Posts Tagged #ownvoices

WNDMG Wednesday — The End of the #OwnVoices Era

We Need Diverse MG
We Need Diverse MG

Artwork by Aixa Perez-Prado

The End of the #Ownvoices Era

About a month ago, we saw the beginning of the end of the #ownvoices era when  We Need Diverse Books chose to stop using the hashtag #ownvoices. Since I am a self-defined #ownvoices author who has used that hashtag for years: querying, pitching manuscripts on Twitter, and even including it on my bio here at Mixed-Up Files, I began asking myself: am I ready — and is it really time?

WNDB Stops Using #ownvoices

Where #Ownvoices Began

To answer that question, I want to start with why we needed it in the first place. Back in 2015 when author Corinne Duyvis coined the term, it quickly gained traction as a shorthand way to tell agents, editors, and readers that a manuscript’s diverse main characters were authentic and drawn from a creator’s lived experience.

The end of #ownvoices

The force that is We Need Diverse Books propelled #ownvoices into the mainstream, accompanied by the clear message to the publishing industry: publish and promote marginalized creators rather than white authors writing diverse characters.

It was a breath of fresh air. #Ownvoices creators had spent such a long time feeling frustrated that our authentic viewpoint didn’t seem to be valued as much as the white viewpoint of who we were. Now maybe, things were changing.

Authors (like me) used the hashtag on Twitter pitch contests like #PitMad and #DVPit, and the industry responded. Agents, editors, and readers all embraced the tool that helped diversify their lists.

So, it seemed that #ownvoices was a win.

Where #Ownvoices is Now

It should absolutely have been a win. But as always, trends that go mainstream become susceptible to the battlefield that is social media. In this case, what should have been an empowering self-identifying label morphed into anxiety-promoting ugliness. In the wilderness of social media, where nuance and context go to die, identity can be and often is flattened by out-of-context reading, crushed, or judged cruelly by followers who insist on the right to define your identity and its authenticity.

The end of #ownvoices

In a brilliant essay,  author and bookseller Nicole Brinkley notes,  “… how intensely the notion of perfect representation had been weaponized—both by readers who didn’t consider representations authentic enough to earn the label, and by readers who dismissed as problematic any representation that wasn’t explicitly labeled ownvoices by its author.”

With this relentless scrutiny, #ownvoices began to create a litmus test for diversity that felt a lot like backlash and certainly wasn’t creating a healthy and safe space for marginalized writers to promote their work.

#Ownvoices Doesn’t Police Identity

But the external pressure on #ownvoices creators was only part of the distortion that ultimately dismantled it. The other came from creators who were eager to ride the diversity wave even though they already had the privilege of benefiting from an overwhelmingly white publishing industry.

When Beth Phelan launched Twitter pitch contest #DVPit back in 2016, she would host pre-pitch Q and A sessions. Because often participated in the contest, I would read these threads avidly and frequently observed these kinds of questions:

“Can I participate if I don’t identify with a marginalized population but my book/main character/secondary character does?”

Phelan’s answer was always the same: we don’t police your identity; that’s on you. But #DVPit is for marginalized creators only.

Whether We Still Need #Ownvoices

While #ownvoices began because of a clear need for authors to be able to rally around a common flag and support each other in that space, it needed to be able to grow and change along with the industry’s attitude toward diversity. To have shown that kind of growth, we needed to see two distinct characteristics: 1) continued unambiguous support of marginalized creators; 2) results.

We’ve seen how the support system that was #ownvoices crumbled. But what about whether #ownvoices actually helped get more marginalized creators published? That’s tough to quantify.

Data on books by and about Black, Indigenous and People of Color published for children and teens compiled by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison. reveals that in 2020, about 58% of 3,115 books reviewed were written by or about: BIPOC, Asian, Latinx, and Arab communities. The distinctions between “by” and “about” show that while the number of diverse books published continues to rise, the number of diverse creators still lags.

