The State of Disability on Book Covers

Comments: 10

Article

Content

When it comes to marginalized representation, visibility is important. There is incredible value in featuring covers with people of color front and center, or two boys or two girls kissing, and we need far more of those. It’s important for all teens to be able to see themselves reflected on book covers. We need to fight back against the common habit of minimizing any elements that might be seen as “risky.”

Unfortunately, that common habit is also present with disability.

Late last year, the cover of Robin Constantine’s The Season of You and Me was revealed. In the flap copy, the male lead is described as using a wheelchair as a result of paralysis, and being told he’ll never walk, surf, or slow-dance again.

Cover for The Season of You and Me: a boy and a girl are seen from behind sitting upright on the beach. The boy is embracing the girl. There is no sign of a wheelchair.

In this case, the cover is not untrue to the book; there are several scenes where the character transfers out of his chair and onto the beach, and those scenes are quite meaningful to the central romance. It’s important not to ignore that the cover does reflect an aspect of the story. Additionally, while the use of a wheelchair is often thought of as all-or-nothing, there are many wheelchair users (whether part-time or full-time) who would be able to reach the position on the cover either alone or with assistance.

But it’s still notable that when the publisher had an opportunity to show, front-and-center, an attractive disabled lead / romantic interest … they didn’t. Even with so very few wheelchair-using protagonists in YA, even with the possibility of having a groundbreaking cover featuring a sweet scene between a girl and a boy in a wheelchair, they chose to make the character indistinguishable from an able-bodied character. There’s no hint for disabled readers that they might see themselves in this book—not even an unoccupied wheelchair off to the side where he would have left it. While we’re glad the book’s description doesn’t shy away from the character’s disability, a lot of disabled teens may never see that description without a cover that tells them they’re featured.

The discussion that followed the cover reveal prompted us to take a closer look at the state of clear, visible representation of disabled characters on book covers.

Firstly, we want to point out that many visible disabilities may only be visible in certain situations. Someone with a limp who doesn’t use any walking aids, for example, might well look able-bodied when standing still. When the cover features a close-up of a face, good luck recognizing someone as a wheelchair user. In these cases, the covers technically are showing disabled characters, but aren’t showing disability. There are also, of course, countless types of invisible disabilities, from chronic and mental illnesses to neurological and developmental disorders and far more. It won’t always be possible to visually indicate a disabled character … but it certainly is possible a lot more often than we see it happening.

Although there are ways to indicate invisible disabilities if so desired—we’ll give a few examples at the end—for the purposes of this article, we will be focusing primarily on the way characters with visible disabilities are depicted.

Wheelchair users

Wheelchairs are typically the go-to symbol for disability. (There’s a reason we have a wheelchair in our logo, after all.) Yet, there are few books featuring characters who use wheelchairs, and even fewer where their wheelchairs are visible on the cover. Here are some notable exceptions:

Cover for Push Girl by Chelsie Hill and Jessica Love: a smiling girl is seen sitting in her wheelchair, holding the rims of her wheels. The top part of her face is cropped out. Cover for Young Knights of the Round Table by Julia Golding: the silhouettes of four kids come running out of a portal that is crackling with energy. One of the kids holds a sword; another uses a wheelchair. Cover for Game World by C.J. Farley: three teenagers are seen in front of a waterfall, with palm trees and foliage in the foreground. One of the kids holds a fiery sword. Another, in the background, uses a wheelchair and is holding onto the strap of his backpack. He is partially obscured by a tree. Cover for A Middle School Story, I Even Funnier by James Patterson and Christ Grabenstein: the face of a kid wearing gag glasses is central. Several doodles adorn the rest of the cover, including one of a kid in a wheelchair talking to someone else.
Cover for Night Sky by Suzanne Brockmann and Melanie Brockmann: the silhouettes of four teenagers walk on an incline, silhouetted branches in the background. One of the teenagers uses a wheelchair. Cover for The Last Leaves Falling by Sarah Benwell: several crane birds in flight are visible from above. A boy in a wheelchair looks up at them. Cover for Laughing at my Nightmare by Shane Burcaw: it's a photo of the author, Shane, in his motorized wheelchair. Cover for Saffy's Angel by Hilary McKay: a girl in the foreground holds yellow flowers. In the background, a woman in a wheelchair holds a vase of flowers in her lap.
Note that Game World may show a wheelchair user, but it seems to try its hardest to hide that fact, placing a convenient tree in front of the character’s chair, while the bit of his wheel you might be able to see is obscured by the title.

