Faces and YA Book Covers: A Proposal

After taking a poll, issuing this call, and listening to various comments here and there, I've come up with three hypotheses about covers for children's and teen books.

Hypothesis #1

It doesn't make much of a difference in sales or circulation when characters of color grace the covers of children's picture books and middle grade novels. 

Why? Perhaps because typically adults buy and borrow these books. Another possibility is that developmentally, children (vs. teens) aren't looking to identify or connect as much with a protagonist and/or to "look cool" with a book. They're more open to books as windows instead of on the hunt for mirrors.

If this is true, let's keep diversity flowing on the covers of picture books and middle grade books and in stories written for all ages. The main problem in our industry are face-adorned covers on YA books.

Hypothesis #2

YA books sell or circulate better among teen guys when they DON'T have faces on the cover.

Several librarians and booksellers weighed in with this input. If you take a look at Amazon's bestsellers in literature and fiction for teens or Indiebound's bestselling children's books, for example, most of the covers don't feature faces. Publishers are successfully targeting readers of both genders with the covers for novels like The Hunger Games and The Percy Jackson books. For more to support this theory, check out the popular books over at the fantastic Guys Read site—few feature covers with faces unless they're celebrity biographies.

If this is true, the tussle when it comes to covers are with books aimed at teen girls—who make up a large portion of the buying and borrowing audience for YA books.

Hypothesis #3

YA books sell or circulate better among all kinds of teen girls when they DON'T have faces on the cover.

Check out the general bestselling teen titles on Amazon.com or the bestselling SciFi/Fantasy books at Indiebound. Not many have full frontal faces.

I understand the call for better representation on the covers of books—kids of color tire of never seeing themselves on books, right? Thankfully, kids grow up these days seeing a rainbow of faces on covers through the picture book and middle-grade book years. By all means, I hope our industry continues and improves this, because through fifth grade, kids tend to have more malleable hearts and minds.

The problem smacks into a reader during the teen years when she starts to see a majority of white faces on YA bestseller shelves. Ari put it well in her open letter to Bloomsbury:
I'm sure you can't imagine what it's like to wander through the teen section of a bookstore and only see one or two books with people of color on them. Do you know how much that hurts? Are we so worthless that the few books that do feature people of color don't have covers with people of color?
But imagine for a minute that the teen shelves have hardly any faces at all on the covers, while the MG and PB sections are well-stocked with stories about kids of color. Would the sting of under-representation dwindle?

I also get the temptation to whitewash covers for the sake of sales, given the results of my poll. But lists of bestsellers show that to draw in teen guys as well as all kinds of girl readers, books without faces sell and circulate in greater numbers. Covers with faces also go out of date sooner because styles and trends in youth culture change quickly. Wouldn't it make better financial sense to omit faces on covers of YA books written by writers of all races?

A rising trend in gaming and social media is the evolution of an avatar or mii, where teens use their imaginations to design a rendition of a protagonist resembling themselves. If books without faces on the cover sell well, why not leave the physical appearance of characters to the imagination of the teen reader in response to an author's skilled writing?

So here's my suggestion:  

For financial AND fairness reasons, the industry should continue to publish and promote more diversity in books but shift away from using faces on the covers of young adult books.