Meet the creator of TikTok who helps black readers find their main characters, one recommendation at a time
BookTok, a section of TikTok populated by book lovers, critics and writers, has been hailed for democratizing the world of publishing. Fans can use the app to talk about books they loved, reads they hated, and authors they can’t get enough of. And with enough traction, creators have sometimes become responsible for a book’s resurgence on bestseller lists.
But by mirroring the publishing industry, BookTok has also tackled one of its biggest problems – the lack of diversity. For Kendra Keeter-Gray, reading the same white papers just wasn’t enough. So she created an account (@ kendra.reads) dedicated to sharing the book and the main characters of color that she couldn’t get enough of.
“I just wanted more people to talk about books with it, but I kept thinking something was missing,” Keeter-Gray said. “A lot of BookTokers were white and they were just doing a lot of the same books. I was like, ‘Wait, well, I like these books too, but I think I can add something a little more.
The 23-year-old spoke to me from her studio in Los Angeles, where small white shelves behind her almost curl under the weight of colorful hardback books. Like most of his peers, Keeter-Gray has a life outside of his TikTok account. She studied television, writing and production in college, with the goal of working in Hollywood. Now her day job is something most people dream of, working straight into the television industry. But during the pandemic, his love for books turned into a passion to make TikToks about them.
Just two months after starting her BookTok profile, she has gained nearly 60,000 subscribers and her account is thriving within the app’s book community, which she never expected to happen too. quickly.
Unlike major BookTok accounts, Keeter-Gray’s videos don’t stick to a unified format. Instead, the 60-second clips are as unique as they are, with some reviewing popular books, others creating collections such as “Five Star Reads of the Year” and no less than eight videos. usually revolves around novelist Emily Henry. But her biggest focus is on showcasing books that showcase women and people of color, something Keeter-Gray is incredibly passionate about.
“My mom encouraged us to read so we wouldn’t feel so alone in our very white school. But I always played the changing game in my head, even though the character had blue eyes and blonde hair, ignoring those descriptions and focusing on what we had in common instead, ”she says. “But at the end of the day, especially as I got older, I realized there was a trend – I was never the protagonist.”
Yet reading became an escape for Keeter-Gray, and when she found characters who resembled her, these books gave her a whole new perspective on what it could be to read.
“Reading black writers like Jasmine Guillory and Talia Hibbert was amazing because they are about all these different girls with different body types, jobs and backgrounds and they fall in love with the best men!” Keeter-Gray said. “These books took me to college because I was so excited to read about people who looked like me. They proved to me, unlike other books, that ‘OK, I can look the way I do. make and always fall in love or live great adventures “. I am worthy of it.”
When Keeter-Gray saw the lack of representation on BookTok, she worked to fill that gap. One of her first viral videos was a compilation featuring black girls “who fall in love and are themselves”. The video, which features authors of color such as Elizabeth Acevedo and Nicola Yoon, has over 65,000 views, and the comments are filled with other literature fans giving and accepting recommendations.
Continuing to feature writers and characters of color is a move that seems to have worked well for Keeter-Gray. Eighteen days after starting her TikTok account, she had 10,000 subscribers. Today, she has more than 59,000 followers, nearly a million likes and a thriving community, not full of fans, but of friends that she has made thanks to her TikToks.
“I try not to think too much about the fans,” Keeter-Gray told me. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘OK, if I can just get to like a hundred followers, I’ll feel good. Then I had my first viral video, with people who said they never had. heard about these books and they were I was going to read them and just felt like I had to keep going. ”
Keeter-Gray says she’s happy to help bring black books to BookTok and doesn’t blame white creators or authors for the lack of diversity. Instead, she points to the publishing world for how black books are underrepresented and undervalued compared to the jump, making it harder for them to make it to bestseller lists by. compared to books with white main characters.
“I think it all depends on the publishers and what they push, mostly because they think black books don’t make money,” she said. “I don’t mean to say that things are changing now because it moves at a snail’s pace. More and more voices are being published, but nowhere near the same rate as white authors and white stories. is why I am happy to have found this community. ”
Book recommendations on TikTok even influenced book sales, with fan favorites like “They both die at the end“and”The song of Achilles“hitting the New York Times bestseller list years after their debut – a powerhouse that could potentially lead to change in the industry.
While Keeter-Gray’s hope is to harness that kind of influence for books that put black readers first, she has already achieved her biggest goal: to find a community that cares as much as she does. made. She says her comments and DMs are filled with conversations from black people and women who are thrilled to see her recommendations, especially after reading the books and seeing themselves in the characters.
“What I want at the end of the day is for every other black child, black person, whoever they are, to stumble upon my page and realize that there are books they can enjoy there. where they’re taken care of and they’re the main character. ”Keeter-Gray said.“ And maybe one day the books I’m pictured will become as popular as the books I’m not – that’s all I want.”