For some time now, I've been bothered. Really bothered. At first, I didn't think much of it. In fact, I thought it was a lovely book cover. Beautiful matte finish, complementary shades of lavender, blue, and a rose colored pink. Stylishly dressed characters with arms linked graced the cover. The spray of flowers (lilacs, I presume?) along one side. After I read the book, I told my husband:
"For such an ugly story, the cover is simply gorgeous."
To be honest, I found the contrast between the book cover and the story of the Rabbits" to be so horrifying that in a lot of ways, I felt deceived as a reader. Who picks up a pretty book and expects to find a story (inspired by true events to boot) so disturbing that it not only breaks your heart but haunts you later? I didn't expect it.
Okay, so maybe the blurb should have given me a clue as to the context between the pages. Maybe.
Based on the real life story of a New York socialite who championed a group of concentration camp survivors known as the Rabbits, this acclaimed debut novel reveals a story of love, redemption, and terrible secrets that were hidden for decades.
A couple more times in the blurb, there's the mention of concentration camps, Nazi regime, and secrets but really, it doesn't give you the grit and details I encountered as I read the book.
But let's get back to the cover, shall we?
It wasn't just the deception I felt as I devoured the Lilac Girls. It was the feeling I experienced later when the book's sequel Lost Roses was gifted to me by my husband. (He's such a great guy, really.)
As an independent author who's learned a thing or two about marketing and advertising books in the last year, I'm aware that books in series are made to look similar for a reason. There's a nuance to catching the reader's eye and causing him or her to remember the story between the pages and want to read the next book in the lineup. Makes some sense right?
And I don't have a problem with it. Really, I don't. I mean, not that anyone asked my opinion or anything.
What I do have a problem with is the recent trend in how women are portrayed on book covers.
Let's compare some, shall we?
Lilac Girls and Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly
Lady Clementine and The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict
The Flight Girls by Noelle Salazar
The Birthday Girl by Sue Fortin
The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit
According to Ann Foster this portrayal of women (specifically women from the World War II era) is an ongoing trend since 2008, which means the handful of books I listed above are icing on the cake with these faceless women toppers. Here's a quote from Foster's blog post on the topic:
By 2018, there was no avoiding this cover motif. WW2-era women were walking arm-in-arm with one another, wind blowing at their knee-length skirts. They were standing at balconies, crossing bridges and train tracks, even lounging by the sea. They’re here, they’re looking away, and they are living their best lives.
What I want to know is: are they? Are these WWII era women "living their best lives" as Foster claims? Were the Rabbits living their best lives? Or was the cover of Lilac Girls portraying the New York socialite living her best life?
Whether the women on these covers are walking away from a terrible past and into a new (and better) life or whether they're turning away from their tormentor, or walking purposefully into a military career like I imagine the cover artist depicts in Flight Girls (total assumption there, I haven't read the book, though it is sitting on my TBR pile), I have some more questions.
Why aren't we facing them and demanding to know how they're doing it? Why aren't we asking how they conquered their limitations to be able to march forward into a new era? Why aren't we asking them to smile for the camera and show us what a strong, courageous, brave woman looks like? Why are we just watching them walk away?
In this BookBub article Marie Benedict, lawyer turned writer, describes herself as a quasi-archaeologist and poses the following questions:
How did I transform from an attorney into a quasi-archaeologist excavating unknown women from the detritus of the past and bringing them out into the light where we can see contributions they’ve made to our modern lives and the very timely issues with which they struggled? How did I become an advocate for shifting the lens on our past to see the women, so that we can re-examine our past, our present, and our future?
Eloquent, right? And I won't lie, I'm envious. What I wouldn't give to transform from an IT director to a full time writer of literary fiction! But I staunchly disagree that the covers of these books are "excavating unknown women" and "bringing them out into the light." Are the covers examples of true advocacy for "shifting the lens on our past to see the women" as Benedict claims? I realize Benedict, a traditionally published author may have zero influence or input on the covers of her books. Autonomy is one aspect of the indie author track that I find so appealing.
If you're still reading this, I can't help but think that, by now, with that reminder up there that I'm an indie author with a real beef about these portrayals of WWII women, that you're maybe opening another tab to scan the images of my books. Don't worry, I'll help you out.
See what I did there? The exact same thing.
I write literary fiction about ordinary heroes with extraordinary dreams. I write for and about the misfits, the misunderstood, and the underdogs of life. I write about those "invisible" characters who fly under the radar and otherwise wouldn't have their stories told. Like any other "quasi-archaeologist" unearthing a character's story to share with the masses, I'm telling an untold story. Yet, why does Jack in Sons of Steel get to face the camera while Rachel James in Soaring Alone and Starr Randel in Shooting Sdax get only a silhouette making them out to potentially be any woman at all? Why aren't they facing the camera declaring to the world that this is their story?
I have no answers, only hypotheses, and one stands out to me.
Maybe, as women...as a society, we have been conditioned to leave women in the shadow. What's that famous Dirty Dancing quote?
Have women been put in the corner for so long that we just automatically return to it even as we wave our feminist flags and cry EQUALITY? Have we been called "Baby" (girl, chick, sister, honey, darling, doll, little girl) for so long that we've trained ourselves to position our backs to the camera or be nothing more than a shadow?
Whatever the reason, I challenge authors (myself included) to put a face to our gender. To encourage our female characters to stand tall and face the camera.
What are your thoughts on the trends in book covers? Have you read any of the books mentioned in this post? If so, I'd love to hear your thoughts on them!