Barnes & Noble Tried To Make 'Diverse' Editions Of Classic Books---And The Internet Said 'Ummm No'

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Barnes and Noble diverse book covers: Three people walking in front of a Barnes & Noble bookstore in...
Drew Angerer/Getty

Representation matters. Diversity is incredibly important. This is especially true when it comes to literature. More specifically, literature for children and young adults. For kids, the stories they read at a young age are the ones that stay with them forever. Many marginalized kids don’t see themselves in literature that’s considered “classic.” You know, the stories that were written 50 or 100 years ago, but every school forces students to read? In an effort to promote more diversity in literature, bookstore Barnes & Noble announced the location on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, NY would be selling a bunch of the classics, this time with diverse covers. It’s safe to say people are not pleased.

Let’s get one thing straight, no one is opposing the idea of diversity in children’s literature. Though it’s been making great strides, the lack of diversity in KidLit is still quite pronounced. The reason people are upset is because of how Barnes & Noble chose to promote diversity.

On February 4th, as a special part of Black History Month, Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue along with Penguin Random House announced plans for “Diverse Editions” of classic books. Many of the books are children’s or young adult literature. The “Diverse Editions” of the books had five versions per book — each one representing a different marginalized group. People are horrified by the decision, which is frankly some bullshit. They were also planning a launch party in the store.

Many authors of color, especially KidLit authors, swiftly took to Twitter to let Barnes & Noble and Penguin Random House know how far they’d misstepped. You can’t just put a black Frankenstein on the cover and call it a day. That’s performative diversity — not only is it bare minimum, it’s horribly offensive.

What Barnes & Noble failed to take into account is that many of the books were just…racist. You can’t put an indigenous Dorothy on the cover of The Wizard of Oz and ignore L. Frank Baum’s feelings toward indigenous persons. You can’t put a brown-skinned girl on the cover of The Secret Garden and pretend that there isn’t a bit in the book where the white main character is horrified to hear people think she’s East Asian Indian. Changing a cover is just that — adding a new cover. Inside the pages remain the same outdated, racist crap that’s always been there.

By February 5th, Barnes & Noble had gotten the message. They shared a tweet announcing the cancellation of the party and book release. Everyone is, of course, pleased that these trash versions of the classics won’t see the light of day. There are so many ways to show diversity and support marginalized authors. Slapping a Latinx Peter Pan on the cover of a book is definitely not the way to do it. Not now, not ever.

As many of the authors pointed out, it literally takes nothing to promote the work of marginalized authors. Instead of planning this rebranding, they could use that energy to promote the many modern retellings of classics that exist.

If you’re looking for retellings of these classic stories that are actually diverse, there are plenty of options out there. Here is just a small sampling, but there is a longer list.

If you like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, check out A Blade So Black by L.L. McKinney

This retelling features a black Alice with a sword. Wonderland is still fantastical, but it’s a dream world full of monsters that only Alice can slay. There are already two books in the series, the third releases later this year.

If you like The Wizard of Oz, read the Dorothy Must Die series by Danielle Paige.

Much like L. Frank Baum’s original series, there are multiple books focusing on this reimagining of Oz. Amy Gumm has a pretty tough life in Kansas. But things only get harder when a twister carries her, and her mom’s pet rat, to Oz. When they arrive, the inhabitants tell her they have to defeat an evil tyrant queen named Dorothy. There’s nothing soft or endearing about this version.

If you like Cinderella, read Ash by Malinda Lo.

In this story, not only is Cinderella, or Aisling, or Ash an apprentice witch, she’s also super queer. Ash’s stepmother has her ill father carted off and killed, making Ash a servant in her home. So she hatches an escape plan by forming an alliance with a fairy prince. But who wants to be a fairy princess when there’s Kaisa, the King’s Huntress, who is single and hot?

If you like Pride and Prejudice, read Pride by Ibi Zoboi.

In this retelling, Elizabeth Bennet is Zuri Benitez. Zuri is an Afro-Latinx girl living in Bushwick, Brooklyn. But Bushwick is undergoing major gentrification. Along with the many Starbucks, the rich Darcy family moves in across the street with their two sons. Things get tricky, and Zuri must figure out her feelings for Darius Darcy.

If you like the story of King Arthur, read Once & Future by Cori McCarthy and Amy Rose Capetta.

First of all, this book is queer AF. And not only that, but the future King Arthur is a brown girl by the name of Ari who is a space refugee. Merlin is a teenage boy who’s gay. Ari’s Knights of the Roundtable are a cast of mostly brown comrades, but they are also gender and sexually fluid.

If you like Frankenstein, read Destroyer by Victor LaValle.

Not only is this a retelling of the Mary Shelley classic, it’s also receiving an important and current update. Dr. Jo Baker is one of the last descendants of Victor Frankenstein. When her son Edward is shot by the police who will face no consequences, Dr. Baker puts her “mad” scientist skills to use.

Hopefully the higher ups at Barnes & Noble actually heard what people are saying. If you’re looking to amplify diverse voices, find them. They’re out there, and the books are so much better than these 100-year-old stories.