It’s a fabulous year for YA authors shifting over to Adult Romance, and if you’re as excited as I am about Claire Kann being one of the writers to make the shift, then just wait until you see this cover. The Romantic Agenda releases from Berkley on April 12, 2022, and here’s the story:
Thirty, flirty, and asexual Joy is secretly in love with her best friend Malcolm, but she’s never been brave enough to say so. When he unexpectedly announces that he’s met the love of his life—and no, it’s not Joy—she’s heartbroken. Malcolm invites her on a weekend getaway, and Joy decides it’s her last chance to show him exactly what he’s overlooking. But maybe Joy is the one missing something…or someone…and his name is Fox.
Fox sees a kindred spirit in Joy—and decides to help her. He proposes they pretend to fall for each other on the weekend trip to make Malcolm jealous. But spending time with Fox shows Joy what it’s like to not be the third wheel, and there’s no mistaking the way he makes her feel. Could Fox be the romantic partner she’s always deserved?
And here’s the gorgeous cover with art by Alex Cabal and design by Rita Frangie!
Claire Kann is the author of Let’s Talk About Love, If It Makes You Happy, The Marvelous and an award-winning online storyteller. In her other life she works for a non-profit you may have heard of where she daydreams like she’s paid to do it.
A few years ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Douglass and a few other authors in a roundtable entitled “Where is the Queer Black Male Voice in YA?” The interviewees were all obvious rising stars, in my opinion, but the very next queer Black male voice to rise up in YA after that post actually belonged to an author I didn’t know yet named Julian Winters.
Fast forward to now, when Douglass has debuted on the New York Times bestseller list (and also managed to publish a volume of poetry called Boy in Jeopardy even before that), Winters is three books in with a fourth, Right Where I Left You, on the way, and both of them are here today to talk about The Taking of Jake Livingston. Here’s a little more on the book, first:
Sixteen-year-old Jake Livingston sees dead people everywhere. But he can’t decide what’s worse: being a medium forced to watch the dead play out their last moments on a loop or being at the mercy of racist teachers as one of the few Black students at St. Clair Prep. Both are a living nightmare he wishes he could wake up from. But things at St. Clair start looking up with the arrival of another Black student—the handsome Allister—and for the first time, romance is on the horizon for Jake.
Unfortunately, life as a medium is getting worse. Though most ghosts are harmless and Jake is always happy to help them move on to the next place, Sawyer Doon wants much more from Jake. In life, Sawyer was a troubled teen who shot and killed six kids at a local high school before taking his own life. Now he’s a powerful, vengeful ghost and he has plans for Jake. Suddenly, everything Jake knows about dead world goes out the window as Sawyer begins to haunt him. High school soon becomes a different kind of survival game—one Jake is not sure he can win.
And now, please welcome Julian Winters and Ryan Douglass!
Julian: Ryan! It’s always an honor to chat with you, but this feels especially fantastic because I’m getting to talk to Ryan Douglass, instant New York Times bestselling author of The Taking of Jake Livingston! How wild is that? One week we’re chatting on the day the book is released, then you’re a bestselling author with your debut novel!
Ryan: I don’t even think it’s even sunk in. It’s pretty cool and I’m so glad people have responded well to this story.
JW: Interviewing you for LGBTQ Reads is an extra special occasion for me. A few years ago, you did an interview on here that kind of changed my life as an author. The discussion you had about being a queer, Black author and writing queer Black boys as protagonists gave me the courage I needed to finally sit down and written my sophomore novel, How to Be Remy Cameron. I didn’t know if queer Black boys had the space they deserved as the protagonists in the Young Adult world until I read that interview. It made me want to ensure they did have their voices heard.
Jake’s story continues to inspire me and others to write our books where queer Black boys are at the heart. Where we can celebrate their uniqueness and joy as well as discussing their struggles.
Where did the inspiration for Jake come from? What made you jump into Horror, a genre that doesn’t often showcase Black and/or queer teens as protagonists?
RD: Thank you for saying that. I was very interested in what this book would do for representation politics at the beginning but it’s since become less of a concern. I don’t feel like I’m writing about the “Black queer experience” as much as a slice of life where the MC happens to be Black and queer. I was interested in horror because of the way it explored trauma and fear, how the psyche operates in moments of desperation and the choices people make in perilous situations. That developed as a kid before I realized what it meant to be Black, institutionally, and how the genre treats its Black characters. Later I was able to assess the injustice that occurs in media representation. I wanted to write characters that felt true to me so I put them into the genre I was interested in working in. Since it’s horror, that ends up feeling naturally subversive since the genre usually kills off its Black characters when left to white creators.