That said, CCBC doesn’t distill those”by” numbers further into whether creators are #ownvoices. According to the CCBC website, “…  #OwnVoices is a term whose meaning is tied to culturally specific identity and experience, which is not captured in these broad categorizations. The information we document for each book regarding culturally specific content, and for book creators documenting their culturally specific identities, is necessary to determine if that book might be categorized as #OwnVoices. It is also important to note that the way in which individuals interpret the meaning of #OwnVoices may vary.”

((Want more on #ownvoices authors? Read this interview with MUF contributor Natalie Rompella))

Outlived its Usefulness

Ultimately, if you buy my assessment that #ownvoices needed two crucial supports and neither one of them held up, it seems clear that #ownvoices has outlived its usefulness.

I always have a hard time letting go though, and so I’m taking a moment to say thank you before I say goodbye.

Thank you to #ownvoices for:

  • giving me and other creators a space in which we could become a visible choice –a force, in fact — for publishers to consider as they diversify;
  • validating my lived experience as authentic material for the stories I write; and
  • providing a community for marginalized creators navigating the still overwhelmingly white publishing industry.

I have chosen to remove the hashtag from my bio, but I will continue to identify myself as a mixed-race author and hope that there will continue to be room under this tent for all of us.


Taking Up Space: Author Interview + Giveaway


Think back to yourself in middle school. Were you comfortable in your own skin? Many kids are trying to make sense of all the changes that are happening to them—both inside and out. I enjoyed reading Taking Up Space by Alyson Gerber. It really reminded me of various internal battles that age group faces and how alone one can feel. Here is my interview with the author of Taking Up Space, Alyson Gerber. Be sure to enter the raffle at the end of the post for a chance to win a free copy of her book.
Taking Up Space book

About the Book

Hi Alyson! Thank you for sharing Taking Up Space with me. Can you give us a short summary about the book?

TAKING UP SPACE is the story about a basketball player struggling to feel good about her body and herself.
When did it come out?
Tuesday, May 18!


Tell us who would especially enjoy this book?

TAKING UP SPACE is for readers who love basketball, YouTube cooking competitions, and friendship stories. This book will start honest conversations between parents and kids, students and teachers, and among friends about just how hard it is for most of us to feel good about ourselves and in our bodies.

About the Author

Did you enjoy writing as a child? Do you remember anything you wrote?
I always loved storytelling and writing. I kept a journal at certain times. But most of the creative writing I did was actually in theater. I wrote scenes and plays. I had a very cool director, Mr. Wann, who really encouraged us to express ourselves and think differently. At graduation, he gave out his own awards to students who he knew wouldn’t be recognized by the institution. He instilled a confidence in me that helped me find my voice and taught me to appreciate the process of writing.


Tell us about you—what other jobs did you have that were or were not related to writing? 

Before I became a full-time author, I was the senior director of communications at a college. I loved the work, and I actually use a lot of the skills I learned from my years of in-house public relations and marketing in my job now.


How did you end up becoming an author?
I took a class on writing for magazines and newspapers. That was the first time I started exploring my experience. I tried writing a memoir, but it didn’t work. Fiction gave me the freedom to work out my feelings, while using my imagination to create drama, conflict, and tension. I don’t write real people or events. I invent characters and build out a made-up plot, but I use my real experiences and emotions to fuel the imaginary reality. I eventually got an MFA at the New School in Writing for Children and Teens, and that set on me the path to becoming an author.


Many of your books address issues that teens and tweens face. When you began writing, did you plan to write for this age group?

It didn’t take me very long to figure out that I was most interested in writing for tweens and teens. I had to grow up really fast, because of my scoliosis. I was managing adult responsibilities early on, so I could easily identify the adults who took me seriously from the ones who didn’t think I mattered or should get a say in what was happening to me. I want every kid to know they matter and deserve to be heard and seen and validated. 

