Defining Safe: Local bookstores work to center diverse voices

Aviva Bechky and Lily Carey



As the book industry shifts, more and more bookstores are starting to center books by and for queer people, people of color and disabled people. Defining Safe took a look at some Evanston and Chicago bookstores’ and literacy organizations’ efforts to offer books with more diverse representation.

LILY CAREY: Before we begin, a content warning: This episode contains mentions of racism, slavery, police violence and misogyny.

DERRICK RAMSEY: I remember one story I always tell is I was giving books to a classroom on the South Side of Chicago. And it was like a kindergarten classroom, and so I walked in with this box of books, and I dropped it off to the teacher and it wasn’t like I was supposed to have necessarily any interaction with the kid, but the teacher goes, “Hey, this is Derrick. He’s brought these books from Young, Black & Lit.” And this one kid looks up and like he walks over and like gives me a hug. And then everybody in the classroom gives me this awkward look and then they all come over and give me a hug.

AVIVA BECHKY: That’s Derrick Ramsey, the founder of Young, Black & Lit. The Chicago-based organization works to deliver children’s books that center Black characters to youth.

LILY CAREY: Being able to see yourself in a book is a really powerful thing, but for a lot of people of color and queer people, that hasn’t always been possible. Ramsey and people like him are working to emphasize the voices of marginalized communities in literature.

DERRICK RAMSEY: I can see it in their eyes that they know the value of being able to see themselves in those stories. It’s just invaluable. It’s really why we do the work that we do. It’s a constant driver on those long nights to know that it’s bigger than what we’re doing and it’s bigger than us and you know, that is truly going to have an impact on the community.

LILY CAREY: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Lily Carey.

AVIVA BECHKY: And I’m Aviva Bechky. This is Defining Safe, a podcast looking at the intersection of identity and student life at Northwestern and in the Evanston area. In this episode, we’re taking a look at local bookstores’ and literacy organizations’ efforts to offer books with more diverse representation.

LILY CAREY: Andersonville’s Women & Children First is an example of a bookstore that puts marginalized voices front and center. Co-Owner Sarah Hollenbeck spoke to the importance of centering disabled people in books they offer.

SARAH HOLLENBECK: We really do our best to always center those books that have non-traditional families or that have gender expansive characters or racially diverse families. As a disabled woman, I have a huge passion to expand what we think of as disabled representation in literature.

AVIVA BECHKY: Especially in children’s books, Sarah said representation of disability is limited.

SARAH HOLLENBECK: A lot of children’s picture books that learn about disability only had a wheelchair and like a child in a wheelchair is not the only kind of disability in the world. So the idea of constantly recentering the most underrepresented voices and identities in all of our sections is what drives the whole bookstore.

AVIVA BECHKY: For Iesha Malone, who’s opening her own store, bookstores offer an important place to build community.

IESHA MALONE: I’ve read books my entire life. I know why I’m very adventurous — it’s because I got lost in characters as a kid. And I think if we can bring that to my community, that we can start from a positive place where we can communicate different over here, so violence can kind of simmer down.

LILY CAREY: Iesha began the process of starting her own bookstore, Rose Café, after the murder of George Floyd rocked her community on the South Side of Chicago. She wanted to create a place where she could mentor kids and support her community. To Iesha, stocking books with positive Black representation is key.

I think half the time the reason why kids don’t want to read, like, independently — why they just don’t habitually pick up a book — is because the book doesn’t do nothing for them. But if it’s a book that has a beautiful cover of a Black girl with barrettes in her hair sitting on her grandmother’s lap or her mother’s lap, it’s way more intriguing.

AVIVA BECHKY: Iesha isn’t the only one who’s seen kids excited about representation in their store. Eli Nelson is the general manager at Booked, an Evanston bookstore focused primarily on kids and young adult books. He said he’s excited to see queer teenagers reading books that center queer voices and stories.

