Skip to main content

Barnes & Noble used A.I. to make classic books more diverse. It didn’t go well

For Black History Month, Barnes & Noble created covers of classic novels with the protagonists re-imagined as people of color. Then it quickly canceled its planned Diverse Editions of 12 books, including Emma, The Secret Garden, and Frankenstein amid criticism that it clumsily altered books by mostly white authors instead of promoting writers of color. The project used artificial intelligence to scan 100 books for descriptions of major characters, and artists created covers depicting Alices, Romeos, and Captain Ahabs of various ethnicities.

“We acknowledge the voices who have expressed concerns about the Diverse Editions project at our Barnes & Noble Fifth Avenue store and have decided to suspend the initiative,” Barnes & Noble announced in a statement. The company partnered with with Penguin Random House and advertising agency TBWA/CHIAT/DAY to create the books.

Diverse Editions wizard of oz cover
Image used with permission by copyright holder

It’s not clear how deep the changes went beyond the cover. Author Benjanun Sriduangkaew tweeted an image with a description of the project: “We used artificial intelligence to analyze the text from 100 of the most famous titles searching the text to see if it omitted ethnicity of primary characters. Using speech and linguistic patterns, our natural language processing (NLP) algorithms accounted for the fact that when authors describe a character, they rarely outright state their race, but often use more poetic and descriptive language. Among the classics that didn’t specify race or ethnicity, here are 12 that we have re-imagined for Diverse Editions: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, The Count of Monte Cristo, Emma, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Moby Dick, Peter Pan, The Secret Garden, The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, Romeo & Juliet, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

Even modern authors often don’t directly state the race or ethnicity of certain characters. Instead, they’ll rely on other ways of distinguishing them, describing their “mocha” or “coffee” skin, as writer Justine Ireland pointed out on Twitter. Anyone who grew up reading The Baby-Sitters Club knows Claudia Kishi is Japanese-American and is always described as having “almond-shaped eyes,” an inaccurate and often-use phrase signifying a character of Asian descent.

Get your weekly teardown of the tech behind PC gaming
Check your inbox!

Many authors and librarians cited a number of reasons the project was misguided. “If Barnes & Noble was serious about this #BlackHistoryMonth celebration, they would feature and push renditions of the ‘classics’ actually written by Black authors,” L.L. McKenny tweeted. Her book A Blade So Black is a retelling of Alice in Wonderland, mixed with some Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

It’s unclear if the A.I. picked up cues outside of descriptions (or a lack of) of skin color. Characters’ social class or wealthiness during the relevant historical period, might imply whiteness alone, for example. Or they might verbally denigrate people of color. Writer Amitha Knight wrote about the main character in The Secret Garden: “if you’re going to say ‘you can put yourself into any book!’ I’m telling you, you can’t. Mary Lennox did not want to be Indian.” In the book, Mary tells another girl, “‘You thought I was a native! You dared! You don’t know anything about natives! They are not people — they’re servants who must salaam to you.’” However she was depicted on the trio of Diverse Editions covers, it wouldn’t change the fact that Mary was the daughter of an English government official living and working in colonial India. “The Secret Garden is a book that hinges on the premise that Mary Lennox is a peevish white girl born and raised in India by colonialist British parents,” tweeted writer Hanna Alkaf.

The Secret Garden is a book that hinges on the premise that Mary Lennox is a peevish white girl born and raised in India by colonialist British parents.

I can’t say for sure but it looks like on this cover they made Mary Lennox…Asian. https://t.co/wmEgWZjRRV

— Hanna Alkaf (@yesitshanna) February 5, 2020

TBWA created the A.I., according to Fast Company. Exactly what words and descriptors it searched for is unclear, but Dr. Debbie Reese said in an email to Digital Trends that it seems to have missed some significant words with Peter Pan. Tiger Lily is called a slur, and the “braves” refer to Peter as “Great White Father.” Reese is the author of the blog American Indians in Children’s Literature and said that scanning the books would miss important context outside the pages, as well. “The analysis would not have found a problem with respect to Native peoples in Wizard of Oz,” she wrote. “Native concerns over that book are not with its content, but with its author (who called for extermination of Native people).”

