“I have to do something joyous to take my mind off of the existential dread of the coronavirus,” author Dhonielle Clayton said in a phone interview from her New York City apartment, explaining the motivation behind launching a book club during a pandemic that has shut down the country. Not only will the group, Black Girls with Magic & Books, explore a common read selected monthly by Clayton with a group of her author friends, but it will also encourage writers to discuss craft.
“I wanted to launch a book club that creates more readers but also creates more writers,” she said. “A special safe place to be a geek, where I can just talk about vampires with other readers and writers. It’s nice to not be serious, and talk about unicorns and unicorn poop, especially when reality is tough. I need a little hope and a little community right now.”
Originally conceived as a club that would host in-person meet-ups and writing retreats as well as social media interactions, Black Girls With Magic & Books exists for the time being on Instagram and Twitter. Its focus is on speculative fiction and science fiction/fantasy by black female and non-binary authors., although anyone can join. And with book selections ranging from middle grade novels to YA reads to “a sprinkling of” adult novels, the book club is certain to evolve as a multigenerational group.
As of Thursday morning, @BlackGirlsWithMagicBooks has close to 700 Instagram followers, and @GirlWMagicBooks has just over 400 Twitter followers.
“I’m a YA author. I’m a children’s librarian,” said Clayton, who once served as a librarian at a charter school in East Harlem. “The world could benefit from reading YA and children’s books. [Children’s literature] reminds me that I don’t know everything and to take joy in simple pleasures. And the quality is so high.”
The club’s debut selection is A Phoenix First Must Burn: Sixteen Stories of Black Girl Magic, Resistance, and Hope, edited by Patrice Caldwell (Viking, Mar.); Clayton is one of the contributors. Clayton promises a variety of discussions and interactive 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 L.L. McKinney (Imprint, 2018).
Clayton is focusing on speculative fiction and SFF by female and non-binary black 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 shine a light on this particular genre and focus on those who need our help.”
According to Caldwell, who brainstormed for months with Clayton on 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 been an increase in the past couple of years in the number of SFF books being written by black writers. Not only that, Caldwell—who is a literary agent as well as an editor—pointed out that a number of those books, especially in the YA category, have gone to auction.
“It’s important, groundbreaking work,” Caldwell said, noting that there are already several popular book clubs formed by black women that emphasize books by multicultural authors—such as Oprah's Book Club, Well-Read Black Girl (which focuses on books by black women), and most recently Noname’s Book Club (which focuses on amplifying POC voices).
Caldwell said, “While these book clubs don’t exclusively focus on literary fiction, upmarket women’s fiction, and nonfiction, their picks are rarely genre fiction; they’re rarely secondary-world science fiction and fantasy titles. This isn’t just the case for these book clubs: it's an issue across the board. There’s a clear gap and that’s where Black Girls with Magic & Books steps in.”
“There's such a need for it,” Caldwell added. “There are a lot of up-and-coming black women and gender-non-conforming authors. Some of them feel isolated. How do you create community, how do you pass down [knowledge, information] to the next generation? This is a book club, but it’s also a network creating a sister-siblinghood in a white industry. There’s so much potential.”
Representation is important, insisted Clayton, who is also COO of the nonprofit organization We Need Diverse Books. Explaining that she has always been a voracious reader of SFF novels, Clayton said that in her youth, she “never got to see myself in the science fiction and fantasy novels I read. And I know [it] affected my imagination.”
Aside from Virginia Hamilton and Octavia Butler, there were very few women of color writing SFF novels that gained any traction during Clayton’s adolescence. In contrast, she said, “I could name so many white male SFF writers—I read all of their work.”
Part of her motivation in forming a book club that also discusses the craft of writing, Clayton added, is to encourage more writers to enter into that genre. “I want to help the next generation of magical storytellers.” she said.