Author Ebony LaDelle wrote ‘Love Radio,’ a YA romance novel, for herself at age 13

Heather Polk | @artcuresall

My very first book club had only two members: me and my mother. Aside from our routine Sunday afternoon visits to our local library, there was no real formality or structure to our meetings. But I treasured that quality time, perusing the spines of the books intently in search of our next pick.

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As I grew, my appetite for reading also increased. My single mom did her best to keep up with the demand, but sometimes the exhaustion from a long day at work outweighed a trip to the library. Tired of re-reading the books I had consulted, I turned to uncharted territory – her stash of romance novels. To my surprise, my mother not only accepted my new interest in her romantic literature, but she also allowed me to ask questions about what I was reading. Talking about these love books with my mom sparked some of the most real conversations we’ve ever had. We talked about everything from love, sex, relationships and happy endings to problematic tropes, like the damsel in distress.

Talking about love books with my mom sparked some of the most real conversations we’ve ever had.

I continued to read these novels well into my teens, but still wasn’t completely taken with the genre. Well, my problem wasn’t with the genre itself, more so with the lack of diversity in most stories. Years of reading about mostly white, blue-eyed characters made me feel like the writers and gatekeepers of the book industry didn’t care enough about people like me (a young black woman) or my mother. (a grown black woman) to write and publish romances that understood and spoke to us.

Every once in a while I’d come across a few novels that centered on the romantic lives of black girls and women, cult classics from the ’90s like Omar Tyree’s. Flying girls and at Sister Soulah The coldest winter ever were circulating like hot cakes in my school. While I recognized and related to these characters better, these books represented only a small part of the larger spectrum of Blackness. And so my hunt for nuanced representation in romance continued into adulthood. What I didn’t know was that I was looking for a book that didn’t exist yet.

In college, I got a job on campus at the Howard University Bookstore. It was then that I learned more about the inner workings of the book industry and realized that I could turn my literary aspirations into a real career. So for the past decade, I’ve worked as a marketer at some of the biggest publishing houses, helping to introduce and elevate black authors and their books to a national audience.

When I entered the business, I tried to identify the first young adult romance novel written by a black author, expecting to find an underrated book written a long time ago. What I found shocked me. The book that kept coming up in my search was indigo summer by Monica McKayhan, a 2017 novel published by Kimani Tru, the very first imprint or division created for black young adult romance books. (Interestingly, McKayhan revealed in a 2009 interview that her motivations mirrored mine: “I first wanted to write for young people when I discovered that teenagers read their parents’ books (inappropriate adult books)”, she said “There was clearly a lack of stories for young people of color.”) My work as an editor was satisfying, but things weren’t moving fast enough. In 2018, six years into my career, romance novels written by white authors 90% compound or more offers from most publishers.

So by day I continued to champion black writers, and by night I started to become one.

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Throughout 2019, I imagined the kaleidoscopic lives of Prince, a Detroit-based DJ and resident romance expert, and Dani, the cynical aspiring writer who also happens to be Prince’s childhood crush. Inspired by Jasmine Guillory, Nicola Yoon, Kristina Forest and other pioneering black women’s novel writers, I wrote love radio, a story I felt I would read at age 13, a story that spoke to my individual and community experiences as a black girl without focusing on stereotypical images of inner-city communities. And once 2020 hit and I started noticing how hardest hit black communities were by and during the coronavirus pandemic, writing about love was a balm of joy in a time of suffering and of devastation.

There is still a long way to go. Achieving real change in romance literature requires supporting both black authors who already embody the genre and upcoming and beginning authors, while challenging the status quo of what romance should and can do. look like. That’s why I’m grateful for those book club days with my mom, when I learned to consider different kinds of stories and question vast gaps in representation. I learned the power of honest and insightful criticism, the importance of writing as a craft. I hope we continue to see more and more authors from marginalized communities, writing about the love stories they didn’t see for themselves growing up. And for all future generations of teenagers, I wish they never again felt a lack of representation or love.

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Irene B. Bowles