Esmé J

Esmé dipped her toes in a variety of career paths while making her way through a degree in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. The music industry was too hot, non-profit work was too cold. Since graduating in May of 2019, she is thrilled to have found this opportunity to funnel her lifelong love of reading, craving for community, and general rage into one incredible project. Firestorm feels just right! Lately, Esmé is taking a break from feminist theory to embrace her completely guiltless pleasure in Young Adult literature. She is excited to spread these electric books far and wide in her role as Business to Business and Off-Site Sales Manager. Catch her at your local school book fair or Vegfest and tell her about a book that shifted you for the better.

Esmé's Staff Picks

Showing 1 - 9 of 9 items

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The woods conceal potent herbs, trickster foxes, and chilling secrets in this American Gothic portrayal of the role of folk medicine on American plantations in the antebellum period and immediately following the Civil War. The book follows a medicine woman born into slavery named Rue, whose inherited knowledge of hoodoo opens up opportunities to influence the complex power structure of the plantation, as well as accusations of consorting with the devil.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Conjure Woman is the strained “friendship” between Rue and the daughter of her enslaver, Varina. The two women are born into vastly different but intertwined lives. While the evil of the plantation owner, Marse Charles, is absolute, Varina is a victim in her own way to the gendered expectations of her circumstance. This makes the violence that spoiled but often “well-meaning” Varina enacts against Rue all the more devastating - a damning critique of the long tradition of white feminism.

Atakora exposes the sinister violence ingrained in plantation life while honoring the knowledge, ingenuity, and mediums of agency passed down between Black women of the era.

Read for: An ominous ambiance, complex characters, and wonderful use of symbolism to complete cycles and bring the story to a satisfying close

Content warnings: Physical and psychological violence against Black people, sexual violence, birth, miscarriage, abortion, and addiction.

The eye-catching title "How to Do Nothing" may be a bit reductive, but the subtitle gets closer to the book's overall goal. Odell points to the ways that corporate interests monetize our attention and explores spaces, activities, and art that challenge this gospel of productivity. Far from promoting expensive beach vacations, Odell advocates periodic retreat to inspire and reorient future actions that are anything but selfish. This is the perfect COVID read as we all prepare for the long haul of quarantine and protests. Raise hell, rest, repeat!

Read for: Interesting - leaning towards academic - essays on technology, performance art, and birdwatching that will inspire you to shake up your routine and re-evaluate where your attention goes.

CW: Nothing stood out to me.

Wow! I am usually luke-warm about short story collections because it rarely feels like enough time for me to become invested in the story or characters, but Jemisin immediately pulled me in within the first couple of sentences. Some of the stories are dystopian and grotesque, many are invigorating and hopeful, most leave lingering questions unanswered. Jemisin allows us only a taste of the strange and wonderful futuristic worlds she has dreamed up.

My favorites were the sensual, mysterious stories centered around food that made me ache for half-forgotten meals, and yearn for flavors yet unknown. 

Read for: Something that will blow your mind!

CW: Some blood & gore, death, natural disasters.

This unhurried, character-driven read is from 2016 but feels incredibly topical given the recent attention on India's military occupation of Kashmir and rising Hindu nationalism. Roy resists the trap of "a single story" by interweaving opposing perspectives and contradictory truths as her characters take different approaches to navigating the violence of the state. Roy's poetic prose and blistering observations of injustice make this book my all-time fave!

Read for: A book that will stay with you for a life-time

CW: There are some disturbing depictions of gun violence, mob violence, torture, and sexual violence. I have a pretty low tolerance for these things and I got through them, but this definitely is not a lighthearted read. Also content warnings for death, alcoholism, mention of the deaths of animals.

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"Time has a way of eternally looping us in the same configurations. Like fruit flies, we are unable to register the patterns. Just because we are the crest of the wave does not mean the ocean does not exist. What has been before will be again."

Set in a northern region where the seasons oscillate between the permanent darkness of winter and the delirious never-ending daylight of summer, Tanya Tagaq's #ownvoices mythobiography dances between extremes. Presented through gorgeous poetry, prose, and retellings of myths, Split Tooth explores the tenderness and beauty that coexists with the harshness of daily life in a tight-knit indigenous community devastated by colonialism, addiction, and sexual abuse. In equal measure fantastical and brutally real, Split Tooth will appeal to fans of other dark magical realism titles such as Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House and Akwaeke Emezi's Freshwater.

