Cover Matters

Whitewashing Strikes Again? The Case of White Cat by Holly Black

It has recently been brought to our attention that another big Young Adult release may be pulling for a three-peat of Bloomsbury’s Liar and Magic Under Glass fiascos.

This time, the potentially whitewashed cover in question is the ARC of White Cat, the upcoming YA novel by Holly Black – and this time, the culprit is Margaret K. McElderry, a Simon and Schuster imprint.

An anonymous comment was left on our recent “Cover Matters: On Whitewashing” post. The commenter quotes directly from the ARC of White Cat that imply the protagonist, Cassel, is in fact a person of color, and that the cover is another instance of whitewashing.

Here are some of the quotes from the commenter about the book:

“Phillip’s dark skin makes his teeth look whiter when he smiles.” (ARC; pg 30).

(According to the commenter, “Many times throughout the book, we’re told that the Sharpe brother’s look a lot alike, so if Phillip has dark skin, it makes sense that Cassel does as well.”)

“I shake my head. ‘If they are, I don’t know where from. I bet mom for sure doesn’t either; although Gramps always says that his father–her grandfather– was a maharajah from India…” (ARC; page 43)

“‘Your grandfather told me that your family was descended from runaway slaves,'” she says. (ARC; page 43)

“People are always coming up to me on trains and talking to me in different languages, like it’s obvious I’ll understand them.” (ARC; page 43)

It is not a secret that we are against whitewashing. It is a racist, harmful practice. Before going off, denouncing the publisher and cover without all the facts, however, we decided to be cautious on this occasion for two reasons:

1) The quotes above seem to be indirect. They don’t describe the character that is depicted on the cover; they describe his relatives or how other people perceive him.

2) The book and cover are from Simon and Schuster, a publisher that has a good track record for publishing great, accurately depicted PoC covers.

We were outraged at the prospect of another whitewashed cover, but we also felt like we really needed to vet this ourselves. The above evidence seemed a little circumstantial and indirect – a person’s dark complexioned brother does not necessarily a PoC make (for that matter, teeth appearing whiter in contrast to skin could reflect anything from ethnicity to a good tan). So, we felt like we needed a bit more information – and luckily, we had an ARC for vetting purposes.

Here’s what we found:

The fourth quote above (about trains and different languages) isn’t in our ARC.

The second and third quotes are taken slightly out of context. Here’s the full quote from our ARC copy:

“Why did your parents call you Cassel?”

I’m defeated and amused. “Mom loved extravagant names. Dad insisted that his first son be named after him — Phillip — but after that, she got to name Barron and me whatever fanciful thing she wanted. If she’d had her way, Philip would have been Jasper.”

She rolls her eyes. “Come on. Are you sure they aren’t from her family? Traditional names?”

I shake my head. “If they are, I don’t know where from. I bet Mom doesn’t for sure either, although Gramps says that his father — her grandfather — was a maharaja of India. He sold tonics from Calcutta to the Midwest. Makes some sense that he could be Indian. His last name, Singer, could be derived from Singh.”

“Your grandfather told me that your family was descended from runaway slaves,” she says. […] “Yeah,” I say. “I like the maharaja story better. And don’t even get me started on the one where we’re Iroquois.” (ARC 43)

We’re a little bit hesitant to say that Cassel is a PoC based on this excerpt. Although the bolded line above does speak to the angle that Cassel’s (or at least Cassel’s mother’s) appearance may imply some different (read: non-white) traditional background, it’s still all rather inconclusive (for example, the very caucasian Angelina Jolie, Megan Fox, and Farrah Fawcett all claim to be of Iroquois/Native American descent). There is no physical description of Cassel throughout the book, and there aren’t any explicit clues as to his appearance or heritage here. With only this as evidence, we weren’t exactly convinced that White Cat was another egregious example of whitewashed covers.

So, we sat down with the book, combing through the pages for a physical description, and for anything racially/culturally/ethnically explicit rather than implicit. After a few hours of reading, we finally found what we were looking for:

“My cousin just got back from India,” I say, and nod in Lila’s direction. “Her parents were living in some ashram. I was telling her about Wallingford.”

