November 24, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Six YA Titles That Epitomize #OwnVoices

Childrens-Books-Infographic-2017The hashtag #diverselit is so 2015. The hot Twitter hashtag now is #OwnVoices, which indicates that a book was written by a member of a marginalized community that it depicts. In 2017, when still only 28 percent of children’s/YA books published each year represent people of color, and when fewer still portray marginalized experiences (such as disability, sexual orientation, or religion), it is important to note the ties and tensions between diverse representation and diverse creators. Black, Native, or Latinx authors wrote only six percent of all children’s (that included YA) literature published in 2016, according to the latest data from the Cooperative Children’s Book Center.

Fiction is for everyone, of course, but nobody knows a community better than someone who is a part of it. The reason we call for diverse books is so that all kids can develop empathy and understanding of others—and also so that the most marginalized and at-risk kids can see themselves reflected in a positive light. While publishers have begun to respond to the calls for diverse books, the majority of those being released are coming from white authors—not the marginalized groups who are struggling so much to be heard.

So enter #OwnVoices, which responds to this wide gap between diverse books written by outsiders and diverse books written by diverse creators. The hashtag was started by YA author Corinne Duyvis, and it encompasses all forms of diversity, including disability, sexual orientation, and religion. #OwnVoices is an adjective that describes a book, not a person. By definition, writing about a person who shares your identity makes your story #OwnVoices, and the point of the hashtag is to identify characters who are marginalized. To that end, it is inappropriate and imprecise to use the hashtag to describe a person. “#OwnVoices writers” is a nonsensical term because it can describe anybody writing about their personal experience. The hashtag calls attention to stories written by and about the same marginalized group as the author.

While being of a particular identity does not make you speak for the experiences of everyone who shares that identity, it is certainly a credential unlike any other. One need only to look over the past two years to find numerous egregious and offensive missteps and insensitive books written by people who aren’t in the same group as their protagonists (to start, simply check Twitter or your favorite YA book blog for takes on When We Was Fierce, The Continent, or Carve the Mark.) Diversity matters, but authenticity and accuracy matter even more. It is vitally important that publishers make acquiring #OwnVoices books a priority, and it is just as essential that librarians strive not just to purchase diversely, but to purchase books by marginalized authors and illustrators, who often face adversity and institutional bias during the publishing process.

While the numbers are low, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some #OwnVoices titles out there to celebrate. Here are some recent and upcoming releases of note, coupled with a suggestion for readalikes.

YA-SP-AbdelFattah-TheLinesWeCrossThe Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah. Scholastic. 2017. Tr $18.99. ISBN 9781338118667.

A timely dual-perspective novel about a refugee girl from Afghanistan who wins a scholarship to a prestigious school and her male classmate, whose father advocates for Australia to close its borders to refugees.

Major themes: New kid at school, standing up to your parents, racism and prejudice, microaggressions

Readalike: Meant To Be by Lauren Morrill. Delacorte. 2014. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780385741781.

north of happyNorth of Happy by Adi Alsaid. Harlequin Teen. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9780373212286.

Carlos graduates from a fancy high school in Mexico City and, on a recommendation that his late brother made, flies to Washington State to avoid the internship his father arranged for him. He ends up in a high-end restaurant, falling in love, and cooking staff meals in an attempt to get the chef to notice him.

Major themes: Grief, class, forbidden love, finding your passion

Readalike: Dr. Bird’s Advice for Sad Poets by Evan Roskos. HMH. 2013. pap. $8.99. ISBN 9780544439535.

we-are-okWe Are Okay by Nina LaCour. Dutton. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780525425892.

Taking place over the first few days of winter break, this quiet book deals with the aftermath of two losses—the grandfather who raised Marin and the best friend who may have been something more, had Marin not run off. Two friends try to reconcile, and consider their sexuality.

Major themes: grief, questioning of sexuality

Readalike: Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. S. & S. 2012. pap. $12.99. ISBN 9781442408937.

when dimpleWhen Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon. Simon Pulse. 2017. Tr $16.99. ISBN 9781481478687.

Dimple goes to a tech camp to get a break from her parents’ talk of an arranged marriage. There, she meets Rishi—who happens to be the future husband her parents selected. They have to find a way to work together, when liking Rishi means that Dimple will be going along with her parents wishes, something that she’s not completely happy about.

Major themes: computer programming, arranged marriages, romance, camp

Readalike: Nothing But the Truth (and a few white lies) by Justina Chen. Little, Brown. 2006. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780316011310.

gem & dixieGem & Dixie by Sara Zarr. HarperCollins. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062434593.

A what-if that readers have probably dreamed of—finding a bag of money—comes true for two sisters living in poverty, with an addict mother and a mostly absent father. They take a few days to consider their options, reconnect, and treat themselves the way their parents never have.

Major themes: family, abandonment, food insecurity, poverty

Readalike: If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth. Scholastic/Arthur A. Levine Bks. 2013. pap. $9.99. ISBN 9780545417310.

YA-SP-Zoboi-AmericanStreetAmerican Street by Ibi Zoboi. HarperCollins. 2017. Tr $17.99. ISBN 9780062473042.

A different kind of immigrant tale, this one has a touch of magic. It tells the story of Fabiola, a teen girl whose mother is detained as they emigrate from Haiti. She winds up in Detroit with her aunt and cousins, who have assimilated into the African American culture, while Fabiola desperately misses Haitian culture.

Major themes: drugs, gangs, immigration, magic realism

Readalike: The Secret Side of Empty by Maria E. Andreu. Running Pr. 2014. pap. $10.95. ISBN 9780762459162.

Sarah Hannah Gómez is a former school librarian. She now works as a freelance writer and editor and fitness instructor. She is a doctoral student in the Language, Reading and Culture program at the University of Arizona. Find her on Twitter @shgmclicious or at shgmclicious.com

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Comments

  1. Penelope says:

    Randa Abdel-Fattah is a fine writer, and I look forward to her new book’s release. It sounds intriguing. However, it does not seem from the description like it is any kind of #OwnVoices. The author was born in Australia, and is the child of Egyptian and Palestinian immigrants to that nation. This is nothing at all like being an Afghanistani refugee to Australia. Having the same religion and living in the same country does not make a book #OwnVoices. Otherwise, a lot of white Americans writers would have a big claim that they are #OwnVoices in writing about a lot of American subjects.

    • That’s a good point, and I know it happens often with writers of color, who are assumed to be writing an #ownvoices story simply because they are people of color and nobody bothers to find their background. I know it has happened with Mitali Perkins, for example. As far as inclusion in this article, I was seeing the #ownvoices bit as a Muslim Australian writing about a Muslim Australian, and that’s why I chose to include it. #OwnVoices can be tricky, since obviously nothing but a memoir can be 100% perfectly matched to an author and you can’t go around quantifying how many fictional elements are from an author’s life and how many differ, but generally the way it’s been used, it describes someone who can at least match up with a great deal of the character’s identity or background, especially if they are prominent bits that are intensely related to the plot. The book deals in part with shoveling all Muslims or people of Middle Eastern heritage into a box and denigrating them as a single homogenous group. As someone with Middle Eastern heritage who is Muslim, Abdel-Fattah, to me, seems close enough to qualify the book as #OwnVoices in that respect.

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