Interview with Rainbow Boxes Founders Amy Rose Capetta & Cori McCarthy
I stumbled upon Rainbow Boxes on Twitter and decided to check them out. As I was researching, I saw that they had only reached sixty percent of their goal on Indiegogo, and their social media accounts had been inactive since late 2016. I feared that their campaign might have been unsuccessful, so I reached out to one of the founders, Amy Rose Capetta, and asked if Rainbow Boxes was still operating. Fortunately, it was, just not in the form that I was expecting. Recently, I talked with the founders of Rainbow Boxes, Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy to discuss their charitable initiative to get LGBTQIA YA fiction into the hands of young readers everywhere.
What is Rainbow Boxes? And why did you create it?
Rainbow Boxes is a charitable initiative that we put together in 2015 in which we crowdsourced over 15k to send boxes of inclusive fiction to community libraries and LGBTQ+ support shelters. We ended up sending fifty boxes of 15 titles (swaddled in rainbow duct tape!), one to every state.
We created it because we lived in rural Michigan, an unfriendly place for being anything but cishet. We were often afraid to be an openly queer couple in public and spent a lot of time at home dreaming about a better world and looking for inclusive fiction. We discovered that while we knew about many great LGBTQ+ titles being released, many of them did not have great marketing plans and had little hope of reaching the LGBTQ+ teens in rural areas.
Additionally, we noticed that many community libraries have hurdles to getting these books on shelves. One large hurdle is that acquisition funding can be limited to bestselling titles, and with limited visibility, queer books are so rarely bestsellers (this has slightly improved since 2015!). Another large hurdle is that in some conservative areas we found there’s an outright unwillingness to include these titles in the library.
We set out to find a way to reach both those teens who identified with these books and the community libraries that could use this representation on their shelves for everyone.
Thank you @RainbowBoxesYA pic.twitter.com/TCFyVbW9Qu
— Granville Stuart (@UncleGranville) September 30, 2016
As authors, you have a different perspective than a reader. Does that factor into how you select the books for Rainbow Boxes?
We were very selective for the Rainbow Boxes titles. Beyond looking for great representation, uplifting and #ownvoices stories, and diversity of race and genre, we were hoping to support lesser-known authors and titles. We picked a few books that are swiftly becoming standard in libraries (like Simon Versus the Homosapiens Agenda and Two Boys Kissing), but we also chose lesser-known books like Kekla Magoon’s 37 Things I Love and Alex London’s Proxy.
Many initiatives that focus on LGBTQIA YA select books that are homogenous when it comes to race or they highlight the L, G, and sometimes the B. How did being inspired by We Need Diverse Books influence your initiative and the YA fiction you choose for the boxes?
We did our best to find books for as many identities as we could. We failed, ultimately, to find a book that met all our qualifications with a main character on the ace spectrum, which was disappointing, to say the least.
It was important to us that the Rainbow Box included intersections of queerness with race and disability, and we were happy to find that by choosing many of our favorite titles we could do just that. We also aimed to cover a variety of genres to reach as many teen readers as possible. One of our biggest delights was finding fantasy and science fiction with inclusive main characters (because we are genre nerds through and through!).
It’s important to note that the titles included were chosen before our fundraising cutoff in 2015. We read dozens of books for possible inclusion, but LGBTQ+ YA has exploded since then—which is amazing and gives us lots of hope. But we all must support these books if we want them to thrive. We must buy them (preorder!), request them at libraries, hand them to teen readers. It’s going to take years of book sales and buzz and a constant outpouring of love and support for #ownvoices authors to make a real difference in the publishing mindset.
Why did you decide to work together on this project?
Because we love each other. And live together. And dream big together.
I can imagine taking on a project of this magnitude can be stressful. What’s been your experience working together as significant others? Has it made things easier? Harder?
Admittedly, we work extraordinarily well together. This is probably the only reason that this huge undertaking worked out so smoothly. We had to do all the work in our spare time—several hundred volunteer hours—mostly at night. For several weeks our living room was overflowing with boxes of gorgeous fiction. We put on our favorite movies while researching the addresses for the boxes and packing them up. It never really felt like work, although we did get an astounding number of cardboard-induced papercuts.
