When you look at the publishing market today, it unfortunately seems pretty similar to how it looked ten years ago. White authors hold a majority, with black authors a far distant second. If Latinx or Asian authors merit a spot in the pie chart, they’ll be a small percentage or relegated to the ‘other’ category. However, despite those dismal images, publishing has become more diverse in the past five years, mainly due to #OwnVoices.
#OwnVoices was coined by author Corinne Duyvis in 2015 in order to “recommend kidlit about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.” Before and especially after the official term was created, people from non-dominant backgrounds have written about their lives through fiction for a rapidly widening audience.
So much of children’s fiction is written by white authors, features white characters, and is meant for a white audience. This is especially true of the classics that adults love to shove on children, seeing them as “enriching.”
For example, Frances Hodges Burnett wrote two books that I received when I was eight or so: The Little Princess and The Secret Garden, published in 1905 and 1911, respectively. They are perfectly good books, though dated in terms of story and characters. Both have an imperialist, racist view of India via the perspective of characters who were part of the British Raj. Modern literature, therefore, has something to teach us too.
The ‘young adult’ category of books has only existed since the 1960s due to the publication of S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. It is a very young genre, compared to most others. In that sense, writers can do more with it, since its conventions aren’t so ingrained.
This past September, the anthology It’s a Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes, and Other Jewish Stories was published, compiled by prominent Jewish young adult authors Katherine Locke and Laura Silverman, with stories published by several up-and-coming authors such as Dahlia Adler and Rachel Lynn Solomon. The collection featured a series of wholly Jewish stories, which is exceedingly rare. Making this project a collaboration between multiple people allowed the Jewish community to emerge.
Spiel showcased the unity behind #OwnVoices. People make up communities, including ones thought to be minorities, and they are interested in media that reveals their stories and culture. Readers seek out that kind of exposure, especially if it’s put together by people of that tradition, in this case, Jewish authors. Everyone makes sure their culture isn’t misinterpreted or inaccurate, and creators get to share their experiences.
The young adult novel Slay by Brittney Morris came out this September as well. It centers around Kiera, a Black honors student who codes a secret online game specifically for Black people to play and use as a safe space away from white people.
#OwnVoices novels are comforting.
People share (in addition to their traditions) their problematic experiences with others. In the case of Slay, the game becomes a point of contention when the difference between who it’s for and who actually plays it becomes clear. Kiera must “preserve her secret identity and harness what it means to be unapologetically Black in a world intimidated by Blackness.”
The Candle and the Flame by Nafiza Azad, published in 2019, is a fantasy novel featuring a Muslim main character, and is about “women being women in the most fantastic ways possible.” Muslim women are slowly coming to the forefront in novels (for example, A Very Large Expanse of Sea by Tahereh Mafi, published in 2018, is about the days after 9/11 from the perspective of a Muslim teenage girl). Bringing minorities into fantasy novels is accomplished with #OwnVoices when it is done well. So much of fantasy comes from European history and mythology, and therefore, from British authors like Tolkien. Finding a fantasy set along the Silk Road, by a Muslim author and with a Muslim protagonist, is fresh and exciting.
A personal favorite #OwnVoices novel of mine is Nina LaCour’s We Are Okay, with its touching, accurate depiction of loneliness and depression during the main character’s first year of college. LaCour’s novel is a slim slice-of-life, and not much happens in terms of the book’s plot. However, it is a wrenching, accurate depiction of a condition that not many truly understand.
#OwnVoices novels help others understand, as well as get excited about, backgrounds and experiences other than their own.
#OwnVoices is a new trend, and hopefully one that will expand, even as the publishing market continues to change and grow. We need stories like this. These books teach both children and adults about new experiences, new backgrounds, and how to think from different perspectives. We need diverse books.