Whether on stage, at a library, or at a bookstore, these Atlantans know the power of narratives

These Atlantans build community through storytelling and literature

Kimberly Jones and Vania Stoyanova

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Creating YA community through fun and games

Kimberly Jones and Vania Stoyanova were young adult (YA) book influencers before the role even existed. As leaders of a popular YA book club sponsored by Brave + Kind Bookshop, the Georgia Center for the Book, and Little Shop of Stories, where Jones was manager, they frequently invited authors to join. In 2015, they brought their shenanigans to Decatur Book Festival, hosting Truth or Dare with YA novelists. The game was an instant hit that spotlighted authors’ personalities and made audiences feel like they had a connection. Georgia Center for the Book Director Joe Davich loved the energy, so he offered them space to meet. YATL was born in 2016. Although now convening just a few times a year, the night is a kooky blend of traditional author panel and variety show, where writers play everything from lip sync battle to Pictionary. “Our goal is to let the writers shine as brightly as they can,” says Jones, now a partner in the new Riverside bookstore Lit Diaries. Local writers like Mark Oshiro and Julian Winters are regulars, and New York publishers reach out to pitch their authors. Truth or Dare remains a staple. “It really puts authors in the hot seat,” says Stoyanova, who is now the events coordinator and manager at Brave + Kind Books. “Readers really want to see authors squirm.”

Chetter Galloway
Weaving narratives across Atlanta

Chetter Galloway has been spinning yarns for Kuumba Storytellers of Georgia for 20 years. When he first started, only four storytellers were meeting in a living room to preserve African oral traditions, but now the group has grown to 40-plus members with backgrounds in puppetry, teaching, and history, who perform everywhere from Oakland Cemetery to Juneteenth celebrations. Galloway got his start as a historical interpreter at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. Now, most weeks he’s at libraries and schools sharing tales. “My favorite I’ve told for 20 years is about Br’er Rabbit [pretending to help build] a house,” he says. The familiar trickster was based on a character from African folklore. Galloway adds, “We all know someone like him that’s always pretending to do something.” Good storytelling isn’t just entertainment to Galloway, but it’s also a chance to educate and improve literacy as people recognize stories from across cultures and get interested in reading books themselves. Galloway tailors his tales to each audience, engaging them with repetition and coming up with new techniques for hybrid environments like Zoom. “You need to always take care of the audience,” he says. “They’re the most important part of the storytelling experience.”

Frank Reiss
Frank Reiss

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Frank Reiss
Hosting the literary world throughout Atlanta

If you’ve attended a book event in Atlanta in the last few decades, A Cappella is probably to thank. But when Frank Reiss opened the store in Little Five Points in 1989, he only sold used and antiquarian books, with a smattering of new fiction, and had no intention of hosting authors. Then the internet disrupted the entire publishing business, and Reiss decided to pivot to events with the help of local literary friends like Paul Hemphill and Pat Conroy, and community partners like the Carter Library and Manuel’s Tavern. Many of the store’s events are not at the bookstore’s location, now in Inman Park, but are held across the metro, from houses of worship to bakeries. “It made me realize A Cappella doesn’t have to be my taste, but it’s really about finding ways to meet people who are passionate about books where they are,” he says. This is how A Cappella became the official partner of the Book Festival of the Marcus Jewish Community Center. When the pandemic hit, Reiss started delivering books for free across the city and continues the service today. “It gives me a really good feeling to know that there are people who buy a book from us they could get elsewhere for cheaper,” he says. “I get to see where my customers live and how diverse our readers are.”

Shetal Shah
Empowering Indian kids via representation

World studies teacher Shetal Shah was ready for a change after 15 years in education. For inspiration she read stories of other ambitious Indian women, like Kasturba Gandhi, the activist’s wife who molded many of his ideas. “I would’ve loved to have learned about these women as a young girl when there was very little representation of diversity in books,” she says. So she wrote Shakti Girls—Sanskrit for “inner power”—a collection of 13 rhyming poems about innovative Indian women from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to mathematician Shakuntala Devi. The stories, designed for children around ages five to 10, are accompanied by New York artist Kavita Rajput’s illustrations—plus games and short glossaries of “empowering words” in English and Hindi. Shah hopes to introduce more Indian women in future editions. “Moms tell me how much they needed a book like this,” she says. “It gives them a nugget of positivity every day.”

