Why Creating Your Own Book Club is Great!

knowledge-1052010_640Between running my various business ventures and taking care of my household, I am constantly juggling a very busy schedule. However, I always look for ways to have some down time, like jogging or doing yoga. As you may have guessed if you have been reading this blog long enough, I like to read a lot as well. I try to read three or four books a month.

About six years ago I started a book club with some of my bibliophile friends who also have busy lives and wanted to find an outlet to participate in a fun, shared activity. The club is still going strong for many reasons:

Bringing diverse people together: All the club members come from a wide variety of life experiences and have different perspectives and opinions on topics, which make the book conversations more interesting. There are currently seven people in the club, which is a good number to have for discussions.

Meeting time and place: About half of my club live locally, while the other half live in other parts of the country. A couple of new members live in Europe and West Africa. Because of this, we do a lot of video conferencing for our monthly meetings via Google Hangout. For those of us locally, we usually rotate meeting at someone’s home and the host provides a computer for video conferencing and food.

Book choices: At the end of each meeting, we all present books we would like to read to each other and then vote on the book to read for next month. We like to read a wide variety of books. The only criteria is that they have to be thought-provoking, informative and takes us out of our comfort zone. We are all history buffs and political junkies, so most of our book choices tend to be nonfiction works dealing with history, current events and international affairs. Recent books have included Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, and Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

Reading habits: We agreed at the beginning that we should finish reading the books before the meetings so the discussions will be more enriching. But sometimes life happens and we can’t always finish the chosen book. We are okay with non-finishers, as long as they have read enough of the book to participate in part of the discussion.
Participation: We ask that all members tell the group at meetings what their reading experience was like and discuss specific themes and passages from the book. They should take about at least one thing they learned or took away from the book. We also want members to ask each other questions that don’t just generate yes or no answers. We really want to dive into the book with serious consideration.

Respect: Differences in opinions can lead to some heated discussions. So we have a rule to respect everyone’s opinion, no matter how much we disagree.

Keep notes: Every meeting someone is designated to take notes on what was said during the meeting – plot summaries, discussion highlights, and members’ opinions. I like reviewing notes because sometimes people say things I wouldn’t have thought of on my own.

I have learned so much from the book club over the year, chief among them, how to be a better critical reader. Being in the book club has also helped me reduce stress, by allowing me to take myself out of my head for a couple hours a month.

This is a great social activity for those of you that like intellectual stimulation. If you don’t want to start your own book club, there are many clubs already in existence both online and in your community that you can join today!

Why Black Female Characters (and Authors) Matter – Part 2

We Need Diverse BooksLast month I wrote a post about the need to have more diverse literature in schools, especially books with black female characters and/or books by black female authors.  In that post I created an awesome, but incomplete list of books that would be great additions to many school curricula and libraries.  I put out a request to you all to tell me about books that I should add to my list, and boy, did I get a ton of responses!  

I decided to created this second list of books based on recommendations I received in my inbox.  Of course, there is never going to be a “complete” list, but the whole point of this is to show that there are books out there that represent many diverse perspectives that all children, regardless of race, should be reading.  Over on Good Read, another list of over 700 books was created just for the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign!

Thanks again for your recommendations. This time around, I have books grouped for children, teens and adults. Hooray for diverse literature!


