J.L. Cheatham II took his four-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 started looking around, and he noticed something: There were plenty of books about dinosaurs, but on “all the covers of the children’s books,” Cheatham tells me, “there were no black or brown faces.” He decided right then and there to write his daughter a dinosaur book that starred kids who look like her. After months of research, Cheatham published his first book: The Family Jones and the Eggs of Rex.
Cheatham learned then that publication isn’t the end of a process; it’s the very beginning. Authors today have to promote their own 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, Cheatham tried to get in contact with Seattle’s expo for authors of color. He quickly realized that this event simply doesn’t exist. 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. Now, the Seattle Urban Book Expo is in its second year, and it’s grown at an exponential rate. The Expo happens on Saturday August 26th at Washington Hall from 1 to 5, and at 7 pm on Wednesday, August 23rd, 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 to Washington Hall 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,” Cheatham 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 the participants at the Expo. Seattle is a segregated city in a lot of ways, and it seems that 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?”