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A Critical Look at #OwnVoices Books

I was really eager to read this set of #OwnVoices books with the expectation that they would be ones with which I could identify. But by the time I was halfway through, the characters and their stories felt foreign to me.

After a summer as the Diverse BookFinder’s student research fellow, racial and cultural representation in children's picture books has been at the forefront of my mind. I now think often about the multiple groups that I identify with and representations of those groups in various forms of media. As a child, this was barely a concern for me. I grew up in post-independence Nigeria, and exposure to any form of literature was a privilege. But I also grew up surrounded by people that looked just like I did -- with my mom and two sisters in a household that celebrated the strength and beauty of women like us. It was only when I joined the Diverse BookFinder team that I became aware of the underrepresentation of people of color in books for children and realized how much this needed to improve.

As I was reading through the books, I came across a group of books set in Nigeria with Nigerian protagonists created by Nigerian authors/illustrators. When I first saw these books, I was filled with excitement. This summer I learned about #OwnVoices books and their value within the broader diverse books movement. #OwnVoices books are defined as those “about diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.” The #OwnVoices movement took off when advocates of diverse books began promoting the importance of cultural authenticity and the effects of misrepresentations of marginalized groups in books written by individuals that do not identify with these groups.

While recognizing the value of #OwnVoices books, my summer research has me wondering – is #OwnVoices used as shorthand for quality representations of BIPOC in children’s literature? In my own experience, I was really eager to read the set of #OwnVoices books I had discovered with the expectation that they would be ones with which I could identify. #OwnVoices books are often praised for allowing children within the represented group to connect with the characters and see themselves in the stories they read. But by the time I was halfway through, the characters and their stories felt foreign to me. For me personally, it was mostly due to the way they were written, with a use of words and sounds that made me wonder if they were written for a white, Western audience. That is, despite the rich cultural cues that I, as someone who identifies as Nigerian, recognized in many of the pictures, those cues seemed entirely absent from the text.

Though there are so many important conversations about authorship within the #OwnVoices movement, this experience made me wonder if there are more complex questions that need to be asked about #OwnVoices books at the intersection of authorship and target audience? In my opinion, a critical look at the content of #OwnVoices books as well as the recognition that “a lens from within” may have varying effects, even on “in-group” readers, is necessary in these discussions.

My experience this summer raised the following questions about audience within #OwnVoices books:

  • Who is the target audience?
  • Do the text and pictures speak to the same audience?
  • What happens when the images are recognizable to an “in-group” audience, but the text isn’t? Or vice versa?
  • What are the effects of this on children who identify with the racial/cultural group the author or illustrator is from/representing?
  • What effects might this have on children from racial/cultural groups different than the author/illustrator?

It wasn’t until I was reading these books that I recognized that if we are looking for good, culturally authentic "mirror and window" books (see Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's work), we have to ask questions about not only who they are written by, but who they are written for.

Chenemi Maji is a second-year Bates College student from Nigeria interested in Biotechnology and Geology. She has always been interested in children’s books and television.

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