Barnes & Noble has pulled a series of classic novels reissued with "diverse" covers for Black History Month, after a furious backlash over the choice of books.
The books, released in a partnership with Penguin Random House US through the retail chain’s Fifth Avenue store in New York, were due to go on sale today (6th February), aiming to "champion diversity in literature".
Each title had five "culturally diverse" limited-edition jackets to choose from, with Barnes & Noble promoting the series with the hashtag #DiverseEditions, and asking: "What if your favourite literary characters reflected the Diversity of America?" One of the covers featured a black Dorothy from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz with a pair of trainers hanging around her neck, and another featured a black Frankenstein.
The firm faced huge criticism for choosing titles by mainly white authors, including Peter Pan by J M Barrie, Jane Austen's Emma and Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare, making a purely "cosmetic" change as a nod to diversity. On Twitter, users pointed out that some of the titles, such as The Secret Garden, contained problematic passages or casts of purely white characters.
Author Bethany C Morrow tweeted: "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."
Fellow 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."
In the UK, the Black Girls Book Club also expressed dismay. Co-founder Melissa Cummings-Quarry 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."
Barnes & Noble announced yesterday it was suspending its initiative following the angry response.
A spokesperson 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."