In an effort to promote diversity in literature, Barnes & Noble, in partnership with Penguin Random House US, had planned to release alternative editions of classic books that would feature the traditional main characters swapped out for people of colour. However, due to a large backlash from authors, publishers and the general public, these editions have been halted from hitting shelves.
The contents of the books were unchanged, but they featured different jackets for the covers which saw the characters re-imagined as people of colour. The cover for Romeo and Juliet sees Juliet wearing a headscarf, and the cover for Moby Dick appears to show Captain Ahab as African American. Other books featuring alternate covers included Alice’s Adventures in Wanderland, Frankenstein, Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, The Secret Garden and Peter Pan, to name a few.
The series was announced on Twitter with the hashtag #DiverseEditions, and asked: “What if your favourite literary characters reflected the Diversity of America?” The news was met with an extremely negative response and many people criticised it as virtue signalling and for making cosmetic changes in an effort to appear diverse.
A number of authors made their displeasure clear, with Bethany C. Morrow Tweeting: “This…feels like a fail. You put me on the cover to make a buck but I’m not in the pages? Promote inclusivity instead and back non-white authors, howbowdah.”
Writer Eric Jerome Dickey wrote: “How’s about just putting my novels and novels by other [people of colour] up front and on display? We have amazing covers of black people who represent characters that actually appear in our labors of love. Can’t browse what you can’t see and can’t buy what’s not stocked.”
Melissa Cummings-Quarry, co-founder of Black Girls Book Club, told The Bookseller: “Initially I assumed that this was a project re-imagining the classics—but this isn’t a re-telling. It’s book ‘black face’. The same stories. The same racist tropes but with a flashy new cover.
“This is virtue signalling at its finest: a lazy, tokenistic gesture with a meaningless attempt at diversity. It’s really just a cosmetic change that does little to deal with the root of the issue. We want investment in diverse authors and in diverse characters. We have important stories; we just need the opportunity to tell them.”
In response to the overwhelming criticism, a spokesperson for Barnes & Noble said: “Diverse Editions presented new covers of classic books through a series of limited-edition jackets, designed by artists hailing from different ethnicities and backgrounds. The covers are not a substitute for black voices or writers of colour, 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. It was a project inspired by our work with schools and it 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 colour.”