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BookTubers in Black History Month: Jesse of Bowties and Books Shares the First Book That Made Them Feel Seen and More

Meet Jesse of Bowties & Books and the ENBY Book Club.

Jesse Morales-Small posing and flanked next to a collage of some of their favorite books. (Image: Jesse Morales-Small and various publishers.)

In celebration of Black History Month, I want to highlight some of my favorite Black BookTubers (check back on this page for more throughout the month!), as they not only greatly enrich my reading but influence my writing here at The Mary Sue. In addition to not limiting their discussion of Black titles to what’s on the New York Times bestsellers list or only highlighting these books in February, they offer much-needed analysis often overlooked by people from different cultural backgrounds.

For those unfamiliar with the space, BookTube is the general book space of YouTube. This is similar to other social media where book content has flourished, like Bookstagram and BookTok. Many of the people I’ll highlight throughout the month will be on more than one platform, but YouTube is their bread and butter in all cases.

Despite being in a small corner of the platform, publishers and booksellers are wholly aware of the power of reviewers on YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram. Word-of-mouth recommendations hold a lot of weight to readers. YouTube even reached out to some BookTubers in the early phase of YouTube originals for a limited series.

Heavily inspired by Briana Lawrence’s 29 spotlights for #28daysofBlackCosplay last year, I’m interviewing a different person each week and sharing it on Fridays throughout February—so come back to meet the other readers in the weeks ahead! We hope you find a person or two whose reading taste, in genre or mood, aligns with yours and you (like me) get blessed/cursed with a never-ending to-be-read pile.

Bowties and Books

Jesse Morales-Small (a.k.a. Bowties and Books) is a non-binary, Afro Chicano creator in Minnesota known for reading fantasy, speculative fiction, thrillers, horror, and coming-of-age stories. In addition to Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube uploads, they host annual events like Blackathon.

I’ve mentioned them quite a few times in articles the last few months, so this formal introduction is a long time coming. Morales-Small turned me on to Nigerian speculative fiction writer Akwaeke Emezi’s work, and they are absolutely right to bring it up in what feels like every other video. Their TBR cards (which I own a set of) also made our bookish gift guide for the winter holidays but are always applicable.

I spoke with them over email about some of their favorite story tropes, anticipated 2022 releases, and what they’ve learned starting and running Blackathon for four years.

Alyssa Shotwell (TMS): What made you go from a YouTube viewer to creator? Was it originally for bookish content or something else?

Jesse Morales-Small: I wanted to have a virtual diary to keep me accountable for my reading journey! Academia and entering the workforce at age 17/18 really destroyed my relationship to books. I knew that if I began a channel, I would be forced to stay on track of reading because there would be “people watching.” I’m the kind of person who struggles to let people down and works well under pressure. Imagine my surprise to find that Booktube would become my entire heart and soul.

TMS: What three videos are your most proud of and why? This could be for how they were shot, how they did numbers-wise, your outfit, analysis—anything! 

Morales-Small: Oh wow, I love this question! I absolutely ADORE my “Black Travel Books” video because it centers on stories about Black people going on vacation. Those are life-changing narratives – that’s Black joy right there. We need those books. I want to make another one of those videos now that it’s been a year and I have way more recs!

I also REALLY love my “White authors don’t define what’s scary” video. It was a touchy topic for many, but ultimately necessary for me as someone who LOVES reading thriller spectrum books by Black authors. Too often, the way Black authors write for the genre is determined ‘not scary enough’ mainly because of non-Black readers failing to empathize with the horrific situations Black folks are enduring in these books. It’s not ‘scary’ to them – so they say it can’t possibly be a thriller. But what does fear mean for a Black vs a white person? It’s different.

Black authors just also write differently than white authors may. So a white reader used to thrillers from a white perspective, simply may not see how the book contributes to the genre because they’re reading from a white, euro western lens.

I also adore my reading experiment videos. I did one called “can Booktok be trusted?” – where I read popular BookTok romances and it was a LOT of fun.

TMS: What do you feel is a slept-on book that is very similar to a very popular book always recommended or super hyped? 

Morales-Small: I am obsessed with this question, wow. Let’s go with Beasts of Prey. We all know that Fantastic Beasts is an all too popular work and that the appeal of the book is mythical creatures. Well, Beasts of Prey is all about a girl, an indentured servant, who is forced to care for these volatile beasts. It’s a West African setting and also features a male, neurotypical character. The two of them must go on a journey together (there’s my beloved journey trope again!) and it is FLAWLESS.

Beasts of Prey by Ayana Gray. (Image: G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers.)

(G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers)

TMS: If you could live in any fictional universe, what would it be and why? 

Morales-Small: I am pretty obsessed with Sailor Moon – that whole universe means a great deal to me. I always dreamed about being a Sailor Scout.

TMS: What is your favorite trope? Something you always say “yes, please” to. 