Dancing in the Wings By Debbie Allen

Firebird By Misty Copeland

Big Hair, Don’t Care By Crystal Swain-Bates

The Princess and the Pea By Rachel Isadora

Rapunzel By Rachel Isadora

The Chicken-Chasing Queen of Lamar County By Janice Harrington

I Love My Hair By Natasha Tarpley

Teens/Young Adults

The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Pointe by Brandy Colbert

The Skin I’m In By Sharon Flake

Camo Girl By Kekla Magoon

November Blues By Sharon Draper

Charm & Strange By Stephanie Kuehn

Akata Witch By Nnedi Okorafor

Money Hunger By Sharon Flake

The Road to Paris By Nikki Grimes

Crystal By Walter Dean Myers

Heaven By Angela Johnson

Feathers By Jacqueline Woodson

Brown Girl, Brownstones By Paule Marshall


The Living is Easy by Dorothy West

Narrative of Sojourner Truth By Sojourner Truth

Sula By Toni Morrison

Beloved By Toni Morrison

Passing By Nella Larson

Quicksand By Nella Larson

Women’s Slave Narratives By Annie Burton

Clotel; or, The President’s Daughter by William Wells Brown

Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People By Sarah Bradford

The Women of Brewster Place By Gloria Naylor

Waiting To Exhale By Terry McMillan

How Stella Got Her Groove Back By Terry McMillan

The Street By Ann Petry

What You Owe Me By Bebe Moore Campbell

Lucy By Jamaica Kincaid

Annie Allen By Gwendolyn Brooks

Why Black Female Characters (and Authors) Matter

We Need Diverse BooksI read this delightful story recently about a young girl in New Jersey who is collecting 1,000 books featuring a black female protagonist. Marley Dias, an 11-year-old black student, said she was “sick of reading books about white boys and dogs.”

“I was frustrated … in fifth grade where I wasn’t reading [books with] a character that I could connect with,” she said.

The sixth grader started her own social media campaign #1000BlackGirlBooks, with the hope that she can donate the books to a school in Jamaica and help other young black girls relate better to the books they read and the characters in them.

What a great idea!  I only wish I was half as thoughtful as she was when I was 11.

This made me think about the books I read when I was younger.  Unfortunately, I really couldn’t think of that many books by black female authors, let alone books with black female protagonists, at least not in elementary or middle schools.  When I finally started reading books by or about black females in high school and college, the subject was a bit intense for my liking at first.  I remember reading:

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

These ground-breaking books were written by dynamic writers, but the subject matter in all of them can be hard to deal with.  All of these books have either been banned or censored by some school districts around the country at one point.The themes ranged from rape, incest, teen pregnancy, colorism, harsh depictions of racism and domestic violence.   

When I first read these books as a teenager, I was especially horrified and saddened, but then amazed and excited, mainly because they were talking about issues I could relate to as a black female in America.  It makes a world of a difference when you can empathize with the protagonist in a book, and this is especially true when the protagonist looks like you. 

I met up with a black female friend who is the mother of a tenth grader the other day, and we were talking about this very subject.  She said she didn’t want her daughter reading any of the above books because she felt they were too vulgar.  “These books make us [black people] look dysfunctional,” she said.  “This is unfortunate because any of these books may be the first book a student of any color will read about women of color during their school years that can set the wrong kinds of assumptions and tones about black women.”

Okay, I can see where she is coming from.  I know there are a lot of other black people who feel the same way.  Maybe this issue of diversity in the protagonist skin tone should also include diversity in subject matter as well.  Statistically, it is still hard to find books in schools with black female or male protagonists on any subject.  According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, out of 3,500 children’s books in schools surveyed in 2014, only 180 were about black people.  The numbers are even worse for books about Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.  This is especially troubling as America will soon become a minority-majority country.

Now, I am not suggesting that we get rid of the white guy authors altogether!  William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are all wonderful authors, who made significant contributions to literature, and kids should still read their books.  But it is time to add more books to school reading lists that better reflect our world today.  

The first step in doing this is to start identifying and putting together book lists that can be used as recommendations to schools and public libraries.  Getting involved with your local school or public library also makes a difference.  Below I put together a list of my recommendations for books by and/or about black females.  I think in the following weeks and months I will also pull together more book lists showcasing many different types of underrepresented groups.  I think if more people did this, there would be more discussion and, thus, more change in the type of literature our kids read.  There is strength in numbers!

However, this is not meant to be a complete list because there are so many books.  While most of them are adult books, many of them can be read by young adults, depending on their maturity level and reading comprehension. I draw this list from my personal experience working in a multicultural book store once and doing advocacy for my local library.  The top ten books on this list are definitely for young adult readers. These are just ones that I thought of off the top of my head.  Please email me if you have any other suggestions for this list or future lists, especially titles for elementary and middle school kids.

