What is an own voices author? Someone who lives on the margin because of their race or ethnicity who writes about what it’s really like. Why read ‘about’ life as a minority from a white man when you can read about life as a minority from a Native American, Black, or Vietnamese person?

I receive free electronic advanced reader copies of these books through an arrangement between the publishers and NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion on NetGalley’s website. I only review books on my blog that I really love.

What is an own voices author? Someone who lives on the margin because of their race or ethnicity who writes about what it's really like. Why read 'about' life as a minority from a white man when you can read about life as a minority from a Native American, Black, or Vietnamese person? #ownvoices #teacher #amreading

Two New Important Own Voices Releases

I adore reading, but I also get stuck in a rut. I read stories about people just like to me because the stories bring me comfort. Who doesn’t love a heroine who has a problem, goes through a period of uncertainty and growth, and comes out better at the end of her trials? But if I limit my intake to authors who share my beliefs (I read a lot of inspirational fiction books), socio-economic status, and income (ok, some of the heroines have a lot of money), how will I learn about the world around me?

If you wonder what ‘own voices’ means, think of it this way. Scout, Harper Lee’s narrator in To Kill a Mockingbird, one of my favorite books of all time, is white. The entire book revolves around her life and her slow realization of the evil that lurks in her town and country.

Cassie Logan, Mildred D. Taylor’s protagonist in Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (another all-time favorite), narrates life in the same era as Scout, but as a slightly older, infinitely wiser black protagonist who grew up knowing about the evil lurking in her town and country.

Mildred D. Taylor writes from an own voices perspective while Harper Lee writes from a white perspective. We have much to learn from both perspectives.

Own voices books often leave white readers feeling uncomfortable. Uncomfortable with the realities that others face. Unsettled with the lack of happily-ever-after endings. But with the reality of inequality and injustice for the marginalized and minorities, how can their own voices authors conclude their stories with the assurance that everything WILL turn out all right? To end their books any differently would not ring true–no matter how uncomfortable it makes us.

Book of the Little Axe

By Lauren Francis-Sharma, Atlantic Monthly Press, May 2020, 400 pages.

Victor has never exactly fit in. His best friend, Like-Wind, has the charm, talent, and personality that will take him far in their tribe. But Victor, the son of a chief, seems to lag behind his peers. The other boys have all received their vision, but Victor hasn’t.

When Like-Wind disappears for months after a winter hunt and returns with a runaway slave from another tribe, life as Victor knew it starts to shatter. A tragedy sends him and his mother on a quest to find answers. What Victor learns changes his life forever.

Rosa Rendón has never exactly fit in. She loves her father’s horses and the land. When islanders on Spanish-controlled Trinidad look at her, they see a gangly black girl. While her older siblings, Jeremias and Eve, crave book learning and the elegant things of life, Rosa craves belonging. And her family, she never quite feels as if she belongs.

For one thing, she hates housework and school. She looks like her father, a free black man who runs a smithy. Eve and Jeremias take after their light-skinned, elegant mother. When the British take over the island, Everything Rosa and her father have worked for slowly starts to disappear.

Why I Loved This Book

This haunting tale spans decades, generations, and continents as Francis-Sharma tosses out story lines and weaves them together in a net that will catch your breath. It’s not the kind of book I like to read, but it’s the kind of book I need to read.

Erudite and fascinating, Book of the Little Axe reveals the underbelly of emotions from a different point of view. Victor doesn’t fit in because his parents are blacks living in Crow tribe in the 1830s. Rosa doesn’t fit in because she lives on an island where social decorum rules apply to even black-skinned girls.

Readers will identify with the longing to belong that both Rosa and Victor experience. Francis-Sharma also opens the reader’s eyes to the uneasiness and vulnerability that haunts those whose skin color doesn’t fall within two shades of the skin color of those in power. No matter how educated or knowledgeable a person may be, the world judges them based on the color of their skin.

Until we can see this fault in our logic, we won’t move forward in our quest for equality and truth-telling in history.

Until we can see this fault in our logic, we won't move forward in our quest for equality and truth-telling in history. #antiracist #socialjustice #NetGalley @laurenfsharma #ownvoices #amreading Click To Tweet

The Brave

By James Bird, Feiwel & Friends, June 2020, 320 pages.

Thirteen-year-old Collin Couch (pronounced like pooch, not the thing you sit on) has no friends (except his dog Seven), an alcoholic father, and gets kicked out of every school he attends. For the first time, he actually gets kicked out because he hit someone. Usually, he gets asked to leave because no one can handle his odd condition. 

When someone speaks to him, he compulsively counts the letters and must repeat them before he can answer. Kids make fun of him, teachers feel bewildered, and even counselors can’t seem to help.

Collin’s father has had enough, and decides to send him to live with his mother on the Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota. Collin doesn’t know how he feels to get sent to a place he’s never been with a woman he’s never met. But he’s pretty sure it can’t turn out any worse than his current life of isolation.

Once he arrives in Minnesota, Collin struggle to understand ways of seeing and thinking that defy everything he grew up knowing. Along the way, the mysterious next-door neighbor girl, Orenda, helps him on his journey to becoming brave. 

Why I Loved this Book

James Bird, a screenwriter and director of Ojibwe descent, brings an own voices perspective to the problem that faces all of us—what to do with differences. Differences in race, religion, sexuality, health, socioeconomic status, skin color, personal preferences, learning styles, traditions, customs, and beliefs. 

His message (most of us fail dismally at handling differences, but we can’t change if we don’t try) brings a poignant message of hope to all of us. Collin’s experiences cause him to decide, “Maybe, just maybe, you’ll see how we’re all not so different from each other.”

How would we treat each other if we came to the same conclusion? Although I’ve never used a book from the magical realism genre in my classes, I’ll be teaching this one in the fall. It makes the perfect companion to The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Students will relate to the duality of Collin’s life. Raised by a white father whose society rejected him and welcomed in to his mother’s community where they teach him new ways of solving problems. The modern and the ancient.  Likewise, my students struggle with the bling modern society offers and how to incorporate the wisdom of their ancestors in a world that labels them unkindly. 

To read a book written by a minority and see how the solutions come from a Native way of seeing and thinking will help my students understand the value of their traditions. For the rest of us, reading a book written by a minority and seeing how the solutions from a Native way of seeing and thinking will help us understand how much we have to learn from other cultures and traditions. 

This is one book that librarians, teachers, and parents will want to read, ponder, and discuss with students or their children. Warning, you will need tissues. Bird handles difficult topics with humor, sympathy, and grace. 

The best #ownvoices MG/YA book with a male protagonist I've read this decade. Bravo for #TheBrave by @jamesbirdwriter. I can't wait to share it with my students this fall. #amreading Click To Tweet
What is an own voices author? Someone who lives on the margin because of their race or ethnicity who writes about what it's really like. Why read 'about' life as a minority from a white man when you can read about life as a minority from a Native American, Black, or Vietnamese person? #ownvoices #teacher #amreading