February 02


Cover Reveal for VIOLETS ARE BLUE by Barbara Dee

Remember in-person, non-virtual conferences? To me it feels as if NCTE 2019 happened a million years ago, and also last week. I keep thinking about the hugs, the talks, the many conversations with folks I interact with mostly online. I also think about my three amazing panels— the talent in the chairs beside me, and the wisdom of educators in the audience.

And I keep coming back to one moment in particular. It was during my panel called Dismantling the Patriarchy: Girl Power in MG Fiction. The authors–Kimberly Brubaker Bradley, Hena Khan, Laura Shovan, Saadia Faruqi, Elly Swartz and I– were talking about the covers of our books, how we understood that some boys resisted our novels because (to them) the cover art looked “‘girly.”

One of the authors mentioned hearing from a teacher how she’d covered the books in her classroom with paper bags. This way, the teacher said, boys would choose books based on content, not cover art.

When I heard this, my first reaction was: Oh, good. Whatever brings boys to our books is a win! In 2019, my focus was on my middle grade #MeToo novel, MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU, which I dearly wanted kids of all genders—including boys!– to read and discuss. So if swaddling the cover in a paper bag allowed boys to feel okay carrying the book around, I was fine with that.

A second later, I thought: Okay, maybe not.

I asked our wonderful moderator, Becky Calzada, for the mic. “Just because a girl is depicted on the cover doesn’t make the cover ‘girly’—as if ‘girly’ should be a derogatory term, anyway,” I said.  I gave a shoutout to the cover artist, Erika Pajarillo, who created such a powerful, emotional image for MAYBE. I also mentioned how much thought and care had gone into this cover, how my editor, and the whole publishing team at S&S, had weighed in. I’d given my input too–because the cover was, after all, a reflection of my writing.

I added that when a teacher recommends that boys read a book with a girl on the cover, it sends the powerful message that a girl’s experience and her point of view deserve to be centered. If boys are rejecting books merely because there’s a girl on the cover, I argued, let’s not indulge that response with a paper bag.

I’ve heard much appreciation for Jenna Stempel-Lobell’s cover art for my 2020 MG, MY LIFE IN THE FISH TANK. Like MAYBE it depicts an unmistakable girl, in this case mysteriously situated underwater. The main colors are teal and orange, strong colors without stereotypically “feminine” connotations. Yes, this book is girl-centric, but there’s nothing “girly” about the image. And there’s nothing ”girly” about the story, either– which is about the main character coping with the mental illness of her older brother.

My next MG, VIOLETS ARE BLUE (Aladdin/S&S, September 28, 2021) has a different sort of cover, because it’s a different sort of book. It’s about seventh grader Wren, who’s so obsessed with special effects makeup videos on YouTube—how-tos describing step-by-step  techniques to transform yourself into an alien, a superhero, a monster or a mermaid—that she doesn’t realize that her mom, an ER nurse, is struggling with an addiction to opioids.

The cover art, once again by the incredibly talented Erika Pajarillo, depicts half of Wren’s face in mermaid makeup, with her eyes closed. It’s a lovely image—so pretty that I have to confess that for a second I worried it may seem “girly.”

But then I thought: No. It’s the right cover art for a story about identity and disguises, the way we create our own truth.  In VIOLETS, the main character reinvents herself constantly, not only by experimenting with special effects makeup, but also by giving herself a new name. As she’s figuring out who she is, who her friends are, and how she fits into her dad’s new family, she shuts her eyes to her mom’s behavior—until ignoring the truth becomes impossible.

Hiding this particular story under a paper bag would be sadly ironic.

Lately we’ve agreed that there are no “boy books” and “girl books”—that kids of all genders should be encouraged to read whatever books they choose, without shame or judgement. I hope we won’t undermine that message of inclusivity and acceptance by disguising books simply because they feature girls—even ones in mermaid makeup–on the cover.

Barbara Dee is the author of twelve middle grade novels published by Simon & Schuster, including MY LIFE IN THE FISH TANK, MAYBE HE JUST LIKES YOU, EVERYTHING I KNOW ABOUT YOU, HALFWAY NORMAL and STAR-CROSSED. Her books have earned several starred reviews and have been named to many best-of lists, including the Washington Post’s Best Children’s Books, the ALA Notable Children’s Books, the ALA Rise: A Feminist Book Project List, the ALA Rainbow List Top Ten, the NCSS-CBC Notable  Social Studies Trade Books for Young People, the Bank Street Best Books of the Year, and Project Lit. In addition, her books appear on numerous state reading lists. Barbara lives with her family, including a naughty cat named Luna and a sweet rescue hound named Ripley, in Westchester County, New York.