“I have to do something joyful to distract myself from the existential fear of the coronavirus,” author Dhonielle Clayton said in a phone interview from her New York City apartment, explaining the motivation behind starting a book club during a pandemic that shut down the country. Not only will the group, Black Girls with Magic & Books, explore a common reading selected by Clayton each month with a group of her author friends, but they will also encourage writers to discuss the craft.
“I wanted to start a book club that creates more readers but also creates more writers,” she said. “A safe place to be a geek, where I can just talk about vampires with other readers and writers. It’s okay to not be serious and talk about unicorns and unicorn poop, especially when the reality is harsh I need some hope and a little community right now.
Originally conceived as a club that would host in-person meetups and writing retreats as well as social media interactions, Black Girls With Magic & Books currently exists on Instagram and Twitter. It focuses on speculative fiction and sci-fi/fantasy by black, non-binary female authors, although anyone can join. And with book selections ranging from mid-level novels to YA reads to “a sprinkling of” adult novels, the book club is sure to evolve as a multi-generational group.
As of Thursday morning, @BlackGirlsWithMagicBooks had nearly 700 Instagram followers and @GirlWMagicBooks had just over 400 Twitter followers.
“I’m a YA author. I’m a children’s librarian,” said Clayton, who once served as a charter school librarian in East Harlem. “The world could benefit from reading children’s and children’s books. [Children’s literature] reminds me that I don’t know everything and enjoys simple pleasures. And the quality is so high.
The club’s first selection is A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Black Girl Stories of Magic, Resistance, and Hope, edited by Patrice Caldwell (Viking, March); Clayton is one of the contributors. Clayton promises a variety of interactive talks and videos, including author interviews and Q&As. There are also plans for giveaways: books, swag, and “cool prizes at the end of the month for those who actively participate.” Next month’s selection is A blade so black by LL McKinney (Imprint, 2018).
Clayton focuses on speculative and SFF fiction by black female and non-binary writers because, she explained, “These are the books that most often get lost in the shuffle when we talk about speculative fiction and [SFF]: I want to highlight this particular genre and focus on those who need our help.
According to Caldwell, who has been thinking for months with Clayton about the book club’s mission and format and intends to actively participate in it, Black Girls With Magic & Books fills a niche, especially since there has had an increase over the past two years in the number of SFF books written by black writers. Not only that, Caldwell, who is a literary agent and publisher, pointed out that a number of these books, especially in the YA category, have been auctioned off.
“This is important and groundbreaking work,” Caldwell said, noting that there are already several grassroots book clubs formed by black women that focus on books by multicultural authors, such as Oprah’s Book Club, Well-Read Black Girl (which focuses on black women’s books), and more recently Noname’s Book Club (which focuses on amplifying POC voices).
Caldwell said, “While these book clubs don’t focus exclusively on literary fiction, high-end women’s fiction, and nonfiction, their choices are rarely genre fiction; rarely are they secondary-world sci-fi and fantasy titles. This is not just the case for these book clubs: it is a problem at all levels. There is an obvious gap and that’s where Black Girls with Magic & Books comes in.
“There is such a need,” Caldwell added. “There are a lot of rising black women and gender nonconforming authors. Some of them feel isolated. How to create a community, how to transmit [knowledge, information] to the next generation? It’s a book club, but it’s also a network creating siblings in a white industry. There is so much potential.
Representation is important, insisted Clayton, who is also chief operating officer of the nonprofit We Need Diverse Books. Explaining that she’s always been a voracious reader of SFF novels, Clayton said that in her youth she “never saw herself in the sci-fi and fantasy novels that I read. And I know [it] affected my imagination.
Other than Virginia Hamilton and Octavia Butler, there were very few women of color writing SFF novels who gained traction during Clayton’s teenage years. By contrast, she says, “I could name so many white male SFF writers — I’ve read all of their work.”
Part of his motivation for forming a book club that also discusses the craft of writing, Clayton added, is to encourage more writers to enter the genre. “I want to help the next generation of magic storytellers.” she says.