With Night Sky, Saffy’s Angel, and I Even Funnier, the disabilities are only indicated on certain publishers’ paperback editions. In fact, the original Night Sky hardcover showed the character without a visible wheelchair.

Cover for Pinned by Sharon G. Flake: a girl holds her hand on her hip and looks into the camera in front of a circular background. Back cover for Pinned: in addition to the descriptive text, a wheelchair-using teen boy is seen from behind looking sideays, grabbing the rims of his wheels.
The book Pinned has two point-of-view characters; yet, only one of those characters is relegated to the back cover. The paperback version omits showing his character entirely.

Other covers—for example Summer on the Short Bus—show wheelchairs, but without the actual wheelchair user present.

An interesting case is Colin Thiele’s Jodie’s Journey, which was published in both the US and Australia with very different covers. Two Australian paperbacks show the main character on the ground beside a tipped-over wheelchair; the US hardcover shows the character in her chair, looking tough as she holds a horse by its reins.

Cover for Jodie's Journey: a girl lies in a field of yellow grass, arms spread wide. Her wheelchair is tipped over by her feet. In the background, a horse runs through a forest. Cover for Jodie's Journey: A girl lies on a path in a forest, arm outstretched to the viewer as if reaching for help. Behind her, her chair lies tipped over. Cover for Jodie's Journey: a girl sits in the wheelchair, facing the viewer. Behind her, several white horses run toward the viewer. She holds one horse by its reins.

Limb differences

Another disability that’s often visible in real life is the loss of a limb. Usually, this disability is visible either in the absence of the limb, or in a prosthetic in its place. In contrast, here are some covers that prominently feature amputee characters, but with the affected limbs somehow hidden, obscured, unclear, or conveniently disappearing off the side of the cover.

Cover for Crazy Beautiful by Lauren Baratz-Logstead: an all-black cover with two figures in white. You see part of a girl's face and hand, kissing a boy in a leather jacket. His hands are not visible. Cover for Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham: a bikini-wearing girl is standing in the ocean, seen from behind. Half of her body is vertically cropped out. Cover for Formerly Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham: a girl on a beach walks toward the viewer. One arm is visible; the other is hidden behind her back. Cover for Dangerous by Shannon Hale: a close crop of a girl's chest, neck, and bottom of face. The shoulder closest to the viewer has some sort of visible metallic object, which may be armor or part of a prosthetic. 
Cover for The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti: black silhousettes of a house, a wheelbarrow, and two figures on a light yellow background. The figures are walking away from the camera. Cover for One-Handed Catch by M.J. Auch: a boy with a baseball gloves on leaps to catch a baseball against a bright blue sky. His hand and part of his leg are cropped out. Cover for A Time to Dance: a girl sits on the ground, seen from above. She holds her hands together, while her dress obscures her legs. Cover for Drowned by Nichola Reilly: a girl sits on a rock in the ocean in front of an overcast sky. She's looking up. The figure is too small to properly make out whether she is holding one arm to her body or whether she is missing part of her limb.

In some cases, the publisher seems to have chosen to show the character before they become disabled. In The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly, the main character loses both hands, while the cover features very prominent hands; in Postcards to Father Abraham, the main character deals with a leg amputation, and the cover shows a girl running. While there may be logical reasons for both of these, they’re still instances of “they feature the character and could have easily shown their disability, but chose ways around it.”

