Unprotected Labor, by Vanessa H. May, has a cover that is rosy at first glance, but disguises a harsher reality that is found inside its pages. The author is here to talk about the cover design process, and the meaning she's found in the image:
"I knew I wanted the cover to be eye-catching and pretty and to convey (somehow) the story of the book, but I had no idea what it would look like. I am not a visual person--like many historians, I'm strictly text-based. Thank God for UNC's art department!
"UNC asked if I had any images that I could contribute. I went through the ones I had and came across this one (right). It was a black and white publicity shot from a Works Progress Administration (WPA) program to train women on government relief to be domestic workers during the Depression. Most people think of the WPA as being about building bridges and post offices, which were mostly male projects, but it also employed women in 'female' jobs like domestic work.
"[When I first saw the cover design] I thought it was gorgeous! I had handed in this drab black-and-white photo and they had added color and made it really beautiful. Academic books are not known for being visually appealing. I've seen all manner of horrible fonts and boring black covers. But UNC really makes beautiful books (and interesting ones too)!
"They asked me what I thought. I thought it was perfect and told them so. That was the first and final version.
"The most interesting aspect of the image is that it comes from a WPA publicity shot. Of course, by the 1930s, the majority of women working as domestics were African-American. The woman on the cover, however, is white. She is also wearing a neat uniform, looks healthy, and is making that bed perfectly. In reality, women working as domestic workers during the Depression reported very, very long days, very, very low pay, and worsening working conditions. The picture, then, has both literally and metaphorically white-washed domestic service.
"The larger story I tell in the book is about how middle-class reformers, who worked so hard for labor laws (minimum wage, maximum hours laws) for women working in industry and retail, left domestic workers entirely out of their reform program. They did so, in part, because they imagined that domestic work was different from other kinds of work. They imagined that because it took place in the home it was somehow cleaner, safer, and less like work. Their vision of domestic service, like the photo, was white-washed."
Thanks, Vanessa! The image does look clean, safe, and pleasant, and it feels very appropriate that a WPA publicity photo lies atop the real story of this neglected faction of labor reform.
Also, in a quick glance it reminds me of a Donna Reed DVD set.
What do you guys think?
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Melissa Walker is the author of six Young Adult novels, including the Violet trilogy, Lovestruck Summer, Small Town Sinners and the upcoming Unbreak My Heart. She is co-creator of the popular teen newsletter I Heart Daily and the awkward-stage blog Before You Were Hot, as well as the blogger for readergirlz.com. Her author blog, where Cover Stories originated, is melissacwalker.com. Follow her on Twitter @melissacwalker.
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