Windows, Mirrors, and #ownvoices by Kate Olson
Have you been paying attention to young adult literature? If so, you are probably aware of these three amazing new titles ~ American Street by Ibi Zoboi, Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. All three are spectacular stories, but are also unique for other reasons beyond the excellence in writing. They are all titles that are written by debut authors. Titles about racism in America. Titles that are all written by women. Titles that are all written by women of color. Titles about teenage girls of color. They are all #ownvoices stories.
What is #ownvoices? It is a term and hashtag created by Corinne Duyvis, senior editor and co-founder of Disability in Kidlit, for a book featuring a marginalized perspective authored by a person who shares that same marginalized characteristic. Corinne’s #ownvoices page has a great description of the history and Q&A on this topic if you are interested in further reading.
A quick note about the lens I am reading and writing this through: I am a woman. I am White. I live in rural Wisconsin. I grew up in an area even more rural than I live in now. My parents were both teachers and we always had enough to eat and a roof over our heads. I am a school librarian in a tiny rural district in Wisconsin. Why does that matter? Because you should know that my background varies so greatly from the protagonists in these books, as well as from the authors of these books. Perspective matters. From my perspective, I am so incredibly grateful to these authors for giving me a window into characters whose lives are different than mine, and also giving a massive number of students in our country a mirror to see their own lives in. Windows and mirrors are both incredibly important. This blog post from the Lee and Low blog sums up windows and mirrors perfectly. If you are of a similar demographic to me, I highly recommend the blog Reading While White, as well as “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh.
Now for my messy and not-big-enough-to-hold-everything Venn diagram that would surely be required if many teachers assigned these three books in the classroom………..my thoughts on each book follow the graphic!
American Street is a gritty and haunting tale of a Haitian teenage immigrant, Fabiola Toussaint, who is separated from her mother when her mother is detained by immigration officials at the airport upon reaching America. Fabiola is then left alone to travel to meet her aunt and cousins in Detroit, where she is met with a harsh and unexpected view of the Unites States on the corner of American Street and Joy Road. In the family’s house on Detroit’s west side, Fabiola struggles to maintain her connection to the Haitian vodou of her heritage while striving to fit in and make a life of her own. Fabiola’s relationships with her cousins, new friends and love interest are strikingly poignant and raw, leaving her vulnerable to heartbreak and pain while she attempts to reunite with her mother.
I read this book at full speed, not wanting to miss a single word while simultaneously racing to discover the conclusion to the story. I highlighted about 50 different selections that I wanted to return to and ponder, and was struck at how timely this novel is at this time of political strife regarding immigration and racial tensions. Zoboi herself is a Haitian immigrant, although she came to America when she was four years old rather than a teen as Fabiola did. A wonderful author’s note in the book shares her motivation for writing this story and the connection with the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, along with a rich backstory on the cultural Haitian heritage woven throughout the book.
This timely young adult book hits the reader with brutal insights on race, class and wealth on a regular basis, all while telling the story of Jade, a black girl in Portland, Oregon trying to fit in and succeed in a biased world. The prose is fairly stark, while occasionally breaking into a more poetic style to draw attention to the emotion and message being conveyed – a welcome commentary on being black in America. The story draws you back into caring deeply about the characters and their reflection of modern America. Jade’s art and her relationship with her mentor, Maxine, are focal points of the book and provide depth to the narrative. I marked up many passages that struck me on topics of race, gender, police brutality, body image and class.
Starr lives in the poor, sometimes violent community of Garden Heights, but switches personas and worlds when she travels to her wealthy suburban white-majority school. Her parents are doing everything they can to give her the life they want her to have, without abandoning the neighborhood they are proud to be a part of. Starr’s life is violently changed when she witnesses the police shooting of her unarmed childhood friend Khalil – as tensions rise and the media depicts Khalil as a thug, Starr must choose whether to speak up as a witness and stand up for her friend and community, or protect herself and her family.
So many passages from this book really resonated with me as I squirmed and grappled with my undeniable midwestern whiteness and ingrained……….well, how can they not be termed prejudices? Because we all have them. We do. Not just about black/white but about everyone who is any way different than we are. Rather than patting myself on the back while reading this and feeling smug and assured that I am an enlightened reader who has always thought and said the exact right thing, I really examined my reactions to current events regarding race and police brutality. And isn’t that exactly what this book is intended to invoke? If that’s the case, then The Hate U Give (and yes, now I know the meaning behind ‘thug life” and no, I did not know it before) hit its mark perfectly. It’s a book representative of the country today and a book to be read by future generations as a sign of this era.
I recommend all three of the above titles as required purchases for high school libraries.
EDITED TO ADD: I deeply apologize for the error in this post stating that Renee Watson is a debut author – she has a previous novel titled This Side of Home (Bloomsbury, 2015).
Kate Olson is the PK-12 librarian in a small rural school district in Wisconsin. She lives on the top of a giant hill in the middle of nowhere with her husband, 3 feisty children and a border collie named Max (possibly her favorite child). When not searching for “you know, that one book with the cover that might have a dog on it?”, she can be found happily reading, quilting or walking her dog (aka escaping the house to listen to an audiobook). She can be found on her blog The Loud Library Lady and on Instagram as @theloudlibrarylady and Twitter as @theloud_library.