LGBTQ themes highlight US Book Show

From left to Right: Glory Edim, Kim Coleman Foote, and Sarah Jessica Parker during a May 24 keynote panel at the US Book Show, held at New York University’s Kimmel Center May 22 to 25, 2023.
From left to Right: Glory Edim, Kim Coleman Foote, and Sarah Jessica Parker during a May 24 keynote panel at the US Book Show, held at New York University’s Kimmel Center May 22 to 25, 2023.
Photo by Terry Ballard

Among the disruptions when the Covid-19 Pandemic hit was the annual Book Expo America. For decades, it was the country’s largest book event, taking over the Javits and other major urban convention centers. Usually held near Memorial Day Weekend, the last time the event was in person was 2019. Authors and publishers often gathered in satellite events timed for the show, including the Lambda Literary Awards.

While Book Expo might be revived in the future in some form, picking up in the Covid-19 aftermath is the new US Book Show, held virtually the past two years and in a hybrid model this year. Where once publishers and writers hawked their words over acres of exhibition space, this new event was a much smaller, almost intimate affair, held online and in person at New York University’s Kimmel Center overlooking Washington Square Park. The industry trade publication Publishers Weekly was the organizer of the event, which emphasized books planned for Fall 2023 releases.

Its compact size did not mean it was not without its own touches of glamour and celebrity, with Sarah Jessica Parker, Keegan-Michael Key, Elle Key, Chuck D and Meg Wolitzer among the famous authors and celebrities. There were also many LGBTQ+ highlights, from adult books to graphic novels to books aimed at children and young adults.

Among these was graphic novel “Clementine Book Two” (Skybound Comet, 2023) by writer and illustrator Tillie Walden, part of the trilogy set in the world of Robert Kirkman’s “The Walking Dead.” The book combines zombies with LGBTQ+ themes, which Walden found challenging on several levels.

“In writing a lot of queer stories, I really lean into emotions and relationship,” Walden told Gay City News. “And what I struggled with was matching the intensity of the plot with continuing to do what I want to do with relationships and emotions.”

Expounding on the zombie themes, she added, “I’m genuinely not used to there being kind of a violent element, and how do you have violence while also maintaining, like, a really positive queer thread? Because I want the books to be positive despite the fact that they’re apocalyptic.”

Bans against books on LGBTQ+, African-American and other themes was an urgent concern among presenters. This included Candice Iloh, a first-generation Nigerian American writer, author of the coming-of-age, identity-seeking young adult novel “Salt in The Water” (Penguin Random House, 2023).

In their talk on the Big Books of Next Season panel, Iloh said the response to book banning is to continue produce books certain forces would want to have banned. They also highlighted how in fighting bans, it’s important to make sure children represented by these books are made to feel safe. Centering on the children is important, Iloh said, because “it’s much harder to be going to a school where you’re seeing library shelves with no books in them. And you know that they were taken out because, possibly, the story includes someone like you.”

Expressing a rising sense of anger, Iloh said, “when I’m thinking about these bans, I’m just thinking about how am I going to keep reminding these kids that we love them.”

Ryan La Sala, author of the young adult LGBTQ+ horror fiction book “Beholder” (Scholastic, 2023) and also of “The Honeys” (PUSH, 2022), which is soon to be made into a movie, held conversation with YA writer David Levithan, who is also vice president, editor, and director of Scholastic Press at Scholastic and founding editor of the PUSH imprint. Their conversation ranged from the humorous to the deep, with La Sala explaining how writing “The Honeys” helped him process his sister’s sudden death — a feeling he described from the stage as “this absence in the shape of a person sort of like when a bubble pops.”

La Sala felt LGBTQ+ authors would take a topic and reframe it in a way that other writers wouldn’t, explaining that it is a “really different story when told through the lens of a queer kid who has spent their entire life constructing a persona that renders them invisible to others.” Still, La Sala added that it was important to write stories that were at the intersection of many topics.

Other LGBTQ+ highlights included a lunch keynote conversation with Jacqueline Woodson, a MacArthur Fellow and author of several books on intersectional themes. Her new book is “Remember Us,” (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2023) about two teens navigating a new friendship in Bushwick, Brooklyn.

Sarah Jessica Parker, in her own lunch keynote, emphasized that she was at the event to promote writers and not as a celebrity. She pointed at her watch, signaling how little time there was and that the focus should be on the writer she was introducing, Kim Coleman Foote, whose debut novel is “Coleman Hill: A Novel” (SJP Lit, 2023). Parker created the new imprint SJP Lit last year to bring new voices to the market. The conversation was moderated by Glory Edim, who, among other projects, created the literary non-profit Well-Read Black Girl.

Coleman Foote explained that she “wanted to tell stories about my family that are colorful narratives that I heard growing up,” originally basing the idea on a photograph of her aunts. Among her influences was Audre Lorde after reading “Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – A Biomythography” (Clarkson Potter/Ten Speed, 1982) when she was getting her Masters in Fine Arts.

Parker feels that new, unusual voices will keep people reading, and also challenge current issues.

“In many ways, they change lives,” Parker said. “Books are the greatest way, I think, to cultivate empathy and curiosity, understanding, and to reach for more.”

According to Publishers Weekly, 4,210 people registered to attend the US Book Show, in both person and online. Plans are still in process for the timing and location of next year’s show.