ELI NELSON: So there’s this great group of middle schoolers from a local middle school, who come to our store on Fridays after school, and it’s this three or four, usually. We’ve gotten to know them really well. And they are all queer and growing young women and they have shared a lot of excitement about books that are at their reading level that either feature queer characters and the plot is about being queer, or that have queer characters tackling something that’s not about coming out.

LILY CAREY: He said he’s been excited to see queer teenagers seeing themselves reflected in books because he didn’t have that experience as a kid.

ELI NELSON: It’s also fun because I didn’t have that. So that wasn’t something to know that I should be looking on the lookout for, excited about. Like, the biggest thing would be if a character was a girl who dressed up as a boy or something. So that’s been really, really fun and something that I can relate to personally.

LILY CAREY: Lots of folks want to read books that reflect their own lives. But fiction can also reimagine the past and envision people’s places in the future.

BROOKE WILLIAMS: The book “The Deep” is a novella. And it is about a society that formed when in the days of chattel slavery ships, pregnant women who were being sold into slavery jumped overboard. And their babies, instead of dying in their stomachs, transformed and created an underwater society. So that’s the sort of different space that I’m talking about when I talk about sort of doing something special.

AVIVA BECHKY: That’s Brooke Williams. She works at Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston and runs a sci-fi book club focused on books by authors of marginalized identities that feature underrepresented characters. The novella she just mentioned, “The Deep,” is by one of my new favorite authors, Rivers Solomon. I’ve been so excited to see recent works in science fiction and fantasy tackle themes like imperialism and racism, while also featuring more and more queer characters and characters of color.

LILY CAREY: Sci-fi classics are often dominated by white men. But as more speculative fiction writers from marginalized backgrounds gain recognition, the genre is grappling with a wider range of topics.

BROOKE WILLIAMS: You hand me a book when I’m a young teenage girl, and I’m like, “This isn’t for me.” I’m also a queer woman. And I wasn’t seeing any of that representation at all. I went to college, and suddenly I had access to all of these things. I had Ursula K. Le Guin, I had Octavia Butler. Like these were things that I found when I was in college, and I was like, “Oh, there’s so much more here that I can find.”

AVIVA BECHKY: Brooke told us a lot of science fiction and fantasy takes colonization as a given. Now, she said she’s seeing more works pushing back on that.

BROOKE WILLIAMS: There’s an Ursula K. Le Guin short story called “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.” N. K. Jemisin, who is a fantastic author who I feel is the spiritual successor to LeGuin in a lot of ways, wrote a response story, “The Ones Who Stay and Fight.” And that conversation is sort of what I’m talking about when I talk about the diversification of science fiction and fantasy and being in conversation with the works that came before.

LILY CAREY: Like Brooke, Eli said he’s seen shifts in recently published books.

ELI NELSON: Now and in the last five years, there’s been an incredible push by publishers to create specific imprints dedicated to historically underrepresented voices in the world of literature and also more broadly in North America.

AVIVA BECHKY: Eli said more people can now see themselves in their books — something Derrick said was a priority for him.

DERRICK RAMSEY: I think that love of reading really inspired me wanting to do this work here. But I think that has really also informed the need to try to encourage people because I can see that joy of reading the books when you can see yourselves.

AVIVA BECHKY: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Aviva Bechky.

LILY CAREY: And I’m Lily Carey. Thanks for listening to another episode of Defining Safe. This episode was reported and produced by Aviva Bechky and myself. The audio editor of The Daily Northwestern is Will Clark, the digital managing editor is Jordan Mangi, and the editor in chief is Isabelle Sarraf. Make sure to subscribe to The Daily Northwestern’s podcasts on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or SoundCloud to hear more episodes like this.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @avivabechky

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @lilylcarey

Related Stories:
Evanston libraries and bookstores support strong reading culture
Bookends & Beginnings owner expresses excitement for indie bookstore revival
Evanston bookstore partners with nonprofit to provide books to women in prison