Read for: Do you like  books that are beautiful, heart-wrenching, and truly bizarre? This one is for you.

Content warnings: Wow this book will not make you feel good. Addiction, domestic violence, sexual abuse, pregnancy & birth, infanticide

“She learns to ask. To want. To hope. Learns the feeling of responding to a hunger that lives, not in her belly, but somewhere else in her body.”

A People's History of Heaven offers a portrayal of an impoverished urban community in India which is both honest about the hardships this community faces and is not written like tragedy-porn. Instead, Subramanian's focus is the ways in which the members of the community fiercely show up for one another across difference to not only survive, but to carve out joy in their ironically (or perhaps aptly) named neighborhood called "Heaven." The people of Heaven are tenacious, loyal, resourceful, and creative. They reject the pitying gaze of international "aid" and engage in resistance in the tradition of grassroots Indian activists. A People's History of Heaven is not a replacement for deeper conversations around gender-violence, colorism, government corruption, and rising Hindu nationalism in India, but it is an important acknowledgement of the inherent value and agency of the people that fall "at the bottom" of these structures.

Read for: lyrical prose, uplifting representations of gender and sexual diversity with family support, post-colonial analysis,  youth friendly

Content warnings: One scene of verbal harassment towards a transgender youth. State violence and poverty (not graphic).

There are two kinds of people in the world.
Male and Female.
Gay and Straight.
Black and White.
Normal and Weird.
Cis and Trans.
There are two kinds of people in the world.
Saints and Sinners.
Victims and Villains.
Cruel and Kind.
Guilty and Innocent.
There are two kinds of people in the world.
Just two.
Just two.
Only two.”

Richard set someone on fire. Even worse, he may have done so because that person is gender-queer, which would legally make it a hate crime. However, this gut-wrenching event and its aftermath, which unfolded to national interested in Oakland in 2013, may not be as clear cut as it may at first appear. Slater guides us through the story with nuance and compassion, challenging our understandings of what it means to be arrested for a violent crime in a juvenile criminal justice system which disproportionately engages with black and brown youth. What would justice look like for Sasha, the sweet and quirky white teen who spent painful weeks in a hospital burn unit. What could justice look like for Richard, the sweet and quirky black teen whose impulsive decision forever shaped the lives of both families involved?

Read for: An engaging and accessible intro to non-binary genders, they/them pronouns, and critiques of the criminal justice system. This book would make an excellent gift for liberal parents who unsure of how to engage in these conversations!

CW: Someone is set on fire and while not incredibly graphic, it is difficult to read.

"In Appalachia, coal isn't just coal. It's the blackest part of a constellation of knowledge that tells us it is easier in our world to bury a person alive than to lift her up."

Historian Elizabeth Catte's biting response to J.D Vance's popular memoir Hillbilly Elegy does exactly what it sets out to do. What You are Getting Wrong About Appalachia retrieves the narrative from the sticky fingers of sensational journalists, "local color" writers, eugenicists disguised as academics, and self-appointed Appalachian representatives such as Vance. Through storytelling and photographic imagery of the labor and civil rights movements which are deeply rooted in these hills, Catte complicates our belief in a white, complacent, and doomed Appalachia.

Read for: a solid history of Appalachia post-colonization, sharp and highly quotable writing

Content warnings: State and interpersonal violence (non-graphic), discussions of white supremacy

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"They’re all terrified of a word they don’t understand, scared that religious law is going to infiltrate the land, but meanwhile they support the death penalty, are anti-choice, and think creationism should be taught in schools because of… wait for it… religion.”

Ahmed wrote Internment before the results of the 2016 election, and the way she was able to predict the trajectory of rising white nationalism encouraged by the Trump administration can only be described as chilling. Internment shows us a world in which brutal internment camps for Muslim Americans are both horrifying and entirely plausible. Through her courageous teenage protagonist, Layla, Ahmed honors youth resistance building and delivers a call to action which is unable to be ignored.

Read for: A good history of concentration camps on American soil contextualized in our current political moment, own voices storytelling, diverse portrayals of Muslims

Content warnings: Islamophobia, State and interpersonal violence, brief mentions of sexual violence, somewhat graphic (non-sexual) violence + blood, violence against children, gun violence, death of a main character