Cover for The Sacred Lies of Minnow Bly by Stephanie Oakes: two hands hold a thick, old-looking book. Cover for Postcards to Father Abraham by Catherine Lewis: a running girl is seen from behind.
In fact, we found only a few covers that didn’t shy away from clearly showing that a character is missing a limb:

Cover for The One-Armed Queen by Jane Yolen:: a girl with one arm holds a stick or knotted cane. She looks down on two smaller, green figures. Cover for The One-Armed Queen: a girl with one arm sits on a horse and triumphantly or threateningly lifts a sword in the air. Cover for One-Handed Catch (audio version) by MJ Auch: a boy stands in front of a dark sky lit up with fireworks. In one hand, he holds a baseball. The other arm is clearly missing a hand. He holds his baseball glove between his arm and body. Cover for Nimona by Noelle Stevenson: three figures take central stage. One of them has a mechanical arm.
Unfortunately, this version of One-Handed Catch is only used by the audio edition.

Albinism

There are several covers that prominently feature characters with albinism.

Cover for Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor: a white figure on a white backgruond. She holds a knife to pierce the white. From the tip of the knife, colors emerge. Cover for The Likes of Me by Randall Beth Platt: a white face with no visible edge or hair blends into a white background. The characters' eyes are violet and look straight at the viewer. Cover for Golden Boy by Tara Sullivan: a white face on a white background. The shading on the face is done in a yellow-orange color, and the boy's eyes are blue.
Cover for Ghost Boy by Iain Lawrence: a figure walks through a field, seen from behind. His skin and hair are stark white, and he wears sunglasses. Cover for The Badger Knight by Kathryn Erskine: a boy in a red hood hides in autumn-colored foloage. He looks straight at the viewer, with light hair and eyes, and appears to hold a sword or dagger.
These covers are largely illustrated and highly stylized with white as a prominent theme, which might mislead some readers even if the character is technically presented accurately. For instance, the character on the cover of Akata Witch could be interpreted as merely indicative of the artist’s style rather than of a character with albinism. Likewise, the all-white cover of The Likes of Me might be seen as an abstract image, particularly for readers who aren’t familiar with albinism; at worst, it may be seen as an extreme, over-the-top depiction, which can be a problem as people with albinism are already frequently dehumanized and stigmatized for their appearance.

Covers like Golden Boy and Ghost Boy are clear and recognizable. We also appreciate the cover of The Badger Knight for not defaulting to an all-white theme, and showing a more realistic/subtle depiction of a character with albinism, although at the same time that might make the disability less recognizable.

There’s not always an easy solution; we’re not saying any of these covers did it wrong. We’re merely exploring the different paths publishers chose.

Blindness

We found two books that clearly depict blind characters, one via the inclusion of sunglasses and a cane, and another via a guide dog.

Cover for Farsighted by Emlyn Chand: a boy stands in front of a glass-cracked background with crossed arms. He looks right at the viewer. He wears sunglasses and holds a white cane in one hand. Cover for The Angel Tree by Daphne Benedis-Grab: four kids surround a large Christmas tree decorated with multi-colored lights. The ground and houses in the background are covered in snow. One kid holds the harness of a dog.

Little people

A few books featuring little people do show the characters on the cover, although not always in a way that’s clear to an uninformed viewer.

Cover for Big Girl Small by Rachel DeWoskin: a girl flies away holding onto several balloons in front of a blue-gradient background. Cover for Freak the Mighty by Rodman Philbrick: a tall figure carries a shorter boy on his shoulders. The boy has both hands raised. Both figures are seen from behind. Cover for Jepp, Who Defied the Stars by Katherine Marsh: a short silhouetted figure looks out over a city. The figure wears a cloak and a hat with a feather.
 

Mobility issues

We found several books which featured characters with mobility difficulties in the form of a limp, albeit not always in recognizable ways. The War That Saved My Life subtly shows the main character’s clubfoot, while Alchemy and Meggy Swann shows a girl holding her walking sticks across her lap. The male protagonist in The Peddler’s Road wears a brace on his leg because of his clubfoot, although the cover shows him running, and has his legs obscured by the bridge. Among Others features the protagonist standing in (possibly dancing through) a field; the character walks with a limp and uses a cane. We believe the cover is meant to show her before this happened.