JW: I love that this book is gives me old school, paranormal horror vibes, but also looks at the real-life horror Black teens face. It’s very much The Frighteners meets Get Out and so much more. What are some of the themes you wanted to explore, both from the supernatural and real world?
RD: A big theme in the book is how whiteness invades Black consciousness when we’re trying to succeed. It erodes our cultural norms under the guise of professionalism. It’s so normalized to go to PWIs or get a corporate job and link that to merit and moving up. But what you’re doing is negotiating your culture for prestige or financial gain. We’re climbing into systems rooted in a slave system that has never been reformed, and the way we’re treated today mirrors slavery in a way that is better branded. We talk about it but we don’t change these systems in serious ways. It’s so normalized that “talking about it” is a thriving market to make money in. Jake angles into these issues by featuring a Black boy who’s been ripped out of his community and now feels he’s going insane because he can’t get whiteness (Sawyer) off his back. It’s also a book about the ways boys are raised in violence and how hard it becomes to communicate when you feel like you’re being abused and you can’t come up for air. As for the supernatural elements, they’re mostly there to supplement the contemporary issues, and they enhance this “superhero origin story” feel that the book ends up taking on. Black queer boys need superhero icons.
JW: Writing Horror is such a skilled art to me. To be honest, you had me sleeping with the lights on while reading this book! What are the challenges you faced trying to craft out such a terrifying world?
RD: A big challenge when I first chose horror was understanding how it comes to life in literature and how that may be similar or different from what you see in movies. You can’t use jump scares or make use of music and lighting, which are naturally spooky tactics in film. Evoking an unsettling atmosphere with words is the big challenge because it’s so reliant on a sense of dread and zeroing in on the darker aspects of language, imagery, and metaphor. You also have to be irreverent enough to take risks with what is psychologically comfortable.
JW: This book is told from dual POVs. Jake’s story in real time, then the antagonist Sawyer Doon’s world through his diary entries. Sawyer is a frightening character. I love that, through his entries, you explore what brought him to the point he’s at in the novel. But you do it without redeeming him. You don’t excuse away his actions. You weave a tragic story in a way that doesn’t give him exoneration but really dives deep into the psyche of someone pushed to their edge.
What was it like writing a character like Sawyer?
RD: I always sigh with relief when I hear that because a big worry of mine was that he might come off as redeemable or else too evil to for a normal person to tolerate reading from his perspective. Writing Sawyer was all about achieving the right balance. I had to constantly ask myself how much distance I wanted to keep from any vulnerabilities this character might have. That then opens questions of how much distance this character keeps from himself. What about him disturbs himself, and what about his surroundings have disturbed his way of thinking? That’s when I got into the meat of where this character comes from in a way that felt like it wasn’t softening him too much but centering an exploration of how empathy and connection comes into his world as this fleeting object but the crux of him is evil.
JW: Besides all the scary imagery you describe so perfectly, another part of this novel I love is the way you explore queer Black boys like Jake and their relationships with others. Specifically, Jake’s older brother, Benji.
What were some of the things you hope readers get from their relationship, along with the one Jake has with his mother?
RD: I like these boys because they ring true as Black boys without there being any performative emphasis on how “Blackity Black” they are. I want readers to get a slice of human experience without the primary mission being to convince white people that Black people are people too. When the mission is not saying to the reader “hey guys, Black people are actually human”, we’re able to dive into intracommunity issues like the relationships between straight Black men and queer Black men, how straight Black women may support homophobic actions of their straight Black partners at the expense of the queer boys or men in their lives. There’s the issue of whiteness but at the center of Jake’s trauma are the issues he dealt with at home. The experience of living in his identity is having layers of trauma to work through. I think readers who are not of that experience or of an intersectional experience can learn from that.
JW: Let’s talk about Allister! From the moment he appeared on the page, I felt like Jake—like I could breathe again. He’s this amazing addition in Jake’s life. Someone who doesn’t question who Jake is, what he’s going through, nor does he brush off Jake’s struggles. And let’s be real—their romance made me swoon.
Who is Allister to this book and why was it so important for you two show that kind of relationship between two queer Black boys?
RD: Allister serves as a breath of fresh air to the narrative. I didn’t have a lot of time to develop his relationship to Jake because I was trying to develop other things in a time crunch during edits. But I ended up liking how simple it was. I like that Jake has someone in his life that doesn’t feel untrustworthy or overly complicated. I don’t know if boys as perfect as Allister exist, but I think it’s important that gay teens are able to see what healthy love looks like.