Audrey’s hands go to her hips. “She’s your cousin?”

Lila scrunches her eyebrows for a moment, then a wide grin splits her face. “Oh! Because I’m so pale, right?’

Stacey flinches. Audry looks at me like she’s trying to see if I’m offended. Wallingford’s idea of political correctness is never to mention anything about race. Ever. Tan skin and dark hair are supposed to be as invisible as red hair or blonde hair or skin so white it’s marbled with blue veins. (ARC 226)

This is the closest to explicitly stated evidence that Cassel is a PoC (even at that, we find it a very interesting choice on part of author Holly Black – Lila remarks about her “paleness” as opposed to any mention of Cassel’s appearance or his implied darker skin tone).

We want to stress that neither Cassel’s physical features nor his ethnic background are ever fully revealed in the book. It’s also worth noting that Cassel is the first-person narrator, and he doesn’t seem to know (nor does he ever explore) his own background. It’s almost as if the Wallingford’s PC non-mention of race is something Ms. Black put into practice in her novel, which is rather cool in itself. Perhaps this quote is indicative of Holly Black’s point with White Cat, and with her non-descriptions of Cassel. (This kind of reminds us of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, in which Gaiman doesn’t reveal that protagonist Shadow is actually a black man until the end of the book) Perhaps Ms. Black’s point is that race isn’t really a part of the story. Perhaps it is meant to be an affirmation of colorblindness.

But we digress.

On the matter of whitewashing, we don’t know what Cassel looks like or what his cultural or ethnic or racial background is. But there is no doubt in our minds that Cassel is at least of a darker complexion – but this could mean anything. He might be Indian, or Hispanic, or Middle Eastern, or Greek, or Nigerian, or Indonesian, etc. Though the other quotes are circumstantial and inconclusive at best, with this last explicit remark near the end of the book, we can conclude that Cassel is, at the very least, not pale-skinned in appearance.

Thus, the ARC cover of White Cat, with its pale, caucasian-looking model, is a misrepresentation of the protagonist. It is a form of whitewashing, and we definitely want to add our voices to those calling Simon & Schuster to change the cover.


Before getting up in arms about White Cat, we think that a few things should be said. First, in order to come to this conclusion about the whitewashed cover and Cassel’s appearance, it took us several hours of combing through the book with the dedicated, sole task of finding a physical description of the protagonist. We had to search long and hard for this information, only to find no explicit descriptions and yielding instead a bunch of implicit ones.

Thus, the case of White Cat isn’t exactly the same as those of Liar, Magic Under Glass, or The Mysterious Benedict Society. There was no explicit description of a black protagonist with kinky, cropped hair and no subsequent publisher decision to replace this clearly described PoC with a caucasian girl with long flowing tresses on the cover. And, considering that we spent hours looking specifically for these descriptions, we can at least see where things might have gone awry between editorial and cover art departments, and how the assumption of a caucasian protagonist in this particular book may have occurred. Considering, especially, Simon & Schuster’s excellent track record with diverse PoC book covers, we don’t think this was an intentional decision (as it clearly was in the case of Liar, MUG, & TMBS) – it certainly is nowhere near as harmful or openly racist as Bloomsbury’s decisions to use white models for clearly described PoC characters.


Thanks to a wonderful second-opinion consultation from esteemed (and wicked cool) author Sarah Rees Brennan – the only person we knew of that had read White Cat in its entirety – and some online research, we have learned that Holly Black HAS spoken out about her cover:

Cassel’s racial background is indeterminate, which makes him very hard to describe. His story is actually partially based on a fantastic true-crime book, Son of the Grifter, that I read while I was doing research for White Cat. In it, a man named Kent Walker described being brought up by his grifting mother. She often told him different stories about where his grandfather’s family came from – essentially robbing him of a clear sense of identity. In White Cat, Cassel doesn’t know his background–only the contradictory things people in his family have claimed. I’m glad the final cover shows him looking more tanned, in keeping with the way he actually looks in the book.

