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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The biggest book convention in North America wrapped up over the weekend in New York City. It's called Book Expo America.

Much of the buzz this year was about how the recession has hurt the publishing industry, of course, but one genre, romance novels, is doing quite well - and that includes ethnic romances. This morning we'll have an appreciation of Elsie B. Washington. She's the woman who started the ball rolling with the first contemporary African-American romance novel. She passed away last month. And we have more, this morning, from NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: Some people sneer at paperback romance novels, but they're the most prolific, profitable arm of the publishing industry. And until 1980, all the damsels being clasped to hard male chests were white. Lots of passion -zilch diversity.

Then, under the pen name Rosalind Welles, journalist Elsie Washington published "Entwined Destinies." It's widely considered the first contemporary black romance. Gwendolyn Osborne is a contributor to The Romance Reader, a popular Web site for online reviews. She recaps the story line.

Ms. GWENDOLYN OSBORNE (TheRomanceReader.com): "Entwined Destinies" was the story of an African-American magazine writer who is sent to London to cover an oil conference. And she meets this African-American man, Lloyd Craig, who is part of a multinational oil conglomerate.

BATES: Sparks fly in short order, but for the first time, they were flying between people of color and means. Janice Sims had been trying to publish her own black romance back then with no luck.

Ms. JANICE SIMS (Author): Nobody was interested in my books. I couldn't find anyone who was publishing African-American stories with African-American hero and heroine who were - let's put it this way - upwardly mobile, not from the ghetto or anything. You know what I mean?

BATES: Washington's work, populated as it was with well-educated, well-traveled, worldly blacks, was a delight to black readers and aspiring writers.

Driving to Book Expo, Rochelle Alers told me she could still recall her elation at discovering this trailblazing book.

Ms. ROCHELLE ALERS (Author): It's almost like, you know, what people felt when Barack Obama was elected president. They said, you know, they said, you know, We Can Do This! And that's what I felt when I saw Elsie's book.

BATES: Alers, who now has sold almost 2 million books, says she was just as thrilled to see Washington's cover.

Ms. ALERS: Oh my God — these are people - people on the cover look like me.

BATES: That was a definite difference. Guided by Vivian Stephens, the first black romance editor, Washington spun a tale with all the traditional romance elements — attraction, longing, obstacles to overcome and, ultimately, commitment set against a glamorous, international backdrop. Suddenly, black wasn't only poor or pathological. It wasn't just victims.

Gwen Osborne.

Ms. OSBORNE: The important thing about Elsie's work is that it established the romance novels that followed in the next 20 years as books about the African-American middle class.

BATES: in fact, Washington brought the black middle class front and center before the Huxtables became American's favorite black TV family. "Entwined Destinies" was Washington's first and only novel. It's now out of print, but its effects are still being felt by the current crop of successful black romance novelists like Alers and Sims.

Sims says Washington's work inspired her to expand her own boundaries.

Ms. SIMS: She really opened that up for me, and I know she did the same thing for a lot of other African-American romance novelists.

BATES: Elsie Washington died in New York on May 5th after a long illness. She was 66 years old.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

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