Updated March 17, 2023: As of 2021, We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), a non-profit that advocates for diverse children’s literature, no longer uses the term “#own voices”. WNDB believed “#own voices” became a vague marketing term and created potentially unsafe situations for authors and illustrators who chose not to share parts of their identities. Here, at Little Feminist, we use the term “#own voices” internally, as a shortcut to understand that the author or illustrator matches the identity of the main character. We support all authors and illustrators, and their decision to share or not share with the public, the expansiveness of their identity. You can read more at WNDB blog post here and/or Book Riot post here.
What is Own Voices?
What is Own Voices and why does it matter so much? Own Voices is a movement! It started as a hashtag by Corinne Duyvis to identify diverse books that are written by members of that same group. Diverse books mirror our world, with a special focus on amplified stories about historically excluded identities and groups of people. By reading Own Voices books, we ensure that we enjoy good and rich stories about diverse characters written from authors who share that same identity.
The Definition of Own Voices
Reading an Own Voices book means being confident that the worlds created or described in a book are represented as authentically as possible. Own Voices authors and illustrators create not with an observer’s gaze, but with the cultural nuance from being an active member of that culture.
Examples of Own Voices Stories
For instance, in When Aidan Became A Brother, a story about a kid who bravely steps into his real gender identity, author Kyle Lukoff writes from his experience as a transgender man. In Salma the Syrian Chef, Danny Ramadan invites the reader into the emotional significance of a signature dish, pulled from his childhood memories in Damascus. In The Proudest Blue, Black Muslim author Ibtihaj Muhammad (along with Indian Canadian Muslim author S.K. Ali) tell a story that is significant and a mirror for Muslim girls on their first day of wearing a hijab at school.
The Nuance of Own Voices
But please know: Own Voices is a nuanced and layered term, especially because identities are intersectional! It is vital that we listen to those within a community to deem whether a cultural story is representative. If a book is specifically about the experience of a character who uses a wheelchair, we want the creators to look to how those in that community feel about the book. If a book is about Diwali, the creators must be looking at how the book resonates with those who celebrate in the South Asian community. If authors/illustrators don’t hold those identities they are representing, we expect them to listen to those who do.
The Harm of Non-Own Voices Stories
At best, books not created by Own Voices authors and/or illustrators leave out nuances and may inaccurately capture cultural elements. For instance, in a children’s biography about a Chinese American chef that was not written by an Own Voices author, counting 1-2-3 was inaccurately written as “yi, uhr, san.” For someone who is not fluent in Mandarin Chinese, that is passable. But to any reader who can read Mandarin, this error is confusing as the digit two should be written as “er,” the correct pinyin spelling. We would want kids who speak Mandarin to know the accuracy of their language matters in books!
Perpetuating White Supremacy and Harmful Stereotypes
At worst, books not created by Own Voices authors and/or illustrators may perpetuate White Supremacy characteristics and harmful stereotypes. In the above-mentioned book, the author describes the character’s name transition as such: “‘Let’s call her Joyce,’ the teachers say. She likes the name. ‘Jia’ is gone and she is Joyce from that day on.” If the author were Chinese American or an immigrant, they would know the grief and loss that comes when a name is changed in order to assimilate to the tongue of others, and would be likelier to describe this experience more thoughtfully and not as flippantly.
Why It Matters
Writing characters of color with white gaze, as well as writing books about a disabled character by an able-bodied person, and so forth, can be demeaning and sorely inaccurate if you are not immersed in that culture. We would almost argue that no representation is better than inaccurate representation.
Books as Windows and Mirrors
In 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop published an article about the need for books to be mirrors, windows, and sliding doors – to reflect the diversity of society and to invite others to learn about each other. The movement for more diversity in books is to off-set the white, able-bodied, cis-gendered, centeredness that is prevalent in so much of kid literature.