JW: As an avid fan of yours, I know you love music! I get some of my best recs from your social media posts. If (or when?) this book becomes a movie, who would be on the soundtrack? What songs or artist would best accompany Jake’s story?
RD: I’m a big fan of the artists that come out of NUXXE, which is Shygirl’s record label. It’s gritty, often spooky experimental pop. I’d want Shygirl, Sega Bodega, COUCOU CHLOE, Y1640 and similar sounding artists to be on the soundtrack. I think their sounds really mirror the tone of the book.
JW: People are gobbling this book up! I know I did. We all have to know: What can we expect next from Ryan Douglass?
RD: I’m working on another YA horror currently. I’ve been trying several genres in recent years, from historical fantasy to paranormal romance to rom-com. I want to tap into so many genres but teen horror and dark academia come naturally. I’m good at that so I’m developing in that genre as a writer for now. Later I plan to spread out to other things.
Ryan Douglass was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, where he currently resides, cooking pasta and playing records. He enjoys wooden-wick candles, falling asleep on airplanes, and advocating for stronger media representation for queer Black people.
Julian Winters is the best-selling author of contemporary young adult fiction. His debut, Running With Lions (Duet, 2018), won accolades for its positive depictions of diverse, relatable characters. A former management trainer, Julian currently lives outside of Atlanta where he can be found reading, being a self-proclaimed comic book geek, or watching the only two sports he can follow—volleyball and soccer. How to Be Remy Cameron is his second novel.
Oh, how I love this book. Let me count the ways! A) It’s perfect on the coming-of-age front, B) it has found family in multiple iterations, C) it has a Black lesbian heroine in STEM from a military background that I know anyone who was an overachieving child (and especially those pushed by parents) will identify with, more and more so the closer you get to Grace’s identity, and D) the romance is so. Freaking. Cute. It’s not what you’re picturing when you think “Got married while drunk in Vegas” but it’s such a great take on it that you are not gonna be mad about it!
Honey Girl releases February 23 from Park Row Books, so please make good use of those buy links below to preorder!
With her newly completed PhD in astronomy in hand, twenty-eight-year-old Grace Porter goes on a girls’ trip to Vegas to celebrate. She’s a straight A, work-through-the-summer certified high achiever. She is not the kind of person who goes to Vegas and gets drunkenly married to a woman whose name she doesn’t know…until she does exactly that.
This one moment of departure from her stern ex-military father’s plans for her life has Grace wondering why she doesn’t feel more fulfilled from completing her degree. Staggering under the weight of her father’s expectations, a struggling job market and feelings of burnout, Grace flees her home in Portland for a summer in New York with the wife she barely knows.
In New York, she’s able to ignore all the annoying questions about her future plans and falls hard for her creative and beautiful wife, Yuki Yamamoto. But when reality comes crashing in, Grace must face what she’s been running from all along—the fears that make us human, the family scars that need to heal and the longing for connection, especially when navigating the messiness of adulthood.
Literally nobody on Earth needs me to extol the virtues of Akwaeke Emezi’s writing; pretty sure all their awards and accolades do a fine job at that on their own. But if you somehow haven’t read Pet, their speculative 2019 YA debut starring a Black trans girl who goes hunting for the most insidious kind of monster in a world that’s supposed to be safe from them, I am legally* obligated to make sure you do that, and to remind you that no matter how much increased rep we see in other areas, we’re still not seeing a real increase in transfeminine YA heroines in traditionally published YA novels, and certainly not trans girls of color.
But this isn’t a “read it because the rep is so special” call, even though the rep is so special, and nothing brings on more like increasing the success of what exists; it’s a “read it because it’s one of the only times in my life I’ve ever been completely hooked by a novel on page 1.” Read it because it does something brilliant and special with the gentle way it handles CSA and both sides of the fear and bravery coin. Read it because it’s so damn smart in such a slim profile. Read it because I said so.
Pet is here to hunt a monster. Are you brave enough to look?
There are no monsters anymore, or so the children in Lucille are taught. Jam and her best friend, Redemption, have grown up with the lesson that the city is safe for everyone. But when Jam meets Pet, a creature who some might call monstrous but, in reality, is anything but, she must reconsider what she’s been told. Pet has emerged from one of her mother’s paintings to hunt a true monster–and the shadow of something grim lurks in Redemption’s house. No one has encountered monsters in years, though, and Jam’s quest to protect her best friend and uncover the truth is met with doubt and disbelief.