Cover for The War That Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley: an illustration of a girl looking out over a horse in a pasture, with several combat planes on an apparent military base in the background. One of the girl's feet is pointed inward. Cover for Alchemy and Meggy Swann by Karen Cushman: a girl sits by a table with cooking or alchemical equipment. She holds a goose on her lap with one arm, while the other holds two hooked walking sticks. Cover for Peddler's Road by Matthew Cody: two frightened-looking kids are running across the bridge, which obscures both their legs. In the background, a silhouetted figure plays a flute. Cover for Among Others by Jo Walton: a girl in a dress stands in a field, surrounded by sparkles.

An interesting case is Neil Gaiman’s Odd and the Frost Giants. When a book has multiple editions, you’re typically lucky for even one of them to feature visible disability representation. If the other editions use the same cover, it’s a win. Heck, if none of them decide to outright erase the condition, it’s already a win. For different publishers to go out of their way to create new illustrations, almost all of which show the condition, is practically unheard of. Odd lucked out, as many of its foreign depictions prominently show the character’s walking aid:

Cover for the Italian version of Odd and the Frost Giants: a pen drawing of a fox, a bear, and an eagle. A boy with a viking helmet sits on the bear's back. He holds a crutch in one hand. Cover for one of the English versions of Odd and the Frost Giants: a boy sits atop a bear in an icy landscape. An eagle and fox are visible in the background. The boy holds a long walking stick in one hand. Cover for the French version of Odd and the Frost Giants: a boy stands in the palm of a massive frost giant, looking up at the giant's face. He holds a walking stick in one hand.
Cover for the Swedish version of Odd and the Frost Giants: the foreground has silhouettes of a bear, a fox, an eagle, and a boy; the boy holds a walking stick and has one leg partially lifted. In the background is a frost giant. Cover for one of the English versions of Odd and the Frost Giants: a boy with a walking stick stands in the palm of a puzzled-looking frost giant, who's holding the boy close to his face. Cover for the Chinese version of Odd and the Frost Giants: in the foreground is a frost giant. In the background are drawings of trees, a bear, an eagle, a fox, and a boy walking with a walking stick.
 

Other visible disabilities

When we stray away from the above categories, the pickings become slimmer. El Deafo shows a girl with a bulky, old-fashioned hearing aid; Tall Story shows someone with gigantism; the illustration for Wonder hints at the main character’s facial difference. Deenie’s protagonist—who has scoliosis—studies herself in the mirror. The protagonist of Vessel has burns on one side of her face, which aren’t visible on the cover; one side of her face is blurry, which could be to either obscure or hint at her scars.

In some of these cases, the condition is obvious straightaway. In others, although it may be technically visible, you might only recognize it if you knew about the disability already.

Cover for El Deafo by Cece Bell: an anthropomorphic rabbit with a red cape flies across a blue sky. She has a bulky device strapped to her chest. Cover for Tall Story by Candy Gourlay: a seemingly random assortment of people are walking toward the viewer. One male figure stands high over the others. Cover for Wonder by RJ Palacio: a cartoonish face that shows only hair, ears, and a single eye.
Cover for Deenie by Judy Blume: a teenage girl stands in front of a mirror, twisting to study herself. Cover for Vessel by Lisa T. Cresswell: a figure is seen from the background, looking at a city skyline. In the sky, a female face looks right at the viewer. Part of her face is blurry, faint, and obscured by clouds.

Invisible disabilities

It’s necessarily going to be trickier to show invisible disabilities on covers, but it’s certainly not impossible. Several books dealing with eating disorders, for instance, imply the condition through the title and/or suggestive images, while covers like those of Of Sound Mind and T4 show sign language.

Titles are perhaps the easiest and most common way to indicate an invisibly disabled character. Sometimes this means including the actual condition (OCD Love Story, Deaf Child Crossing, Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac, Schizo), while others are somewhat less explicit (Me & Earl & the Dying Girl, Crazy). This approach is particularly common for titles featuring blind characters: The Blind Guide to Stinkville, Love Blind, Blindsided, Blind, Blind Spot. (Some blind readers are becoming weary of this trend, which is often paired with covers featuring non-functional braille and eye-related imagery.)

There are good arguments to be made for and against including disabilities in these ways. On the one hand, these titles make it easier for disabled readers to find books that include them, especially when there’s no visible representation on the cover. When disability is relevant, why not be bold about it?