Also, we have learned that the ARC cover is NOT the final cover for White Cat. Holly Black has posted about this matter on her blog, in response to a concerned reader’s comment about whitewashing:

You are absolutely correct. The lighting at the shoot and the desaturation done to the photo made the model look very pale on the cover of the ARC. Cassel looks browner and more like himself on the final.

Here’s the comparison of the ARC (left) and final cover (right) (click to enlarge):

It might not be perfect, but it is (in our opinion) a marked improvement. This version of Cassel on the new cover is much closer to our mental image of him!

In response to our question about how author Sarah Rees Brennan felt about the cover, she told us the following:

I’ve read the book, and I thought it was very cool how Cassel’s family being conmen means he literally doesn’t know where he comes from – to reflect that the three models for the Sharpe brothers (the other two are on the back) are all from different racial backgrounds. But it does mean Cassel’s look was always going to be tricky to portray with a people cover, since he doesn’t actually know whether he’s a PoC or not.

And after reading the book for ourselves, we wholeheartedly agree with Sarah’s opinion.

So what about you? Any thoughts? We’d love to hear from you about this particular cover!

For more on White Cat by Holly Black, check out these links:

GoodReads Review from Claire Scott

“Coverfail” article from Meg of The Librarian’s Bookshelf

Holly Black’s LiveJournal in which she responds to a heartfelt, awesome comment

And we will leave you this evening by letting you all know that while we made it sound like writing this post and gathering facts was some arduous task – it actually wasn’t, because White Cat is a fantastic, awesome read! (Don’t worry, we’ll review it closer to the release date this May)…

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  • The1stdaughter
    March 6, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    Great article and wonderful investigative work. It’s hard for me to believe that Holly Black would stand for a publisher whitewashing her books cover. From what I’ve read (via her blog, twitter and her books) she doesn’t seem like the type of author/person that would ever allow a publisher to get in the way of doing the right thing. Not that other authors would, she just is a very opinionated and direct person.
    I’m glad to see the change for the final cover and I can’t wait to read the book!

  • katiebabs
    March 6, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    Nice work smuggles. And on a Saturday also. :mrgreen:

  • Danielle
    March 6, 2010 at 5:22 pm

    Usually I’d get pretty pissed off about these things, but White Cat looks so awesome I’d read it if it had a purple unicorn frollicking through a field of daisies on the cover.

  • Akin
    March 6, 2010 at 5:48 pm

    @ Danielle – hahahahahahaa!

  • katiebabs
    March 6, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    I think we need more unicorns frolicking through fields of poppies and have happy little trees sway in the breeze.

  • Robert
    March 6, 2010 at 8:43 pm

    I like the ARC cover more, it has a better overall color “feel”; the new one, the face just doesn’t blend with the black and white of the rest of the cover.

    Are we sure that said protagonist is the person on the cover? Could be someone else.

  • Diana Peterfreund
    March 6, 2010 at 9:17 pm

    The protag is definitely the person on the cover.

    I’ve read WHITE CAT in manuscript form, and my jaw dropped when I saw the subject of this blog post because honestly, that is the LAST thing I thought about. The whole point about Cassel’s family is that they’re lying about all kind of things. In one story, they’re Native Americans, In another, their Indians. Whatever best helps sell their brand of snake oil.

    The quote about Lila and the Ashram — I know plenty of white English folks who grew up on Indian ashrams. And the same quote all but calls Cassel “tan with dark hair.” I never read Cassel as being anything but white, with dark skin. He might have other ethnicities in his background, but I definitely didn’t read those descriptions as “this is a book about a person of color” as much as “this is a book about a family of con artists and race is one of the cons they’re able to play.”

    People who look at me don’t realize I’m Italian, since I have blond hair and blue eyes, but my brother looks very Italian, with dark skin and black hair. In fact, he was often, when his tan was particularly dark, mistaken for an Indian. (That’s what I picture when I think of Cassel.)

    Once, I dyed my hair dark brown, and all of a sudden, people put my ability to tan darkly together with my ethnicity. My brother and I are both white, and now that neither of us live in Florida anymore, we’re both pretty pale, too.

