At Seattle Urban Book Expo, the Books Look Like Seattle

J.L. Cheatham created the city’s only book expo for authors of color.

Courtesy Urban Book Expo

J.L. Cheatham II took his 4-year-old daughter to the Tukwila Barnes & Noble to find her a book about her newest obsession—dinosaurs. Once they got to the kids’ section, he noticed something: There were plenty of books about dinosaurs, but on “all the covers,” Cheatham tells me, “there were no black or brown faces.” He decided then and there to write his daughter a dinosaur book starring kids who look like her. After months of research, Cheatham published his first book: The Family Jones and the Eggs of Rex.

He learned then that publication isn’t the end of a process, it’s the very beginning. Authors today have to promote their books and network around the clock. Cheatham was invited to participate in the Toronto Urban Book Expo, and “it blew my mind. Just the energy, the crowd, the music—everything.” When he returned home, he tried to contact Seattle’s expo for authors of color—but quickly realized there isn’t one. Nobody in Seattle had put together an inclusive event for authors of color to find their fans, network, and celebrate their community.

So naturally Cheatham did it himself. In its second year, the Seattle Urban Book Expo has grown exponentially. It happens on Saturday at Washington Hall, but at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 23, Cheatham and other Expo authors will sit on a panel at the Seattle Public Library downtown to talk about their books and their experiences as authors. All are welcome.

What can people expect? Cheatham says “The goal is to have a literary party.” He’s signed up 20 authors for the Expo—more than twice last year’s roster—from a range of genres including comics, sci-fi, romance, erotica, and self-help. Part of Washington Hall will be turned over to kids’ entertainment (including face-painting and coloring writing classes) and the parking lot next door will be a full-service food court anchored by the Catfish Corner food truck. “I want people to show up and stay for a bit,” he explains.

As someone who has worked in and covered the book scene in Seattle for almost two decades, I’m embarrassed to admit to Cheatham that I don’t recognize many of the names of Expo participants. Seattle is segregated in a lot of ways, and it seems our literary scene is no exception. Cheatham is working hard to create an environment that puts these authors in front of the entire city. “We all want an opportunity. We just want a chance to show our work,” he says.

When that happens, things get better for everyone. As Cheatham puts it, “We just need to cultivate this bubbling artistic atmosphere that’s going on here in Seattle, you know?”

Washington Hall, 153 14th Ave., washingtonhall.org. Pay what you can. All ages. 1–5 p.m. Sat., Aug. 26. Paul Constant is co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. Read books coverage at seattlereviewofbooks.com.

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