On the other hand, if disability is incidental to the story, highlighting it in such unsubtle ways could be seen as one more way to sensationalize disability.

We don’t want to suggest all covers must show disability at all times. It can be difficult–even impossible–to depict certain disabilities, and doing so via hints or symbolism may not always fit the story. Nor is it always desirable: how would one even visually suggest a condition like autism or fibromyalgia without making it the point of the cover, when its inclusion in the book may be incidental? Is there a way to do so that won’t be clunky or even exploitative? These conditions are often invisible in real life. We don’t want to gloss over that fact, nor suggest that disability is only valid when visible or disclosed. Invisibly disabled people deal with that often enough in real life.

With this section, we’re not intending to supply easy answers. We simply want to show the different approaches that publishers have taken, and highlight some pros and cons that may not be immediately obvious.

Why does the lack of visible representation on covers happen and why is it a problem?

We can’t definitively answer that first question, but we can make some educated guesses. The obvious reason is that publishers are afraid disability won’t sell. Like any other marginalized group, the assumption is that the majority won’t be interested, which means fewer sales. Books that include diverse characters are frequently seen only as “message books.” Erasing the diversity from the cover may be a preemptive measure (based on faulty but pervasive premises) taken to prevent losing readers before they even pick up a book.

With disability in particular, there’s another layer to this. In our culture, visible disabilities are closely linked to ugliness, grotesqueness, and undesirability. The very act of looking at disabled people makes some non-disabled people deeply uncomfortable. Publishers may worry that covers displaying disability will scare readers off because of those associations. Covers are meant to entice, to seduce, to attract; disability tends to have the exact opposite effect, at least as far as non-disabled readers are concerned.

Which brings us to an important point: these covers are often meant to attract non-disabled readers specifically. The kidlit community talks a lot about the importance of seeing yourself reflected in books and, in this case, on covers. We talk about the effects on marginalized readers of seeing—or not seeing—your reflection. But according to publishers, marginalized readers may not be the target audience. They’re not necessarily who publishers or designers think about when they’re making decisions about the cover.

This is why even when there’s braille on a cover, it’s almost always too large to be usable, which defeats the entire purpose of braille. This is why even when there’s a wheelchair shown, it’s sometimes obscured. This is why slurs are sometimes used in titles and in cover backgrounds. This is why disability is so often glossed over entirely.

But why is any of this a problem? If we want more readers to find and pick up books with disabled characters, why not increase the marketability of those books however possible, even if that means erasing or minimizing the disability on the cover?

Wanting books with disabled characters to do well is a worthy goal, to be sure, but we need to consider the cost. Think about the message those covers send to disabled and non-disabled readers alike. They say that disability should be hidden; is shameful; is Other. The logical extension of that, of course, is that disabled people should be hidden, are shameful, are Other. There is real and tangible harm in those messages, no matter if they’re intentional or not.

Think, too, about the possibilities book covers offer for normalizing disability. Including visible representation can counter the above assumptions by rejecting them entirely. We want disabled children to grow up in a world where they’re included and visible like anyone else; where books tell them they can be heroes, too; where they won’t feel different and less, which is a message they may otherwise absorb from a young age.

There is incredible power in seeing and in being seen. Book covers can play an important role in that.

Conclusion

While we discussed many individual covers in this article, we are much more interested in pointing out patterns than we are in calling out or shaming any specific books.

For one, we only included covers which either made an attempt at representing the disability, or which did not represent the disability in situations where it likely would have been visible. We did not include the many, many covers which do not show the disabled protagonists at all (e.g. Far From You), which show the character too zoomed in to see their disability (e.g. The Drowned Cities), or which show a character whose disability might not be visible in a still image (The Demon’s Surrendersee author’s comment at end of interview).

For another, many of the covers included and criticized here or that we did not feature may well have been the best choice for that particular story. It’s impossible to say for sure whether a publisher chose an abstract cover because it best reflected the book or because they wanted to avoid explicit representation; we can’t know whether a close-up was chosen because it’s a trend in YA covers or because it’s a convenient excuse not to zoom out and show the disability.

We can’t divine intent, but we can examine and critique patterns of representation.