What’s your connection with the topics in Taking Up Space you choose to write about?
TAKING UP SPACE is based on my experience overcoming struggles with body image, body dysmorphia, self-worth, and disordered eating.


Are you a basketball player? What position did you play?

I’m not a basketball player. But I’ve always loved the sport. And I definitely would have played guard!

What authors would you say influenced your writing style?
Judy Blume, Beverly Cleary, and Ann M. Martin!



What was your original spark for the book?

I started writing TAKING UP SPACE, because after being in therapy and recovering from disordered eating, I had a relapse while I was pregnant with my daughter. The changes to my body triggered me and made me feel like I was going through puberty all over again. It was really scary for lots of reasons. But I got professional help immediately, and then I starting writing this book.

What research did you need to do?
While TAKING UP SPACE is own-voices and based on my experience, I did a lot of research. I interviewed social workers, psychiatrists, teachers, people in eating-disorder recovery. I also interviewed a few different people who grew up in houses where food was complicated. Between revisions, I read non-fiction books and research about bodies, food, trauma, and health. I really wanted to be informed and have a deep knowledge of the intersectional history of diet culture. I knew this story was so much bigger than me and my experience and I wanted to make sure I had a complete understanding of that bigger picture.

Did you face any challenges while writing Taking Up Space?
Writing this book was one big challenge after another for me. I had to face a lot of painful thoughts and feelings I had about myself. I knew it would be worth it and I was ready to take on this important topic, but every day when I went to write or revise, I had a sense of pushing myself to be as honest as possible. It felt a lot like cutting myself open and digging deep inside to see what I might find.

Share any writing exercises you did to learn more about your main character, Sarah.
I always do a few rounds of putting each of my characters into bad situations that are completely unrelated to the plot of the book to see what they do. I never use those scenes, but that writing helps me figure out how my characters make decisions. I get the chance to learn what matters to them and what doesn’t.


For Teachers

Any suggestions for ways to use Taking Up Space in the classroom?

Right now, there are a lot of news stories circulating about bodies and food in the pandemic. I really hope teachers will use TAKING UP SPACE to support students. Kids are encountering diet culture—a society that values weight, size, and shape over actual well-being—starting at a very, very young age. By 8 years old, at least half of kids want to be thinner, and they feel better when they’re on a diet. Kids need the tools to navigate the information they’re encountering so they can help themselves and their friends. And struggles with food, body image, and self-worth impact kids of all ages, genders, races, sizes, and socio-economic classes.
Scholastic will be offering a one-sheet to educators that will be available at the start of the school year! 

What other groups do you see using this book?
TAKING UP SPACE is a perfect district, all-school, or grade-wide read. It would also be amazing in book clubs where adults and kids read together. 

Are you doing school visits related to this book? Tell us more!
Definitely. I am already booking up for the fall! Most of the visits I do are for students in fourth grade through eighth grade. I usually present to one or two grades at a time, depending on the size of the school. Students have the chance to go on an interactive journey with me, where they learn what I went through and how writing and telling my truth helped me develop agency. But recently I’ve had a few requests for programs that are geared toward families and also just adults, which is exciting!


How can we learn more about you?
Twitter: @alysongerber
Instagram: @alysongerber
Facebook: @alysongerberbooks 
Thanks so much for your time, Alyson!
Alyson Gerber will be giving away a copy of Taking Up Space to a lucky reader. Enter the giveaway below for a chance to win a copy. (U.S. addresses only)

Taking Up Space is available here:

Alyson Gerber is the author of the critically acclaimed, own-voices novels Braced and Focused published by Scholastic. Her third novel Taking Up Space will be in stores on May 18, 2021. She has an MFA from The New School in Writing for Children and lives in New York City with her family. Visit her at and find her everywhere else @alysongerber.

