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 by 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 is a world that is as authentic as possible. Own Voices authors and illustrators create not with an observer’s gaze, but with the cultural nuance coming from being an active member of that culture. However, there is nuance and layers to the labeling of Own Voices. It is vital that we listen to those within a community to deem whether a cultural story is representative, and not gate keep if we hold race, ability, class, gender, or other privilege.
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 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 a 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 an 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 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? As the books we read are our windows and sliding doors, let’s as best as we can 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. As you, as caregivers, raise good humans – may 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: