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Phoebe Robinson's book imprint releases first fiction title, a novel by Kai Harris

Why 'What the Fireflies Knew' should be your next read.
TODAY Illustration / Penguin Random House

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Last week, Tiny Reparations Books — an imprint founded by “2 Dope Queens” actress, comedian and New York Times bestselling author Phoebe Robinson — released its first fiction novel.

The book, Kai Harris's “What the Fireflies Knew,” was a standout for Robinson and publisher Christine Ball. “Phoebe and I read this in August 2020, not long after formally announcing our partnership and founding of Tiny Reparations Books, and we both immediately fell in love with Kai Harris’ voice through the eyes of her 10-year-old character, KB. We immediately knew we had to publish it,” Ball told Shop TODAY in a statement via e-mail.

The story is told through the perspective of KB, a preteen who has just lost her father to an overdose and is subsequently sent to live with her grandfather in Lansing, Michigan — unknowingly for the entire summer — with her teenage sister, Nia. During this time, KB works to learn more about the grandfather she barely knows, uncover long-hidden secrets in her new town and create the family picture she’s always desired.

“The book is the story of her summer — trying to navigate all of that and learning the truth about her identity, her own voice … it’s ultimately a story of family love, loss and really just this unfiltered experience of Black girlhood,” Harris said.

"What the Fireflies Knew," by Kai Harris

One of Harris’ main goals when writing KB’s story was to prioritize the voice of a young Black girl, she told us. “I wanted to write that way to give adult readers the opportunity to see what this experience is like. To see what it smelled like, what it tastes like, what it feels like. What hurts, what’s exciting, what’s joyful, what’s painful for a young Black girl in this moment of her life.”

“‘What the Fireflies Knew’ is a beautifully written novel that shows the full breadth of what it means to be a Black girl in this world — the joy, the trauma, the beauty, the growing pains. Kai has given us a rare window into Black girlhood, and I am so grateful that this book exists,” shared editor Amber Oliver.

While publishing was a “dream come true” for Harris, the most important thing to her was to make the story tangible in the first place. “After I wrote ‘Fireflies,’ I said to myself: ‘It doesn’t matter to me if this book never sells, if anything ever happens with it. It matters so much to me to get it out, to have it on the page.’”

Working with Tiny Reparations Books only added to Harris’ excitement. She was not only excited by the goals Robinson set out to achieve with this imprint, but she also felt that her novel aligned with them. “My novel ties in, I think, really well with the mission and the vision of the imprint by their first fiction title being a book that really prioritizes this unfiltered Black girlhood experience through my voice. Me, as a Black woman who was a Black girl who is telling this story as authentically as I can,” she said. “It really honestly just feels like a match made in heaven.”

About Tiny Reparations Books

Tiny Reparations Books was founded by Robinson in late 2020 and published its first book, Robinson’s own collection of essays called “Please Don’t Sit on My Bed in Your Outside Clothes,” in September 2021. If the imprint name sounds familiar, that’s probably because you may have heard about her production company of the same name.

The mission of the book imprint is similar to that of her production company: amplifying unique and diverse voices.

“We are looking for queer, Black, Indigenous, people of color and neurodiverse writers, not only to publish them, but to launch their careers. We want them to have the experience of being appreciated and seen. We all know there needs to be more diversity in publishing, and my goal with TRB is to help with that,” Robinson said.

“What the Fireflies Knew” is just the beginning for Tiny Reparations Books. Robinson revealed people can expect more from them in the form of over a dozen books they’ve signed on to publish, ranging in genre from literary fiction and poetry to essay collections and biographies. “Tiny Reparations Books is committed to being a home for as many diverse voices as we can,” Robinson said.

“Portrait of a Thief,” by Grace D. Li is the next fiction release slated for the imprint, and it’s already been picked up by Netflix to become a new series. While the book doesn’t come out until April 5 of this year, Harris shared a few recommendations to keep you occupied in the meantime.

Reading recommendations from Kai Harris

"The Vanishing Half," by Brit Bennett

Harris told Shop TODAY that Brit Bennett's "The Vanishing Half" was her current read. She said she was taking her time with it, albeit unintentionally. "But I think actually reading it slowly has been great because I feel like I’ve been with the characters for so long, so that’s been wonderful," she admitted.

"The Secret Lives of Church Ladies," by Deesha Philyaw

A recent favorite of hers is this short story collection by Deesha Philyaw. Harris praised the book for prioritizing the voices of Black girls and Black women. "Love that collection so much," she said.

"Salvage the Bones," by Jesmyn Ward

Not only does Harris call this one her "all-time favorite," but she also shared that it influenced her own novel. "[It's] just one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever read," she raved.

"Savvy Sheldon Feels Good as Hell," by Taj McCoy

Another book to look forward to while you wait for "Portrait of a Thief," is Taj McCoy's romantic comedy "Savvy Sheldon Feels Good as Hell," which comes out next month. Harris describes it as a "very fun, HGTV[-esque]/food-centric story that’s got a lot of strong female relationships, body positivity; it’s a very cute story."

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