When there are so few books featuring disabled characters (especially compared to the overwhelming majority featuring non-disabled ones), each cover carries more weight than it otherwise would. With such a dearth of textual representation, it’s not enough to consider the cover image for any one book in isolation; publishers much also consider the wider context of disability representation and the extreme importance of visual as well as textual representation.

Visibly disabled readers understand what it means when characters like them are represented as non-disabled, when the disability is sneakily hidden, when it’s pushed to the background or even the back cover, when it’s absent altogether. Given the consistency with which this erasure happens, it’s safe to say these aren’t oversights or missteps. They are likely intentional choices made with a non-disabled audience in mind, and as a result, disabled readers may browse hundreds of books in any given bookstore’s YA section and not see a single visibly disabled character on the cover.

Disabled readers deserve to see themselves represented. They deserve to be visible on the covers of the books they star in. They deserve to be treated with the same respect as their non-disabled counterparts.

It’s time we see more and better disability representation on our covers.



About Author

Corinne Duyvis

A lifelong Amsterdammer, Corinne Duyvis spends her days writing sci-fi and fantasy. Otherbound, her YA fantasy debut, received four starred reviews; Kirkus Reviews called it “original and compelling; a stunning debut,” while BCCB praised its “subtle, nuanced examinations of power dynamics and privilege.” On the Edge of Gone, her second YA, is about an autistic girl during the apocalypse and received three starred reviews. SLJ said, “Insightful, suspenseful, and unsettling in its plausibility.” Her next book is Guardians of the Galaxy: Collect Them All, an original novel set in the Marvel Universe.

Kayla is Senior Editor at Disability in Kidlit and a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared at The Toast, The Establishment, Uncanny Magazine, and in the upcoming anthology Feminism for the Real World. She is represented by Beth Phelan of The Bent Agency. When not buying way too many books, she’s usually being overly sincere on the internet.

Share


10 Comments

  1. The cover images aren’t always lining up with what is written underneath. I refreshed a couple of times which helped but didn’t solve the problem entirely.

  2. My book is adult lit, but I had to deal with this issue as well. When I was asked for (very brief) input on the cover, I specifically requested that my protagonist’s crutches not be used. Not because I wanted to erase them, since they are definitely integral to his identity, but because I only had a tiny bit of influence and I did not trust some random cover designer to get it right. The very last thing I wanted was for my book to look like one of those “wheelchair hero” romances – the exact opposite of what I was going for.

    There’s also the issue of having a book cover that reflects the general branding of the genre you want it to fit in. Books similar to mine all had just, like, an object – map or a big butterfly or whatever – and the title. So having a detailed, full-bodied illustration or photo on the cover would have sold it as something much different than what it was. It’s an interesting and complicated topic. 😉

  3. My new chapter books for children aged 7-plus have cover images that convey the specific message: the main character here lives with a disability. In ‘Basketball Tree’ he is short-statured (a little person) and in ‘Wheels of Fire’ she is a wheelchair user. I made this decision based on the fact that (a) the marginalized reader should be able to see themselves on a book cover and (b) the non-marginalized reader will enjoy the stories too!

    The main challenge for me was choosing an illustrator for the covers (and inside the book) who could depict the characters in a way that did not ridicule them. It seems that in most kids’ books the characters are done in the style of cartoons and it would be abhorrent for a person with dwarfism to be pictured in a manner that made them look comical.

  4. A really interesting and informative article. I love the concise cover descriptions under each cover pic … I wonder how many of the books include anything like that somewhere in the introductory pages, perhaps next to the credit for the cover illustration? As a blind person I cannot see what is on any book’s cover, but that does not mean that I do not want to know what is shown. I would encourage all publishers, whether in disability-focussed works or nothing at all to do with disability, to include such a two or three sentence cover caption somewhere that is convenient in those first few pages of the book. I have started mentionning that to publishers that I talk to, and some are already taking the step of including captions describing their book covers, and also using descriptive ALT text or captioning for their website images.

  5. Pingback: Disability Representation, YA Political Correctness, & Adaptations Galore – Riot New Media

  6. Pingback: Albinism representations - Dark Matter Zine

Leave A Reply