    Honestly, I think it’s a case of people looking for a problem.

  • Karen Mahoney
    March 7, 2010 at 4:17 am

    Once again I bow down to the Smugglers. Your fairness and attention to detail; your willingness to go the extra mile to examine whatever subject you choose to highlight; all of this amazes me. 🙂

    By the way, I’m hugely jealous you’ve already read WHITE CAT. I so want it! I might even need to break my embargo on buying hardbacks for this one… I’m not keen on the UK cover.


  • Cindy
    March 7, 2010 at 5:37 am

    Really impressed with your investigation work ! Can’t wait to read your review 😉

  • Paulo Gonçalves
    March 7, 2010 at 6:13 am

    This all witch-hunt against publishers is not going anywhere. There may be some faults from the publishers but they are trying to make money and not being racists. And if you think that way you are being blind. No publisher can be racist or else it would go bankrupcy. Probably 90% of the people who read fantasy, sci-fi or even romantic book as you do are white and that’s a fact. So they exploit that. If you think that because they make a white character when it is not they are being racist well… that’s just funny 🙂 They think what? That you are only buying the book for the cover? That you will not read the book and find out? Oh my… Witch-Hunts are darn funny. Someday you will post something like… “We don’t see much black characters in fantasy or sci-fi” Or “Why the elfs are white?” You lot see to be the ones that think Tolkien is Racist.

    I really hope you can pass this point of seeing racism everywhere.

    Note: I am not racism but I am not blind. The publishers want money and that’s it. The main target is white persons therefore the characters mainly are white and the covers may be deceiving. And by the way, the characters in earthsea by Ursula Guin don’t have a color as she doesn’t give one. And again mostly white person read the book so they give white characters cover so we can identify with them. Easy.

  • hagelrat
    March 7, 2010 at 11:03 am

    Wow, I am hugely impressed by the level of research and fact checking done here over a potentially inflammatory post. Thanks for the excellent report.

  • Maili
    March 7, 2010 at 11:04 am

    And by the way, the characters in earthsea by Ursula Guin don’t have a color as she doesn’t give one.

    According to Le Guin, she did: “A Whitewashed Earthsea: How the Sci Fi Channel wrecked my books” at

  • Maili
    March 7, 2010 at 11:06 am

    And again mostly white person read the book so they give white characters cover so we can identify with them. Easy.

    I won’t even go there. I won’t.

  • Lenore
    March 7, 2010 at 11:16 am

    It would have been worse if the book were called Black Cat and then they showed a white cat.

  • Marie
    March 7, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Great article and investigation.

  • Akin
    March 7, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    @ Diana Peterfreud, Holly Black already confirmed that the MC is a POC and that the cover has been altered to feature a tanned model and not a white model, so I don’t really get your point.

    @ Paulo, are you really that naive? And how is this a witch hunt? The smugglers have made a legit claim. The author pretty much agrees. The publisher pretty much agrees (given that they’ve aready altered the cover). So what exactly are you saying??

  • katiebabs
    March 7, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    Paulo: Racism and bigotry is alive and well, and as a Caucasian and a “white” I find it offensive at constantly seeing a white face on a book cover when the protagonist of the story is not.

    So only “whites” read? That statement alone makes me wonder if you are a racist even though you say your aren’t.

  • Danielle
    March 7, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Paulo: I guess the fifty percent black population in my school who are signifigantly more well-read then all of the white kids don’t really relate to black covers either. Thanks for clearing that up.

  • Thea
    March 7, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Hi everyone, and thanks for the comments!

    Diana –

    Honestly, I think it’s a case of people looking for a problem.

    This is what Ana and I were trying to prevent with this article. We wanted to staunch an inflammatory reception to White Cat, and to clarify a tricky matter before a lot of fallout online occurred about a cover that has already been changed, and about a character whose race/ethnicity/appearance isn’t specific.

    We were a little skeptical at first based on the initial quotes we received, and did not want to post without contextualizing and vetting the facts for ourselves. This is why we went through great pains to fact-check whether or not Cassel is an explicitly described Person of Color, and if the ARC cover is therefore misrepresentative.