Toni Morrison’s Middle-Grade Legacy

Honoring a Middle-Grade Legacy

Toni Morrison (1931-2019) left an essential legacy for middle-grade readers, even though she didn’t write directly for them. You won’t find her books in the MG section of the bookstore, nor are they on the reading lists for the 4th-8th grade set, as are the novels we talk about here on this blog. And yet, many of her characters were middle-grade children, and most of her themes had to do with the formative experiences of those years, experiences that ground and shape us as adults. So, when she died on August 6th, I gave myself permission, based on those reasons, to pay homage to her here.

Doors and Mirrors

I wanted to honor her brilliant and groundbreaking work as a Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author and her crucial role in bringing forward many of the threads of the African-American narrative to the larger American conversation. But even more than that, I wanted to talk about how she opened doors for a new generation of passionate, creative authors who write a wider, more diverse world for young readers. By doing that, she lifted up mirrors for children to see themselves in a rainbow world. She painted a world in which we could all be beautiful. As a writer and a woman of color, I am deeply grateful to her for the path she forged.

We could all have beauty

It’s Personal

The truth is, my gratitude is both professional and personal.

When I was in college in the mid-eighties, I read  THE BLUEST EYE (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1970), and I cried over Pecola and her desire for blue eyes.

The Bluest Eye book cover

My deep sadness wasn’t just for Pecola though–it was also for me and my own secret childhood desire: I too wished I had blue eyes. Like Pecola, I bought into the standard of White beauty that didn’t include my mixed-race identity, and certainly not my brown eyes, hair, or skin. I actually wished away my Black heritage.

And because, like any self-respecting young teenager, I vigorously rejected everything my parents told me, I didn’t believe them when they told me I was pretty. I knew I wasn’t. To be pretty, I needed to have not just blue eyes, but also straight, blonde or at least light brown hair. Hair that did what Farrah Fawcett’s or Jaclyn Smith’s did. Not curly, unmanageable, humidity-challenged like my own. Fawcett and Smith were my version of Pecola’s and Frieda’s admiration of Shirly Temple.


Definitions of Beauty

Fortunately, finally, I evolved and learned to identify and reject my own racism. I lived in Africa for a few years and discovered a treasure trove of literature that celebrated dark skin and curly hair. I reexamined THE BLUEST EYE and saw more clearly what Morrison was saying about what beauty is, and what it isn’t.

Morrison clarified even further when she said, in an Afterword published in 1993, “…the novel pecks away at the gaze that condemned her (a friend who, like Pecola, wanted blue eyes)…The assertion of racial beauty was not a reaction to the self-mocking, humorous critique of cultural/racial foibles common on all groups, but against the damaging internalization of assumptions of immutable inferiority originating in an outside gaze. I focused, therefore, on how something as grotesque as the demonization of an entire race could take root inside the most delicate member of society: a child; the most vulnerable member: a female.”

Attitudes about beauty can be destructive.

I wasn’t necessarily “cured” of my own internalized assumptions, but that’s a whole different story. I did, however, continue to grow, and as I did, other writers of color were adding their voices to the joyful noise: Ntozake Shange, Amy Tan, Isabel Allende, bel hooks, Octavia Butler, Alice Walker.

Middle-Grade Genre Growth

Over the glacial timeline that is publishing, the middle-grade genre has exploded as a viable commodity, as has the demand for diverse books and #ownvoices authors. Today, it’s delightfully harder to assume the “white default” with many fictional characters because they’re not the only ones on the tableau. I’m not saying the characters-of-color have reached parity – not by a long shot. But their numbers increase every year, and I’m thrilled to witness and be a part of that growth.

Thank You

I believe we owe that in large part to Toni Morrison, and so for that, I say, THANK YOU. Thank you, Ms. Morrison, for being the light, the creative force, the energy, passion, and intellect that will continue to shine long past the years you were here with us.

