Own Up: Four Books, Four Voices, for Middle Grade Readers

By Jeff B. RSS Wed, March 17, 2021

We all enjoy picking up a book and discovering one of the characters is like us; it's a thrill discovering, "Hey, that could be me!" In books for young readers, making that discovery and finding that thrill is essential.

The publishing world is making an effort to seek out more diverse perspectives and voices, while honoring stories about characters from groups that have previously rarely been seen in children’s books, particularly in a positive light. In other words, characters, groups, and perspectives that had no identity, no voice in the literature. These groups include ethnic minorities, different sexual orientations and identities, and those with disabilities. The We Need Diverse Books movement (WNDB) took up the task of sparking conversations with authors, publishers, and readers, to move the ball forward on making diversity and representation as widespread as possible.

Taking it a step further, #ownvoices is a hashtag movement started on Twitter to recommend books about diverse characters that have been written by authors from that same diverse group. In 2015, Young Adult author Corinne Duyvis posted on Twitter a suggestion that people use the #ownvoices hashtag to recommend books. Originally, the conversation stemmed from her frustration that emphasis was being placed on diverse books, rather than diverse authors. She wanted to highlight authentic voices. Much like the WNDB movement, #ownvoices grew out of the children’s and teen publishing world, though it has been used for adult work as well. Now #ownvoices is used to highlight when an author is writing from their personal experiences in a marginalized group.

On her own #ownvoices page, author Duyvis writes that she has intended to include the same groups that WNDB embraces. The WNDB definition of diversity states, "We recognize all diverse experiences, including (but not limited to) LGBTQIA, Native, people of color, gender diversity, people with disabilities, and ethnic, cultural, and religious minorities."

There are many more titles by authors writing from their own experiences in our catalog, with more being added all the time!

While I Was Away by Waka Takahashi Brown (Japanese)
Japanese-American author Waka Takahashi Brown relates her experiences as a Kansas girl shipped off to relatives in Japan to improve the Japanese language skills her mother considers insufficient. She gets accents wrong, often with embarrassing results, and her poor reading and writing skills are on full middle school display. Waka finds an inner strength she didn't know she had, cultivates greater self-awareness, and comes to truly love many aspects of Japan. The author shares her story in a conversational and accessible tone. Many facets of life in the 1980s will be as surprising as the U.S.-Japan cultural differences that readers unfamiliar with Japan discover alongside young Waka. Coming to see oneself and others through more mature eyes is a universally familiar element of the middle school years making this an emotional, contemplative tale of risking and growing that will have universal appeal.


Too Small Tola written by Atinuke; illustrated by Onyinye Iwu (Nigerian)
Tola is small, but she is mighty. In three chapters, Tola uses her perseverance to help her grandmother, other family members, and those in her wider Lagos community. The author, Atinuke, provides child-friendly particulars that create a vivid picture of the setting: "Tola lives in a run-down block of apartments in the megacity of Lagos, in the country of Nigeria." This collection of stories is perfect for transitioning readers, with manageable chapters, clear, plain language, simple sentence structures, a wry sense of humor, and realistic illustrations of the diverse Nigerian characters. While some elements may be unfamiliar to readers outside Tola's culture, most readers will find anchors in Tola's relationships. An enjoyable, endearing collection.


The Sea in Winter by Christine Day (Native American Northwest Coast)
Maisie Cannon's knee injury has kept her from doing what she loves most: ballet. Now, instead of practicing arabesques with friends, Maisie's time is full of physical therapy and awkward conversations with her parents. Ever since her injury, Maisie has been unmotivated in class. During a family trip to the Olympic Peninsula, Maisie's stepfather, Jack (Lower Elwha Klallam), shares a bit of history about the Duwamish people and contact with early colonizers. None of what she's learning in school seems relevant to her. Her grades have dipped, her relationships with her friends feel strained, and she's gotten snippy with her parents. This thoughtful and thought-provoking tale about a middle school girl's brave journey toward healing offers a heartening glimpse into the immense patience and love required to endure limitations, build strength, and repair damage. An insightful, stirring read about a Native American (Makah/Piscataway) girl's healing, resilience, and inner strength.


Ways to Make Sunshine by Renée Watson (African American)
Ryan Hart is navigating the fourth grade and all its challenges with determination. Her mom named her Ryan because it means "king". She wanted Ryan to feel powerful every time she heard her name; Ryan knows it means she is a leader. When changes occur or disaster strikes, budding chef Ryan does her best to find the positive and "make sunshine." Reminiscent of Beverly Cleary's Beezus and Ramona, this is a strong start to a new middle-grade series by Newbery Honor Book author, Renée Watson. Each chapter pulls the reader into the mind of Ryan Hart, a vivacious, African-American child navigating her family's changing circumstances. And navigate she does, with personality and spirit! These stories do not shy away from the dynamics of race and girlhood—in one particularly realistic scene, Ryan is told not to get her recently straightened hair wet at a pool party and feels ashamed of the way it changes after she does—but they do not skimp on levity or spunkiness either. From Easter speeches to African American hair care, this book will give those whose lives are like Ryan's an opportunity to feel seen. For those whose lives are different, this book provides a clear window into a nuclear family dealing with familiar topics in a unique way.  Realistic middle-grade fiction with warm, loving family relationships.


Stay tuned for more examples from this rich and growing collection. What other titles by diverse authors have you discovered recently? Let us know in the comments!

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