    Based on what we found after reading and combing through the novel, we came to the conclusion (stated above) that at the very least, Cassel is not pale-skinned.

    Holly Black (as quoted above) also says that Cassel is darker skinned.

    Therefore, yeah, the ARC cover was a misrepresentation of the protagonist. The fact that Holly Black has posted about it, and that the final cover of the book is different backs this up.

    We also wanted to stress that this post is NOT meant to be inflammatory, and that the case of White Cat is in a whole different galaxy than Liar, MUG, TGBS, etc. We agree that there is a lot of ambiguity concerning Cassel’s heritage, so, as Sarah Rees Brennan says above, trying to create a character-based cover was always going to be a tricky, tricky thing. A very different scenario than when Bloomsbury took an explicitly described black protag and turned her into a white girl on the cover.

    Paulo – Let Ana and I make this perfectly clear: this post is NOT a cry for battle, or a “witch-hunt” in any way. Frankly, I’m not sure where you got that from.

    Secondly, your “90% of readers are white” statistic seems like an imaginary number to us; a generalization. This is a big, diverse world, with diverse readers of all backgrounds.

    Finally, when you complain that, “someday” we will “post something like ‘We don’t see much black characters in fantasy or sci-fi'” we say, SURE. There aren’t any great number of PoC in Fantasy or Sci-fi. Do you think there are? More importantly, you seem to imply that there is there something wrong with wanting to post about this. What exactly is your point here?

    I really hope you can pass this point of seeing racism everywhere.

    And we hope that you can get past the point of dismissing racism as non-existent, normal, and acceptable.

  • Danielle
    March 7, 2010 at 3:02 pm

    Haha, owned.

  • Diana Peterfreund
    March 7, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    Akin, where does she say that?

  • Erika (Jawas Read, Too)
    March 7, 2010 at 10:52 pm

    I finally got around to reading this post! It was very well thought-out and congrats to you for studying the book so closely to discover the truth. I’m also impressed (and glad) you went the extra mile and researched what Holly Black had to say about it as well as Sarah Rees Brennan! Great blog post and I can’t wait until this one comes out to read it. 😉

  • Akin
    March 8, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    @ Diana.
    Holy said: “You are absolutely correct. The lighting at the shoot and the desaturation done to the photo made the model look very pale on the cover of the ARC. Cassel looks browner and more like himself on the final.”

    So you don’t think I made that up, here’s a link:

  • Akin
    March 8, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    Sorry, I spelt Holly as Holy. Mistake.

  • Ari
    March 8, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    I saw this at Gal Novelty and I got sad but I was also hopeful that it was a misunderstanding because simon & Schuster does a great job with POC covers. I was feeling too down to post about this and this post makes me feel better. Thank you for researching this topic!

    I agree that this is a different issue since the character’s cultural background is never explicityl stated (based on your post. I haven’t read the book. I do love the cover though). The final version is better and I think I will do a post later in the week about this cover and some others but I’m more calm about this one than MUG and Liar.

    @Paulo-I disagree, I firmly believe that a publishing company can be racist. But everyone has already said what I would have said anyway so I’ll leave it that. Please get your facts straight and do some research about racisim.

    @Diana-I don’t think this is a whitewashed cover but as others have stated I don’t think people are looking for problems either. I never open a book saying ‘hmm let me see if this cover has been whitewashed’ (although now I can be wary), but I think most people will do careful research and as we see from the bookSmugglers post, they read the whole book and took careful notes.

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  • Doret
    March 12, 2010 at 9:47 am

    I have been offline for a bit, so this is the first time I am hearing this.

    My first thought was say it ain’t so, not Simon and Schuster.

    I am happy they quickly made a change. I won’t hold this against S&S because they have a great track record of covers with kids of color.
    They also publish a lot of authors of color.

    Thanks so much for this post.

  • beth
    March 31, 2010 at 10:34 am

    This was such a well done post. I love it. I’m so glad you approached the topic so professionally. Thank you!

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