The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

The Chaos By Nalo Hopkinson

Fly Girl by Sherri L. Smith

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs.

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange

Caucasia by Danzy Senna

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Push by Sapphire

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Wedding by Dorothy West

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy

Never Far From Nowhere by Andrea Levy

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Reading Amazing Grace Jones

grace jonesOne of the things I want to do more of this new year is read and review books here.  I get so many books for free to read from publishers and publicists, that maybe I should take more advantage of these opportunities.

A great way to kick this off is with Grace Jones’ new memoir ironically titled I’ll Never Write My Memoirs.  I was first introduced to Jones by way of the 1990s film Boomerang, where she plays an crazed supermodel who throws her panties around and says p*ssy a lot.  She also had a few hit songs back in the day, notably Slave to the Rhythm, My Jamaican Guy and La Vie En Rose – all songs I have currently on my iPod.

She is best known for her androgynous look and wild antics, but I didn’t much much about her beyond that.  With David Bowie’s tragic death this week, it is easy to say that she is his female equivalent. She popped up last summer at AfroPunk in all her glory.  I think her performance was amazing.  So I was happy to hear that she was finally releasing her memoirs a few weeks afterwards.

Her book really gave me a chance to get to know her better.  She is a little before my time, but she is still very relevant. There wouldn’t a Lady Gaga, Nicki Minaj or even Madonna if there wasn’t a Grace Jones.  But as she says in the book, unlike many of the today’s singers, she wasn’t putting on an act, she really is a unique wild child.  

She has always been out there long before she became famous; she not putting on an act.  Jones is an original, and not, as she calls Kim Kardashian, a “basic commercial product.” “I cannot be like them, except to the extent that they are already being like me,” Jones says in her book.

So how did Grace Jones become Grace Jones?  The author goes back to her humble beginnings in Jamaica, where she was raised in a strict family of Pentecostal ministers.  When her family moved to Syracuse, New York in the 1960s, it was an opportunity to break away from her religious upbringing.  The book goes into her hippie years doing theater in Philadelphia and living in a commune.  She then moves onto Paris via New York, where her modelling and music careers take off.  She also talks about the many lovers she had over the years, including her on-and-off relationship with Jean Paul Goude, the father of her only child, Paulo, actor Dolph Lundgren, and her brief marriage to a Muslim man who is half her age.

There is also so much name dropping in the book that you start to wonder what famous people Jones doesn’t know!

grace jones

What I was really disappointed in was that there wasn’t much discussion in the book about her androgyny, from the vantage point of what people at that time thought of her look, since it was still pretty taboo in the 1970s and 1980s for a masculine looking, black woman wearing a suit.  

I was specifically hoping that would have addressed the accusation of racism in her image that was created by Goude, who said in 1979 “I had jungle fever… Blacks are the premise of my work.” I get from the book that she was equally responsible for her image, and most of it draws from exploring her Jamaican upbringing and cross gender feelings.  She also says that she connects more with men, or really gay men, who tended to collaborate with her the most throughout her storied career.

But I am looking at her from a more nuanced perspective. She comes from a different era where a lot of her racial imagery wouldn’t be scrutinized like it would be today.  She was asked in a recent interview about how young people today might feel uncomfortable about her image.  In true Grace Jones fashion, she essentially said she really didn’t give a …  “Somebody feels uncomfortable with a certain type of art,” she said. ” But it is an art form to me.”

Despite her public image as a wild child, she lives a pretty normal life as a tennis fan and jigsaw player in between being a grandmother.

As a veteran of the entertainment world, Jones gives sage advice, like don’t live in superficial Hollywood and eat pumpkins to stay young instead of Botox.  That is probably why she looks so young and fabulous on her book cover!

“In the end, I am quite normal,” Jones says.  “I don’t have odd habits.  I might dramatize things a bit, but only because I take things seriously, or sometimes not seriously enough.”