This award-winning novel from a rising-star author asks: What really makes a monster, and how do you save the world from something if no one will admit it exists?
I’m really thrilled to have Katrina Jackson back on the site today for this beautiful essay on finding queer Black love in literature. I asked her to write it after seeing her Twitter threads about it, and I’m so grateful that she did. You can see more about Kat and her books here, but frankly, I’m antsy to get to the post, so, onward!
I didn’t start reading romance with any kind of intention until I was an adult, but I have loved love stories my entire life, especially Black love stories. There was something about seeing movies with Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee and realizing that they had spent decades sharing their passion for art and activism with one another, that made my heart swell. It still does. I’ve also always loved queer love stories for as long as I can remember, even when I didn’t understand that I loved queer love stories for the same reasons I loved Black love stories: I was searching for depictions of love that reflected pieces of myself. I was searching for something that felt like a little slice of me on the big and small screens.
The first DVD I bought was The Color Purple. It was one of those old-school DVDs where the movie was split between two discs with those cheap plastic covers. I cherished that DVD, because once it was mine, I could watch that scene of Celie and Shug’s tentative kiss – with the juke joint providing a muffled backdrop – whenever I wanted. And I wanted to watch it over and over and over again. I felt similarly engrossed, years later as I watched the climax of Moonlight. I was a puddle of happy, relieved tears as the tumult of Chiron’s life culminates in this hardened, resilient man sitting across a diner table, staring at his childhood love with softness and warmth in his eyes. These two scenes, among so many others, spoke to that quietest part of my heart and the longing many of us hold to look at someone we love and feel fully and completely seen and loved for all that we are.
I turned to romance books while getting my master’s degree. I was in the depths of one of the worst depressive episodes of my adult life. Every day I received messages from professors and other students, that I did not belong, and I dreamt about abandoning the program and running home to the places and people who loved me. I didn’t leave, but I did start reading romance. Finding love stories that centered people who looked like me made the world feel much less alone and allowed me to start down a years-long road to fully identifying as bisexual, even though I’ve always known that I wasn’t straight. It took a little work to find queer stories with Black people, but once I found one, I found more and more and more.
The point I’m trying to make is that I have looked for Black queer love stories for most of my life and I have found them! They have buoyed me when I was at my lowest, when life seemed bleak and when looking at the news made my entire body hurt so much that I spent days in bed mourning.
So you can imagine how much it hurt when, in the midst of the most recent cluster of stories about American police officers killing Black people like Tony McDade and Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, I saw bookish twitter accounts – some I follow, some I don’t – begin recommending books by Black authors that refused to recognize the full breadth of Black life and humanity. Romance accounts, specifically, were so cavalier in their lists that many recommended books by non-Black authors who wrote Black characters, sometimes problematically, because they didn’t read much romance by Black authors, but refused to cede space to reviewers and readers who did. Across the board, I watched romance outlets, writers, reviewers and readers, recommend books that focused on white characters, books filled with anti-Black stereotypes, and on top of all that many patently ignored queer Black authors and books with queer Black characters.
While I don’t particularly agree with recommending fiction in a moment where people need to confront the depths of their anti-blackness and begin to consider the realities of global white supremacy, watching romance readers who imagined themselves as supportive of diversity, erase (queer) Black people (authors and characters) dug deep in my chest. It sent the message that people like me and the characters I write don’t actually matter, even while people were putting the hashtag in their bios. It was an erasure that struck a painful chord because it reminded me that the people and stories I love – who are the center of my life – are so easily forgotten and ignored.
I love Black people. I love queer Black people and QPOC. They don’t just matter to me, they are precious. I would not be alive today without them. I would not be writing without them. And I would not have the solace of these stories on the days when I still can’t get out of bed because everything hurts. At least with the stories that Black authors have written, my heart doesn’t have to hurt nearly as much, because it is so full of love for queer Black people.
Unfortunately, even when I’m depressed, I have a near obsessive desire to catalog books, so I took to twitter to begin a thread of queer romance written by Black authors. I began with books I love by authors I respect and appreciate and asked for recommendations. What I found in this process was instructive in many ways. I made a few caveats for recommendations that might have seemed random at the time but were not. I asked that the author identify as Black, since I’d seen so many outlets recommending non-Black authors. It mattered to me that if the response to Black murder was to uplift Black authors, that those authors better be Black and stand firm in their blackness. I wanted to focus specifically on adult romance because the YA book community had rallied their recommendations firmly behind Black authors (trans, cis, queer and het). It was exciting to watch and frustrating to compare to the adult romance community.