Holding space for Atlanta’s queer community

E.R. Anderson first visited the queer feminist bookstore Charis for a young writers’ group when he was 15—and never left. Since 1998, Anderson has been on staff working as a bookseller, event coordinator, and now executive director of the Charis Circle nonprofit arm that enables the organization to apply for grants and gather donations. “We’re doing mission-driven work,” he says. “We exist as a space for queer people to plug in when they have a need, and we do a lot of direct support for people like answering emails from parents with resources for their kids.” Charis always supported marginalized communities, opening as a feminist Christian bookstore in 1974 when the word feminist was sometimes code for queer. Although they’ve never had problems with homophobic detractors, they have had issues with changing neighborhood and industry dynamics. Moving from the Little Five Points area to Agnes Scott’s campus in 2019 has given the store stability and created a new student and professor community—plus reliable parking. Charis evolves with their customers, now carrying more romance, sci-fi, and horror, and changing their programming accordingly. During the pandemic, Charis hosted virtual events on Crowdcast before a lot of bookstores had pivoted online. They still host hybrid events, mindful of customers with disabilities, older people, or those who have moved away. “I am grateful we’re that safe space for people,” Anderson says. “No grant or amount of book sales pays for that.”

Democratizing writing education

When Scott Daughtridge DeMer lived in New York City in the late 2000s, he loved its diverse literary community of readings, small presses, bookstores, and blogs. The experimental environment encouraged him to pursue his own writing. “I thought to myself, ‘You should be getting lost in the letters more and commit yourself to a writing and reading practice,’” he says. He wanted to inject the Atlanta literary scene with a similar energy when he moved here in 2012. Lostintheletters started as a reading series featuring emerging writers and published authors at Highland Inn Ballroom. “I wanted to provide a space for authors to share their work and for audience members seeking that inspiration,” he says. “I wanted a place people could come together and find those sparks.” Eventually it evolved into a weekend of programming featuring readings and craft workshops called the Letters Festival. The festival drew big names while they were still coming up, like Roxane Gay, Jericho Brown, Carmen Maria Machado, and Molly Brodak.

Daughtridge DeMer took a few years off to get an MFA in Arizona, hosting virtual festivals during the pandemic, then relaunching the in-person event here in 2022. The revamped LostintheLetters features quarterly readings and craft workshops as well as the festival, but also studio hours for writers to work together. Daughtridge DeMer hopes to expand to other artistic mediums. “We’ll continue to create a level of consistent programming while also pushing our own boundaries and finding new, exciting ways to expand audience creativity and inspiration,” he says. “All in the name of guiding people into a deeper investment in their own artistic practice.”

Maile Steimer
Maile Steimer

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Maile Steimer
Teaching kids information literacy to discover the world

As a media specialist at Gwinnett’s Jones Middle School for 14 years, Maile Steimer has taught kids the research and reading skills they need to move through the world. From helping students navigate research databases to demonstrating digital tools, Steimer collaborates with teachers to plan and teach lessons on media literacy. She makes the information as hands-on as possible, hosting AI science fairs and virtual museum visits. Gwinnett named her Library Media Specialist of the Year in 2022 for her efforts. “Every day and every year is different, so you don’t get into a rut and can be creative,” she says. “But there are certain core things at the heart of media instruction for kids: learning how to evaluate information, asking good questions, and being innovative problem-solvers.” Ensuring students have diverse books is part of this. “Books are windows, mirrors, and even sliding glass doors into other worlds,” she says. “We need to make sure we are giving even the smallest voices an opportunity to be heard.”

Jon Goode
Telling stories across Atlanta from The Moth to poetry slams

Jon Goode was an accountant when his friend dragged him to a poetry slam in 1998 at Ying Yang Cafe. “I watched these people walk on stage equipped with the same alphabet I knew and do transformative things with letters and words,” he says. “I thought to myself maybe if I tried very hard, I could come close to what they were performing.” The first two times he brought his own poem, he didn’t get called up to perform, but the third time, he got a standing ovation. He wasn’t as lucky with the next one. “I couldn’t remember the poem at all and almost got kicked off stage,” he says. A poem about his mother ended up becoming one of his most popular. Goode was a regular on the Atlanta open mic scene and performed along the East Coast, eventually competing on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam. In 2017, The Moth, a nationwide live storytelling series featured on National Public Radio, asked Goode to host an Atlanta version of their popular show, where people tell unrehearsed stories fitting themes like love or family. “We wanted to make sure you got that Moth experience with an Atlanta flavor,” he says. “We have a diverse audience in Atlanta that we work hard to get into seats and onstage, and we do calls and responses with the audience.” As host, Goode keeps the evening flowing between storytellers—bringing the energy back up or down depending on what the room needs. “The central tenet of all art is storytelling, whether you’re painting a picture, writing a poem, or telling a story at The Moth,” he says. “A lot of people find beauty and edification standing on stage alone with a microphone.”

This article appears in our September 2023 issue.