In the end, the hardest part about the Rainbow Boxes initiative was the rejection from many community libraries. Some states welcomed these boxes with open arms. A few even politely turned down the boxes because they already had most of these titles in circulation. But in many states, we had to reach out to over a dozen libraries before we found one that would agree to put the books on their shelves.
Nearly a hundred libraries ignored our message—which offered a free box of brand new, award-winning, mostly hardcover, inclusive fiction ($250 value). All that we asked in return is that they put the titles on the general teen fiction shelves and not segregate them in an LGBTQ+ section.
One library, from a state we will not name, even changed their mind and sent their box back.
Unfortunately, this mirrors the reality that queer people in the US live with every day. The state and regional differences in queer acceptance and anti-discrimination policies are stark, and this tends to leak into every aspect of life, including what stories queer teens (and the straight teens who should also be reading these awesome books!) have access to.
On the flipside, reaching out to the GSAs and LGBTQ+ support shelters was a joy. They were always excited, always thankful. In some states, we had to find the shelters via word of mouth—for safety reasons—but we found them. Because love is everywhere.
How has working on this project impacted your writing?
It’s made us feel the importance, even more keenly, of writing our truth—and then it’s also given us a realistic view of the challenges that still exist for LGBTQ+ fiction.
Inclusive fiction has been treated (and in many cases, is still being treated) in mainstream publishing like a “niche” marketing group. The idea that books with LGBTQ+ characters are only purchased by LGBTQ+ teens is devastating. It reinforces the idea that only queer people care about other queer people. That queer stories don’t matter in the far-reaching way that cishet stories do. It becomes a vicious cycle. If LGBTQ+ books are treated like they’ll only reach a small audience, that’s what they do.
Right now, we’re seeing an upswing in publication and attention for inclusive fiction, and yet, the last time we walked the floors at a book convention, there weren’t ARCs piled up for these books like the others. So much of LGBTQ+ fiction sales still comes down to getting the word out on Twitter and via WNDB.
I noticed there had been no activity on your social media accounts since 2016. What’s next for Rainbow Boxes?
At this time, the box initiative was a one-time event. We might do it again in a few years, but right now our writing is full-time and then some. We’ve also had to relocate from Michigan to Vermont, following the election and death threats leveled at our family. We wanted to live in a state with anti-discrimination laws in place, as well as a more accepting mindset for our young son, who has queer moms. While we’re lucky to be able to relocate, it’s been a massive undertaking. As much as we would like to continue doing Rainbow Boxes indefinitely, that would entail starting a 501c3 nonprofit, something that would require more time and support than we have at the moment.
However, we are using our Rainbow Boxes enthusiasm for our next big adventure! Whereas the boxes were meant to reach readers, this year we are turning our focus to supporting LGBTQIAP+ writers.
In cooperation with The Writing Barn in Austin, TX, we will be hosting the first ever YA and MG LGBTQIAP+ writers retreat in March of 2018. The goal of this retreat is to create a safe, supportive environment to talk about craft and representation, as well as the reality of publishing queer stories in today’s competitive market. Agent Jim McCarthy will be with us, and we’ll have opportunities for the writers attending to take their careers to the next level.
If you are a rainbow writer, we would love for you to apply. Published or unpublished. Agented or unagented. Here’s the link. If you’re an ally, please help spread the word about the retreat, or you can donate to our scholarship fund via WeNeedDiverseBooks.org Click “Donate” and under special instructions, write “For Rainbow Retreat.” This will ensure that the funds get put in the right account.
If this retreat is a success, we will make it an annual event!
Besides Rainbow Boxes, what other projects are you working on that you can tell us about?
Candlewick just released Amy Rose’s third novel, Echo After Echo, which is a queer love story wrapped in a murder mystery and set in a Broadway theater. Cori’s next book, Now A Major Motion Picture, releases in April ‘18 and is about feminism in Hollywood…as well as first love, fandoms, and Ireland.
We’re also publishing a coauthored space fantasy duology entitled, Once & Future (’19 and ’20, Jimmy/Little, Brown). This is a genderbent retelling of the Arthurian canon. Almost all the characters are LGBTQIAP+, and the female King Arthur is of Middle Eastern descent (like Cori). Let’s just say it’s rainbow knights in space. All the banter. All the love. And a few swords.