As the coronavirus shuttered schools across the nation in March, Ibram X. Kendi had an idea. He was simultaneously transitioning to homeschooling his child and fielding a growing number of requests from educators to speak about Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You (Little, Brown), the YA adaptation of his National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning that he coauthored with Jason Reynolds. If others were in his position as a parent, he thought, why not use technology to have a bigger conversation?
Kendi approached his publisher with the idea of doing a multiweek online book club that could reach teens and help educators and parents learn best practices for sharing the book with their students and kids. The idea grew from there, and on May 6, Kendi and Reynolds launched the Stamped book club, a series of hour-long discussions held once per week for four weeks in partnership with the American Booksellers Association.
“I thought Jason and I could reach many young people and older people through this book club,” Kendi says. “This is not the type of book one can read and put down. It is a book that calls for engagement, and we wanted to engage readers.”
The discussions between Kendi and Reynolds are moderated by Hannah Oliver Depp, the owner of Loyalty Bookstores in the D.C. area and an ABA member. Beyond the weekly gatherings, the ABA has also made a 22-page guide for educators and parents, which is available for free on its website.
The partnership with ABA was important to Kendi and Reynolds, since bookstores are facing enormous economic challenges. “If the books are the blood, then indie booksellers are like the arteries,” Kendi says. “Our literature would not be circulating without them. Our ideas would not be circulating in the minds of Americans without them. And in this dire economic moment, when so many Americans are seeking understanding and direction and hope, the arteries delivering the books are critical.”
In the book club’s opening session, Kendi and Reynolds shared how their book took shape. Reynolds recounted that when Kendi approached him about making a YA adaptation of Stamped from the Beginning, he initially said no, but he later changed his mind. “I said yes because I spent the majority of the last decade in front of millions of young people,” he told Kendi. “I knew that of course kids are ready for this. They’re starving for it. It was about understanding that this was an opportunity to do something bigger than me and bigger than him.”
In retelling Kendi’s book for young adults, Reynolds tried to reorient the work around clear, straightforward questions that he believes matter most to the teens he meets. The volume opens with a story, “Who Was the World’s First Racist?,” that comes later in Stamped from the Beginning.
“The moment that I read that part in the book, I was like, we have to start with racist #1,” Reynolds told Kendi in the first session. “If I was a kid and I knew who racist #1 was? I think all of us are interested in who starts stuff. It matters to us where something begins. If I’m 15 or 13 or 12, that’s a hook.”
Throughout the book club meeting, Reynolds and Kendi urged attendees to ensure that the young adults who read the book have partners to help them think through the more challenging parts. “The book is written to be taught,” Reynolds said. “What we say in this moment could be fortifying or could be unbearably damaging. Make sure that a 12-year-old isn’t taking an unwarranted guilt onto their 12-year-old self. Racism is to be talked about honestly, but not without compassion. Truth without compassion is cruelty.”
Kendi tells me his goal for the four weeks is “for readers walking away saying they have a good understanding of racism, and that they’d like to strive to be antiracist and to build an antiracist society of equity and justice.”
Given the success of the first session on May 7, the ABA is planning to announce additional digital programs to be held in June, partly in the hopes of offsetting some impact from the cancellation of the annual Children’s Institute. Through partnerships like the Stamped book club, the ABA sees an opportunity to continue to support member bookstores by directing readers their way.
“It felt like a natural pairing between the authors, publisher, and ABA: a way to reach as many bookstores and readers as possible,” says Gen de Botton, program manager for the ABA’s Association of Booksellers for Children Group.
For all involved, the conversation about a critical issue in American society, past and present, is what is most important. Reynolds sees the book club as an essential opening for that conversation to happen with young people. “I believe in steps, so this is just the beginning—step one,” he says. “At the end of it, if more young people are settling into the idea of talking about and striving for antiracism, which then allows them to critique their thoughts, actions, and even language, that’s a success, a step forward. After that, I’d really love for this book to be taught in all their classrooms, to really drill down and unpack it all, so that it truly starts to crystallize.”