Morales-Small: A journey with a mythical and or animal guide. It gives, “add to cart”

TMS: How do you get yourself out of a reading slump?

Morales-Small: Comic books and graphic novels! work me out of it every single time.

TMS: I’m sorry I’m going to do this…. what are your 5 favorite books of all time? (A series can count as one book or story because I’m not evil.) 

Wow, and I thought we were friends? Okay so,
1. Dear Senthuran by Akwaeke Emezi
2. White Oleander by Janet Fitch
3. The Fifth Season (Broken Earth Trilogy) – N.K. Jemisin
4. Akata Witch (Nsibidi Scripts) – Nnedi Okorafor, and
5. The Poppy War (Trilogy) – R.F. Kuang

TMS: If you could ask one of your favorite authors a question about a particular book, what would you ask and why? 

Morales-Small: I would ask R.F. Kuang WHY The Trifecta came to the end that they did as well as what the big secret they were hiding was because those feel connected.

TMS: What books are you most looking forward to reading in 2022? This can be new releases, a yearly reread, or something else. 

Morales-Small: Warsan Shire’s poetry book is actually my most anticipated book release of the year. It goes without saying that I’m anticipating all 3 of Akwaeke’s books but the Warsan title I’ve been yearning for years now. My second is Simon Jimenez’s new book because I’m still obsessed and not over The Vanished Birds. I’m also DYING for Emily XR Pan’s latest book – The Astonishing Color of After destroyed me. And out of Akwaeke’s books, I’m anticipating their poetry book the hardest. 

TMS: If you could travel back in time to the moment you decided to take a jab at YouTube and give yourself advice, what advice would that be? 

Morales-Small: Don’t read books just because they’re hyped. Read what you want. period.

TMS: Every other week we get news of this or that book getting an adaption. What is a story you hope gets adapted and who are some creatives in front of or behind the camera you want involved (besides the author if applicable)? 

Morales-Small: Gosh, I would give up my wardrobe for an Akata Witch adaptation. Seriously, I would die for it. I would love to see Lupita Nyong’o be part of it and Chiwetelu Ejiofor.

Akata Witch Book. (Speak.)


TMS: It’s not our place to come up with solutions, but if YouTube could do one thing to make the space safer for you and fellow Black creatives what would it be? 

Morales-Small: Better comment screening technology and an algorithm that doesn’t systematically disadvantage Black YouTubers and make it hard for smaller Black creators to grow.

TMS: When was the first time you felt SEEN in a book? This can be for any reason like identity-based, personality, goals, etc. 

Morales-Small: The first time was Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. My whole life I had hidden my identity as a spirit selved being. I didn’t know someone could write about spiritual inheritance, spiritual possession, and embodiment until Akwaeke did. That was when I realized, “oh. I don’t have to hide if I don’t want to. I can live in the light. I can walk out of the shadows.”

Cover of Freshwater. (Image: Grove Press.)

(Grove Press)

TMS: To those new to you, what is Blackathon, and what’s something you’ve learned about the process of making long-form reading events? 

Morales-Small: Blackathon is a resistance movement. It is the practice of building a table meant for us (Black folk), instead of trying to fit into seats long worn with the shapes of other bodies.

Over the years, I’ve learned that there’s ups and downs to hosting alone and with cohosts. You host alone then it centers the readathon around one person when it should be a community of hosts, each with different perspectives and backgrounds. BUT if you cohost, you are dependent on others to do what they say they will, you have to follow up with them, wait until they can get their content up, and sometimes if they are unable to or forget to, it adds more last-minute stress to your own plate.

The best way to deal with this is to have really clear communication and to realize you can’t make everything perfect. A big part of Blackathon with cohosts is practicing letting go – learning how to be flexible and to breathe because at the end of the day, it’s about community. and community isn’t always perfect. 

TMS: You have the floor. Is there anything you want to say to our readers?

Morales-Small: Make sure yall are reading non-Western Black books and books from disabled authors/disabled main characters. Big plug for my nonbinary book club called Enbybookclub on Instagram. We read a book by a non-binary author each month, vote on all our books, and we have two author talks scheduled coming up. The first is with Anita Kelly, who wrote our February book, Love & Other Disasters.

We will be doing a big giveaway for copies of that book as well! In addition to giveaways, interviews, and holding space for Enby books, I do fun/educational reels, and posts about being non-binary. It’s a great space and I’m so proud of it. My goal is to get us to 10k this year – we just hit 9,000 members and it’s so exciting!

You can check out Morales-Small on YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok.

(featured image: Jesse Morales-Small and various publishers.)

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(she/her) Award-winning artist and blogger with experience and education in graphic design, art history, and museum studies. This resident of the yeeHaw land spends most of her time watching movies, reading and playing the same handful of video games—even as the playtime on Steam reaches the quadruple digits. Currently playing: Balder's Gate 3, Apex Legends, and CS:GO.