonists now “culturally diverse”. Frankenstein has brown skin, not green, while a kissing Romeo and Juliet have darker skin tones and kinky hair textures. “For the first time ever, all parents will be able to pick up a book and see themselves in a story,” the company explains on the back cover of the books.
But prominent authors were quick to lambast the company, saying that putting a black Dorothy, from the Wizard of Oz, or a black Frankenstein on the cover wasn’t enough.
Writers including Roxane Gay, the author of Bad Feminist, and The Hate U Give writer Angie Thomas, viewed the covers as a superficial fix to a larger problem. “The only thing you’re disrupting is #BlackHistoryMonth and the literary dignity of communities of color,” David Bowles, a Latinx children’s writer and poet, wrote to Barnes and Noble on Twitter. “So disappointed in you.”
“This fake diversity nonsense (where they replace white characters with people of color) is disgusting,” the Hugo-winning fantasy writer Nnedi Okorafor wrote. “It is not sincere or a solution. New stories by people of color about people of color is the solution… Stop using us and get out of the way!”
In a statement to the Guardian, Barnes and Noble said: “We acknowledge the voices who have expressed concerns about the Diverse Editions project at our Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue store and have decided to suspend the initiative. The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard. The booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles.”
The company also clarified that the covers were designed by artists of different ethnicities and backgrounds.
The decision of which book covers to redesign was made using artificial intelligence to analyze the text from 100 of the most famous titles in western literature, searching the texts to “see if it omitted the ethnicity of primary characters”. The 12 classics found to meet this criteria were: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Moby Dick, Emma, The Secret Garden, Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, Frankenstein, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, The Three Musketeers, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and Romeo and Juliet.
Justina Ireland, the acclaimed writer of YA novel Dread Nation, pointed out the flaws of this approach. She called it a quick attempt to “make a buck”.
Ireland wrote: “And this says nothing to the assumption that a little white girl raised in India as a colonizer (Secret Garden) would be culturally the same as a little Asian or Indian or Black girl raised anywhere else ever. Erasing cultural differences is not diversity… Because what it says is that at the end of the day people of color want to be white. And fam, that ain’t it.”
Barnes and Noble’s swift apology comes as the publishing industry confronts increasing debates around race. Earlier this week, Flatiron Books, an imprint of Macmillan Publishers, faced heavy criticism over its controversial novel, American Dirt, a book many say unfairly profits off the suffering and trauma of Mexican immigrants. Flatiron made a commitment to hire more Latinx staff and publish more books by Latinx authors. A new study by Lee and Low Books found that, despite concentrated efforts and initiatives by the industry, publishing is just as white as it was four years ago.
Barnes and Noble still plans to honor and participate in Black History Month this year. The company said: “Barnes and Noble stores nationally will continue to highlight a wide selection of books to celebrate black history and great literature from writers of color.”