“And so here I am now. Here we all are. Toni Morrison as light, as way, as ancestor. And the many writers she has left in her wake, and the many writers coming after, and those after them, will hopefully always know this: that because of her, we are.” – Jacquelyn Woodson, from her tribute essay in the Washington Post,  August 11, 2019

And because here at the Mixed-Up Files … of Middle-Grade Authors, we do booklists, here’s one for Toni:

Book List in Honor of Toni Morrison

brown girl dreaming book cover

BROWN GIRL DREAMING, by Jacqueline Woodson

Raised in South Carolina and New York, Woodson always felt halfway home in each place. In vivid poems, she shares what it was like to grow up as an African American in the 1960s and 1970s, living with the remnants of Jim Crow and her growing awareness of the Civil Rights movement. Touching and powerful, each poem is both accessible and emotionally charged, each line a glimpse into a child’s soul as she searches for her place in the world.


Moon Within Book Cover

THE MOON WITHIN, by Aida Salazar.

Celi Rivera’s life swirls with questions. About her changing body. Her first attraction to a boy. And her best friend’s exploration of what it means to be genderfluid.But most of all, her mother’s insistence she have a moon ceremony when her first period arrives. It’s an ancestral Mexica ritual that Mima and her community have reclaimed, but Celi promises she will NOT be participating. Can she find the power within herself to take a stand for who she wants to be?

Genesis Begins Again book cover

GENESIS BEGINS AGAIN, by Alicia D. Williams

There are ninety-six things Genesis hates about herself. She knows the exact number because she keeps a list. Like #95: Because her skin is so dark, people call her charcoal and eggplant—even her own family. And #61: Because her family is always being put out of their house, belongings laid out on the sidewalk for the world to see. When your dad is a gambling addict and loses the rent money every month, eviction is a regular occurrence.

shadowshaper book cover

SHADOWSHAPER, by Daniel Jose Older (Actually YA, but appropriate for older MG readers)

With the help of a fellow artist named Robbie, Sierra discovers shadowshaping, a magic that infuses ancestral spirits into paintings, music, and stories. But someone is killing the shadowshapers one by one. Now Sierra must unravel her family’s past, take down the killer in the present, and save the future of shadowshaping for generations to come.

A Good Kind of Trouble book cover

A GOOD KIND OF TROUBLE, by Lisa Moore Ramée

twelve-year-old Shayla is allergic to trouble. All she wants to do is to follow the rules. (Oh, and she’d also like to make it through seventh grade with her best friendships intact, learn to run track, and have a cute boy see past her giant forehead.)But in junior high, it’s like all the rules have changed. Now she’s suddenly questioning who her best friends are and some people at school are saying she’s not black enough. Wait, what?

One Crazy Summer book cover

ONE CRAZY SUMMER by Rita Williams-Garcia

Eleven-year-old Delphine is like a mother to her two younger sisters, Vonetta and Fern. She’s had to be, ever since their mother, Cecile, left them seven years ago for a radical new life in California. But when the sisters arrive from Brooklyn to spend the summer with their mother, Cecile is nothing like they imagined.

Karma Khullar's Mustache Book cover


Karma Khullar is about to start middle school, and she is super nervous. Not just because it seems like her best friend has found a newer, blonder best friend. Or the fact that her home life is shaken up by the death of her dadima. Or even that her dad is the new stay-at-home parent, leading her mother to spend most of her time at work. But because she’s realized that she has seventeen hairs that have formed a mustache on her upper lip. Read author Kristi Wientge’s interview here on this blog.

Mexican Whiteboy Book Cover


Danny is brown. Half-Mexican brown. And growing up in San Diego that close to the border means everyone else knows exactly who he is before he even opens his mouth. Before they find out he can’t speak Spanish, and before they realize his mom has blond hair and blue eyes, they’ve got him pegged. But it works the other way too. And Danny’s convinced it’s his whiteness that sent his father back to Mexico.
That’s why he’s spending the summer with his dad’s family. But to find himself, he may just have to face the demons he refuses to see–the demons that are right in front of his face. And open up to a friendship he never saw coming.