book backlash

Barnes & Noble has canceled plans to release a series of famous literature featuring people of color on the covers. — Photo from CNN

NEW YORK — Barnes & Noble is withdrawing a planned line of famous literature reissued with multicultural cover images that has been met with widespread criticism on social media.

“We acknowledge the voices who have expressed concerns about the Diverse Editions project at our Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue store and have decided to suspend the initiative,” Barnes & Noble announced in a statement Wednesday.

The author Adriana Herrera had called the books, scheduled to be launched this week, “the classics in blackface.”

For the project, Barnes & Noble and Penguin Random House were planning to release special editions of 12 classic novels with new covers that featured people of color, according to CNN.

The Diverse Editions was scheduled to include Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz.” The words are the same, but on the cover, major characters are depicted with dark-skinned illustrations by artists of “different ethnicities and backgrounds,” according to Barnes & Noble.

“The Wizard of Oz” covers shows Dorothy as an African-American girl with her hair in a braid and puffs and a pair of red sneakers slung over her shoulder. “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” wears a turban and Frankenstein’s monster is a green-eyed, African American man with bolts in his neck.

The bookseller made new covers for “Moby Dick,” “Emma,” “The Secret Garden,” “Treasure Island,” “Peter Pan,” “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers.”

Alexandre Dumas, who wrote “The Count of Monte Cristo” and “The Three Musketeers,” is the only black author on the list.

The Diverse Editions project was announced at a time when the publishing industry is already facing scrutiny over the novel “American Dirt” and its depiction of Mexican life and culture. “Absolute TONE-DEAF decision-making,” Mexican-American writer David Bowles, a leading critic of “American Dirt,” tweeted about “Diverse Editions.”

The decision also comes in February, which is Black History Month, an annual celebration of past and present achievement.

To much disbelief online, the organizers of Diverse Editions had said they used artificial intelligence in reviewing more than 100 older books and determining whether the race or ethnicity of a character is specifically stated. Few would argue that Alice from “Alice in Wonderland” or the title characters of “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” are fitting for a tribute to black history.

“They could have Googled, chosen a dozen books by actual Black authors that are classics & sent those out with fresh covers & a big event,” author MIkki Kendall tweeted. “Add in bringing in contemporary Black authors to discuss these works & the whole thing is a win. They didn’t do the easy or logical thing.”

In its statement Wednesday, Barnes & Noble acknowledged that the new covers were “not a substitute for black voices or writers of color, whose work and voices deserve to be heard.

“The booksellers who championed this initiative did so convinced it would help drive engagement with these classic titles,” according to the bookstore chain. “It was a project inspired by our work with schools and was created in part to raise awareness and discussion during Black History Month, in which Barnes & Noble stores nationally will continue to highlight a wide selection of books to celebrate black history and great literature from writers of color.”

The new covers were called “literary blackface” by African American writer Rod Faulkner in an essay on Medium, and others have said the energy spent making the “Diverse Editions” would have been better spent promoting books written by people of color.

“What?!? No! Is it really this hard? People sat down & had meetings & put a lot of energy & money into creating covers f/black people on books w/ the same old stories INSTEAD of promoting books written by black authors & featuring black characters?WTF?!,” author Tracey Livesay tweeted.

Author Karen Strong said in a tweet that she didn’t understand the thinking behind the effort.

“Can you imagine a young Black girl seeing a cover with someone who looks like her but then finds nothing that reflects her in the pages? No Black girls at all? Y’all that is more than a bait and switch. That’s harmful,” Strong tweeted

CNN & The Associated Press

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