By Amadee Ricketts, author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning
As a librarian serving kids and families, there is a kind of magic in connecting a child with the exact right book at the exact right time. “Own voices” books, in which authors and illustrators from underrepresented or marginalized groups portray characters from those groups, have an important part to play in making that magic happen.
Sometimes this is because the books help children see themselves in stories or as storytellers. Sometimes it is because the books help kids connect with people and experiences that are very different from what they see around them every day, broadening their view of the world. The more authentic stories and diverse voices we have to choose from, the better the chances that all children will find just-right books at each stage of their development.
What Do We Mean When We Talk About Own Voices?
#OwnVoices began as a term coined by YA author Corinne Duyvis in 2015, as part of the wider conversation about the need for increased diversity in youth literature. Duyvis defined #OwnVoices books as those in which the protagonist and the author share a marginalized identity, and describes the hashtag as “easy shorthand for a necessary concept.” I think that is a useful way to frame what has come to be a complex and sometimes difficult conversation about the ways identity and creativity intersect.
It is important to note that some authors and organizations have moved away from using own voices. Notably, We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) stopped using the term in June 2021, and retroactively removed it from existing book reviews and materials. In a news release about the change, WNDB noted that the term had grown from a sort of finding aid for the kidlit community to “become a ‘catch all’ marketing term [used] by the publishing industry.” Rather than using own voices, WNDB has committed to using specific terms that authors use to describe themselves and their characters.
Young adult author Sarah Raughley went a step further in “The Demise of #OwnVoices,” a September 2021 article for Quill & Quire. In her words, “What and who became defined as #OwnVoices fell into the hands of corporate powers. The world that was supposed to open up for marginalized authors became narrower and more limiting.”
Those critiques are timely and important, but own voices can still be a useful lens for finding and sharing books with young readers, in part because the term is accessible and kid-friendly. As author Amanda Kabak put it in a July 2021 opinion piece for Publishers Weekly, ” Maybe #OwnVoices isn’t the best solution to this, but bringing diversity and authentic voices to a broader audience has never been an easy problem to solve, and I’ve learned to take what I can get without stopping my push for something better.”
In “A New Era for Children’s Literature,” a 2020 article by Preston Schmitt, Melanie Kirkwood Marshall described reading the opening lines of the picture book Dancing in the Wings again and again as a young girl. Kirkwood Marshall, who is Black, received the book as a gift from her mother, and saw herself in main character Sassy, an African American child who wanted to dance. Sassy’s story was inspired by author Debbie Allen’s own experiences as a child, and Kirkwood Marshall remembers thinking, “If Sassy could [dance], why couldn’t she?” This is a beautiful example of a children’s book serving as a mirror, giving a reader a sense of being seen and seeing their own possibilities.
Questions of identity are so central to our understanding of ourselves and so complex that there is special value in stories that reflect the lived experience of authors from underrepresented or marginalized groups. Recent picture books, like The Proudest Blue by Olympic medalist Ibtihaj Muhammad, Mango, Abuela, and Me by Meg Medina, and Eyes That Kiss in the Corners by Joanna Ho, all demonstrate the beauty and importance of this idea.
In addition to the joy of seeing themselves in stories, seeing authors and illustrators from a wide variety of backgrounds reinforces the critical concept that every person has a unique voice and a special story to tell. And that is a good reminder for all of us, not just kids.
A Long Way to Go
While representation in children’s literature has come a long way since the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) began tracking diversity in children’s and young adult literature in 1985, in 2018 there were still more children’s books about animals and nonhuman characters than about nonwhite humans, according to School Library Journal’s “An Updated Look at Diversity in Children’s Books.”
More recent data from CCBC shows slow progress, with 9 percent of children’s books published in 2021 created by Black or African authors, and 13 percent featuring Black main characters (up from 6 percent and 11 percent in 2018), and similar increases for other underrepresented groups. But with 50 percent of Americans under eighteen identifying as nonwhite in 2020, there is clearly much more work to be done to ensure that all kids have a chance to see themselves in books, and that authors and illustrators from all backgrounds have opportunities to tell the widest possible variety of stories.
Bishop, Rudine Sims. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors,” originally appeared in Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, v. 6 n. 3, Summer 1990.
Duyvis, Corinne. “#OwnVoices,” corinneduyvis.net, accessed April 11, 2022.
Kabak, Amanda. “The #OwnVoices Conundrum,” Publishers Weekly, July 2, 2021.
Lavoie, Alaina. “Why We Need Diverse Books Is No Longer Using the Term #OwnVoices,” diversebooks.org, June 6, 2021.
Raughley, Sarah. “The Demise of #OwnVoices,” Quill & Quire, October 2021.
Rodriguez, Jodie. “Why It’s Important for Kids to See Themselves in Books,” Scholastic Parents, March 1, 2018.
Schmitt, Preston. “A New Era for Children’s Literature,” On Wisconsin, Spring 2020.
School Library Journal Staff. “An Updated Look at Diversity in Children’s Books,” School Library Journal, June 19, 2019.
Amadee Ricketts received her MLS degree from the College of St. Catherine and has been a librarian since 2002. She is currently the library director at the Cochise County Library District in Arizona. When not working or writing, she enjoys taking photos of insects and other tiny things. She lives with her husband, who is a photographer, and their cat.
Amadee is the author of Gentle Hands and Other Sing-Along Songs for Social-Emotional Learning.
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