Image Crafting: Unpacking the Book Cover Art Scandal of ‘The Poet X’

Photo Credit Poet X Cover Art
Photo Credit Poet X Cover Art

There is no way to tell whether the avid readership of Elizabeth Acevedo’s award-winning young adult novel, The Poet X, first judged the bestseller by its cover. Either way, the book found its way onto numerous and prestigious shelves, including those of judges for the National Book Award, the Pura Belpré Award, and others, as well as into the hearts of readers of all ages. The image on the cover — a striking portrait of a young Afro-Latina with poetic verses superimposed — was duplicated onto an array of merchandise, including tote bags and posters, in homage to the protagonist of Acevedo’s instant cult classic. 

Everything seemed to be going well for this groundbreaking work published by Harper Collins. Acevedo had chosen to give a strong voice to the kind of character who is often absent from traditional narratives, instantly providing a microphone for the real-life women who resemble her. Epic Reads, HarperCollins’ YA literature blog, publicized the novel and even chose to feature an interview with Gabriel Moreno, the illustrator charged with creating the cover art. In it, he details his creative process, claiming the inspiration for the sketch came from poems that the author had provided him and that the young woman’s figure was a representation of how he imagined her inner life. 

But when a friend reached out to professional photographer Amanda Rivas, insisting that Moreno had copied her likeness, the irony of a man taking the credit for a woman’s work became the headline. Even Rivas herself was skeptical that the drawing was a copy at first, assuming it simply resembled her. Upon greater scrutiny, she realized that the book cover was a match for her very first post under her @Mandas Instagram handle, a selfie that had gone viral when she first posted it on her Tumblr account. Rivas’ photo matched Moreno’s illustration down to the “shadows on [the] eyes and spaces between [the] teeth.” 

Now that same image was going viral once more, but with a stranger taking credit for her work, the widespread use of her photo felt to Rivas much more like a nasty infection. No one had ever contacted her regarding the use of her work and she felt understandably crestfallen to see its great success attributed to someone else. 

Rivas, a 22-year old from Florida, formerly known as Opal on Instagram, quickly wrote a note to Epic Reads, requesting that her 2015 self-portrait be properly credited. The striking resemblance between Rivas’s photograph and the book cover sketch is blatant, but even that didn’t stop a fan of Amanda’s work from using photoshop to animate the cover art, revealing the undeniable theft of her work. 

To their credit, Epic Reads responded quickly, acknowledging that Rivas’ claim carried weight and assuring her that the HarperCollins design team would investigate. Among the first to jump to Rivas’ defense was the author herself. Acevedo not only expressed that she was ignorant of her photo until June 30th, when the artist tweeted her indignation, and assuring Rivas that she would reach out to her publisher to correct the situation. 

Though the issue remains unresolved, Epic Reads has deleted the interview with the illustrator and Rivas has garnered plenty of supporters for her side. Amongst them is Michigan school librarian, Travis Jonker, who never doubted that Rivas’ work was plagiarized. Wondering what the full restitution will look like — will Rivas be compensated? Will the cover art be changed? — he primarily sees the situation as an opportunity to educate kids on the evils of plagiarism and the ethics of art. 

Meanwhile, Rivas’ Instagram and Twitter accounts continue to collect support, especially from those outraged by the appropriation of her work, and no one has heard from the thieving “illustrator” since she revealed him.