Barnes and Noble Diverse Editions Book Covers
Image used with permission by copyright holder

If a teacher uses a book like Peter Pan in class and attempted to critique depictions of Tiger Lily, it would come at the expense of some students, Reese said. “During such lessons, the Native or students of color have to deal with hearing and reading slurs, derogatory passages, etc. — things they already experience — in the classroom so that their white peers come to a greater understanding of racism,” she said. “That puts Native/students of color at a disadvantage so that white peers can ‘learn.’” She recommends Cynthia Leitich Smith’s Hearts Unbroken as an example of a Native author critiquing a classic, The Wizard of Oz.

Reese added that “Characterizing Native peoples as ‘people of color’ erases our sovereign nation status. None of the other cultural groups in the U.S. have nationhood status, governments, jurisdiction over lands (though it is limited jurisdiction, it is a significant difference).” That nuance is beyond what an A.I. scan can handle at this point, especially as many the teams creating such systems often aren’t very diverse.

Digital Trends reached out to Barnes & Noble and Penguin Random House for comment and will update when they get back to us.

Editors' Recommendations

Jenny McGrath
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Jenny McGrath is a senior writer at Digital Trends covering the intersection of tech and the arts and the environment. Before…
Best Buy’s deal of the day is a starter gaming laptop for $700
A man playing on the Acer Nitro 5 gaming laptop.

You don't need to spend thousands of dollars to get into PC gaming because there are gaming laptop deals like Best Buy's offer for the Acer Nitro 5. The starter gaming laptop, which is already relatively affordable at its original price of $950, is currently even cheaper at just $700. You'll be able to use the $250 in savings on video games and gaming accessories, but you'll have to act fast if you want it because we're not sure how much time is remaining before the bargain disappears, and once that happens, we don't know when you'll get another chance at it.

Why you should buy the Acer Nitro 5 gaming laptop
The Acer Nitro 5 is equipped with the 12th-generation Intel Core i5 processor, the Nvidia GeForce RTX 3050 Ti graphics card, and 16GB of RAM. It's not going to challenge the performance of the top-of-the-line models of the best gaming laptops, but it's going to be more than enough to play the best PC games. Some of the more demanding titles may force you to choose low graphics settings, but that's a fine trade-off for a gaming laptop that you can get for less than $1,000.

Read more
There’s still time to get the Dell XPS 13 for $599
The Dell XPS 13 in front of a window.

XPS 13 9315 Digital Trends

Big changes are coming to the Dell XPS 13 with the current model being discontinued in favor of something that’s much more like the Dell XPS 13 Plus. That might not delight everyone so now is the time to buy with Dell selling off the Dell XPS 13 as one of its many laptop deals available today. If you’ve been meaning to buy a Dell XPS 13 for a while, this is likely to be one of your final chances to do so with 2024 bringing in new and tweaked models. Right now, you can buy the Dell XPS 13 for $599 as part of Dell’s ominous-sounding ‘final sale’ with the price usually $799. Keen to learn more? Let’s take a look at this soon-to-be retired laptop model.

Read more
If you’re still gaming on 16GB of RAM, you’re missing out
Corsair DDR5 RAM inside a PC.

A good gaming PC is not just a top-notch graphics card, a reliable processor, and a bunch of irrelevant components. Every part plays a role in delivering a smooth gaming experience, and while those two big-ticket components may have the biggest impact, the amount of memory (RAM) in your PC is also a huge deal.

Trust me -- and this is coming from someone who was still running 16GB last year -- the difference between 16GB and 32GB RAM is like night and day. Whether we like it or not, that upgrade is one that's looming on the horizon for many gamers -- and now is a surprisingly good time to pull that trigger.
We're on the brink of a RAM evolution
It's safe to say that the narrative around memory, and I mean both regular RAM and video memory (VRAM) found in graphics cards, has shifted a lot in the past year or so. Previously a somewhat overlooked component, RAM became a hot topic among PC gamers and in the media, and knowing how much RAM your PC needs has become a necessity.

Read more