Wednesday, February 06, 2013

World Wednesday--Offside

OffsideHiggins, M.G. Offside (Counterattack)
28 January 2013, Darby Creek (Division of Lerner Publishing Group)

Faith Patel (people made fun of her name, Astha, so she has anglicized it) loves to play soccer and is good at it, but things are really tough at home. Her father passed away from cancer, so her mother works night shifts as a nurse and Faith has to watch her three young siblings. Money is tight as well, so she can't play club soccer or hang out after practice with her teammates. One of the other players, Caitlyn, is angry because Faith is moved to a different position without even asking, and tells Faith that it's because the coach has a crush on her. Faith thinks this is ridiculous... at first. But when the coach allows her to turn a paper in late and is the only adult around who shows concern for her, she starts to think that maybe there is something romantic going on. When her young brother becomes gravely ill and all of her hopes of going to college or even moving into an apartment of her own seem far away, Faith thinks that approaching the coach is a good plan, but luckily realizes in time that he is concerned only as a teacher.
Strengths: This is a short, easy-to-read book that really packs an emotional wallop. It will be great for busy 8th grade girls who would rather be playing soccer than reading about it! I will have to look into the other Counterattack novels because I think they will be really popular.
Weaknesses: While I really liked this, I was a bit concerned that the photo of the girl on the cover didn't align with how she was described in the book. After the brouhahas over the covers of Justine Larbalestier's Liar Liar and Jaclyn Dolamore's Magic Under Glass, I thought this needed to be addressed, but I was curious as to what the publisher's thoughts were. I e mailed Andrew Karre, the editorial Director of Carolrhoda Books, Carolrhoda Lab, and Darby Creek books, and he very kindly responded. 

I found his answers very interesting, and he was nice enough to agree to share them today. As a librarian, it's all too easy for me to forget that publishers are in business to make money, not to provide me with exactly the books I want. The other thing that I found interesting was how the publication process is different for a concern like Lerner (which sells mainly to schools and libraries) and other publishing houses that sell to individual readers as well as corporate ones.

I appreciate the attempts by Darby Creek and Mr. Karre to portray ethnically diverse characters. Here is what Mr. Karre says about the challenges involved in this process:

First, I guess I don’t completely agree with you on the cover. I too was worried about that image, but I thought the girl’s race was unclear. (And, yes, I read her as having an Indian background too). My sense is probably based on seeing the same girl (I think) on the cover Under Pressure (#7 in red), where to me she is not at all clearly Caucasian. But in any case, I agree with you  that  she does not perfectly align with how a reader would naturally imagine Faith in the book. And that’s not ideal.   

Ideally, we would commission the books, get manuscripts, and then do a photo shoot so that the character on the cover matched perfectly the character on the book. Unfortunately, if we had to do that, we could never publish these books. The costs would be far, far too great.

  Here’s what we actually do: We dream up the series based on what we hear from librarians and teachers (and we heard a girls soccer series loud and clear). We commission authors to write stories based on a set of parameters and suggested plots. We tell them we want diverse and realistic characters. We want racial, economic, and sexual-orientation diversity. This is the easy part, actually. Writers are happy to do this. 

Meanwhile, designers and photo researchers scour stock photography libraries for a set of images that might conceivably work for covers for a six book set. It’s important to remember that a consistent look is critical for a series, and that amplifies the challenges. None of what I’m saying applies to a single title. For a series, ideally, we want the covers to come from the same shoot, so everything looks consistent. But we still need diversity, and that limits our options. The set we found for Counterattack was almost a miracle (we had a much harder time with our previous sports series, Travel Team). The images were modern and dynamic. They were racially diverse. We could generally reconcile the stories with the covers with minimal changes to the text (and this is the final step for any such series: making any changes to the story we can to make text match cover). And to give you a sense of the difference between stock photos and a photo shoot, to get these photos in a photo shoot would have cost many thousands of dollars and weeks of prep. All six of the stock photos we used cost a couple hundred, and one person could find them in a few hours. Economically speaking, it’s the difference between being able to make the books and not.

   So here’s the answer to your question. When we got to Off Side, I had to make a decision. I wanted very much to have Faith as she was in the book. And I wanted use the excellent, appealing set of photos we found (and could afford). In the end, I decided there was enough ambiguity in the photo and in the story that the image wouldn’t distract readers.  I don’t know if I made the right decision, but I hope I did. (And it should be clear that no one in sales or marketing had any input on this specific decision. And Barnes & Noble doesn’t affect our decision making on series like these. This was a call I made.)

   I know these are excuses, and I would certainly rather have a better match between words and picture on this title, but that wasn’t an option, given the rest of the series.  I do still believe the world is better off with the book as it is than if I had elected to take the other option, which was to turn Astha into Samantha and move her roots from India to Indiana. But that’s my take. What’s yours? I would genuinely appreciate your perspective. (And of course I’m happy to explain further if I’ve been unclear.)

Thanks again, and I hope you’ll continue to give Darby Creek series your attention. 
Andrew Karre 
Editorial Director
Carolrhoda Books, Carolrhoda Lab, and Darby Creek


  1. Your review is great and I'm glad there are multicultural sports chapter books for girls, especially on soccer! Reminds me of Bend It Like Beckham (the movie) ... so maybe this is the sell to girls who liked that movie and soccer but don't love reading.

  2. Wow. Thanks for going the extra mile and contacting the publisher and getting his side of the story. I still wonder if they HAD to use that picture, though. They should 1) bug the stock photo folks to have more choices and 2) try an illustration or more ambiguous cover. Just my two cents, but I do agree that it's better to have the book out there with a less-than-perfect cover than not have it at all I suppose.