The other critical requirement was that the books feature Black characters and all the love interests should be Black or other people of color. Again, this was not arbitrary. Romance, like other literary genres, is steeped in white supremacist narratives. It is not just that so many traditionally published romance authors are white, it is that the foundation of the genre is based on whiteness as the norm. The tropes and story structures and even the Happily Ever After (the only requirement of romance literature) have been defined by a white default, even when some of the characters are people of color.
The proliferation of romance stories (traditionally published, indie and self-pub) that peddle in anti-Black, homophobic, transphobic, racist and xenophobic stereotypes is alarming, but not new. What feels new are the ways in which so many of these books are classified as “diverse” and “inclusive” even when they are not. So when I asked that all the recommendations focus on Black and POC characters, it was because I wanted to create a list of queer romances that rejected the white supremacist narrative in romance that centers whiteness, that demands white love interests and requires a translation of queer love between characters of color for white audiences. I wanted to find books by Black authors who, hopefully, wrote for readers of color.
What I found in this process was a mixed bag, as much of life is. On the downside, I found that I spent hours of my day clarifying fairly clear instructions, asking readers to verify that the authors and characters were Black and POC. I found that some people were disinterested in the idea of queer Black people and QPOC loving one another. I found that readers, writers and reviewers – many who jumped at the chance to make recommendation lists themselves – had become comfortable ignoring blackness. They considered it incidental or a box to check on the list of diversity brownie points. They were perfectly fine to tokenize Black authors and characters but were never challenged to consider why.
But the other, far better, thing I discovered was the wealth of queer romance written by Black authors. There was Black Romance and IR, polyamorous, m/m, and even the apparently elusive f/f romance. There were so many bisexual and pansexual characters! I found contemporary and historical and paranormal and urban. Certainly, there is room to grow in many areas, for instance so far there is only one trans Black romance recommendation (noted below) and ace spectrum representation is similarly lacking. In this moment, I choose to celebrate that the few books we have exist, but I hope for more.
There were many highs and lows in this process. I won’t pretend that I didn’t often wish I hadn’t decided to field the barrage of twitter notifications in a moment when I really should have given myself peace and quiet. Self-care is a thing I’m working on, especially now. But for all the new books and authors I and others discovered, I’ve decided that the exercise was worth it.
Below are a sample of books that emerged in the conversation, some I’ve read, some I’ve moved up my TBR and some I’m waiting impatiently to be released. These are books that remind me of the things that were true at the beginning of this all. I love being Black with every cell in my body. This is not incidental to me. And queer Black people are still PRECIOUS and CRUCIAL to my life and well-being.
For even more recommendations put together by Katrina, check out this list on Goodreads! (Blogger’s Note: Please do not add to this list anything that does not fit the above-stated requirements or I may do a murder.)
Katrina is a college professor by day who writes romances by weekend when her cats allow. She writes high heat, diverse and mostly queer erotic romances and erotica. She also likes sleep, salt-and-pepper beards, and sunshine.
She’s super active on twitter. Follow her: @katrinajax
*All links are affiliate, bringing a small percentage of each purchase back to the site (Amz = Amazon | Bks = Bookshop)
You know those covers that are just so badass you barely even need to know what it’s inside to know you need it? But then you see what’s inside and you know you need it? I present to you today exhibit A, in the form of Stone and Steel by Eboni Dunbar, which is part of Neon Hemlock’s 2020 Novella Series and releases on September 5, 2020. Here’s a little more about it:
In Stone and Steel, when General Aaliyah returns triumphant to the city of Titus, she expects to find the people prospering under the rule of her Queen, the stone mage Odessa. Instead, she finds a troubling imbalance in both the citizens’ wellbeing and Odessa’s rule. Aaliyah must rely on all of her allies, old and new, to do right by the city that made her.
“Stone and Steel is a sharp and sexy story of love, loyalty and magic. Eboni has given us a world where Black Queerness reigns supreme, and our world is better for it.” — Danny Lore, co-author of Queen of Bad Dreams
And here is the glorious cover, painted by Odera Igbokwe and designed by dave ring!
Eboni Dunbar is a queer, black woman who writes queer and black speculative fiction. She resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her partner. She received her BA from Macalester College and her MFA in Creative Writing from Mills College. She is a VONA Alum, an associate editor for PodCastle, an acquiring editor for FIYAH Literary Magazine and a freelance reviewer. Her work can be found in FIYAH, Drabblecast, Anathema: Spec from the margins and Nightlight Podcast. She can be found online at www.ebonidunbar.com and on Twitter as @sugoionna87.