The Stats Say So Much
But still, according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center’s 2019 annual survey, of main characters of books published that year, only 29% had main characters who weren’t White or animals/other. Of the 11.9% of books with Black main characters, only 46.4% were written by Black authors. That means less than 5% of all books published in 2019 were written by Black authors! As we continue to diversify our bookshelves, are we also making sure that creators of color and marginalized groups are the ones monetarily benefiting?
Who Tells the Story?
Our history, the color of our skin, our sexual identity, and our personal experiences all inform how we move in this world. If a story is specifically about the cultural experience of a character from a historically excluded identity, can someone who doesn’t have that identity accurately portray all those nuances? Because the books we read are our windows and sliding doors into other experiences, it’s really important to ensure that our view is accurate, informed, and authentic. And as we amplify these stories, we are also communicating to the publishing industry, (which is made up of 76% White, 74% cis women, 81% straight, and 89% non disabled people), the need for more Own Voices stories!
At Little Feminist, we strive to bring you Own Voices books in our subscription boxes. Our goal is to help you raise good humans. May your hearts, minds, and worlds be opened as you read Own Voices books that are mirrors, windows, and sliding doors!
Here are some Own Voices books that we love:
- Little You, by Dogrib Tłı̨chǫ author of the Dene nation Richard Van Camp and Cree-Métis illustrator Julie Flett – ages 0-3.
This book is beyond sweet! With tender language and the most elegant of rhymes, this book has all the feels. It is a perfect celebration for that new little love in your life.
- Baby Goes to Market, by Nigerian author Atinuke – ages 0-3.
Baby is one funny and really likeable kid! So much so that when Mama goes to market, the sellers give Baby treat after treat. This humorous book is a great intro to counting.
- Tía Isa Wants a Car, by Cuban American author Meg Medina and Chilean British illustrator Claudio Muñoz – ages 3-7.
Tía Isa wants a car. She really wants a car – specifically, a shiny green one like the color of the ocean and with wings in the back. But will she get it? Can she get it? With a little help from her niece, maybe, just maybe, their dream will become a reality.
- Drawn Together, by Vietnamese American author Minh Lê and Thai American illustrator Dan Santat – ages 3-7.
What is one to do when you have to spend the whole day with a grandfather you don’t speak the same language as? Eating meals and watching TV is no fun when it’s just full of silence. But when Grandpa and Grandkid discover they both love drawing, a whole new world connects them.
- When Aidan Becomes A Brother, by trans author Kyle Lukoff and queer multiracial illustrator Kaylani Juanita – ages 3-7.
This lovely story is full of so much heart! Aidan, a transgender boy, is beyond stoked to be a big brother. He worries about whether he’ll be a good one and wants the baby to feel deep love. You probably know where this is going, so just get ready to have your heartstrings pulled!
- Always Anjali, by Indian American author Sheetal Sheeth – ages 3-7.
Anjali, brave, fiery, and full of heart, is devastated when some not-so-nice kids make fun of her name. She can’t even find one of those mini license plates with her name on it! But will she settle at that? For all those with a unique name, THIS is just the book you need!
- Young Water Protectors: A Story about Standing Rock, by Lipan Apache authors Aslan Tudor and Kelly Tudor, and Blackfoot author Jason EagleSpeaker – ages 7-9.
This kid-written book about the Standing Rock protests is essential for all our little change makers. As it is a first-hand account of the strive for environmental justice, we believe this book is important for all affected by climate change and for all peoples who live on Indigenous land (aka all of us!).
- Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, by Black American author Carole Boston Weatherford – ages 7-9.
We really appreciate this book for its tackle of race relations and Gordon Parks’ use of art as a form of social justice. This book is a great springboard for conversations and parallel meaning-making with the Civil Rights Era and today’s Black Lives Matters Movement with your little feminist.
What is your favorite Own Voices book? Comment below!
- Lee and Low The Open Book Blog, “Where is the diversity in publishing? The 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey Results”
- Cooperative Children’s Book Center Blog, “The Numbers Are In: 2019 CCBC Diversity Statistics”