Recently I saw a post by author and activist, Kate Messner about #OwnVoices and it intrigued me. She wrote, “If you’re going to share ONE story that deals with immigrants or refugees and intolerance, shouldn’t the immigrant or refugee character be the star of that story, rather than a character whose role is to be persecuted and then saved by someone else?”
As teachers, we have the opportunity to affect very real change in one of the best and most authentic ways––through reading aloud to students. Paying careful attention to what we read aloud can make the difference between time well spent and time spent.
What is #OwnVoices?
#OwnVoices is a movement originally started by Corinne Duyvis on Twitter that has since taken on a life of its own. The purpose of #OwnVoices is to describe and recommend books with diverse characters written by authors from that same diverse group.
Here are 10 #OwnVoices books to share with middle and high school readers:
1. Run by Kody Keplinger
Bo Dickinson is a girl with a wild reputation who doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Agnes Atwood has never gone on a date or stayed out past ten because of her parent’s rules designed to protect their legally blind daughter. Bo and Agnes become best friends. So when Bo shows up in the middle of the night, with police sirens wailing in the distance, desperate to get out of town, Agnes doesn’t hesitate to take off with her. But running away and not getting caught will require stealing a car, tracking down Bo’s dad, staying ahead of the authorities, and-worst of all-confronting some ugly secrets.
2. Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
This entire story. told in narrative verse, is about the 60 seconds in an elevator as 15-year-old Will decides if he will kill the guy who shot his brother. Revenge is all he knows, but as the elevator stops on each floor, perceptions change. At each stop someone connected to his brother gets on to give Will a piece to a bigger story than the one he thinks he knows.
3. Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee
Welcome to Andover, where superpowers are common. Despite her heroic lineage, Jessica Tran is resigned to a life without superpowers and is merely looking to beef-up her college applications when she stumbles upon the perfect internship only it turns out to be for the town’s most heinous supervillain. On the upside, she gets to work with her longtime secret crush, Abby, who Jess thinks may have a secret of her own.
4. Clayton Byrd Goes Underground by Rita Williams-Garcia
Clayton thinks nothing is better than being with his grandfather Papa Byrd. They play the blues together and he watches his grandfather play in a band. Then, Papa Byrd dies and Clayton’s mother won’t let him play the blues. So Clayton goes looking for the Bluesman on his own, with his harmonica. All of Williams-Garcia books are fantastic and deserve a place in your classroom.
5. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Sixteen-year-old Starr witnesses her unarmed friend be killed by police officers. People try to intimidate her to speak up or shut down. Starr must make some tough decisions. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.
6. Dear Martin by Nic Stone
Justyce McAllister is a super-smart kid who is misunderstood and judged inappropriately because his skin is not white. Justyce looks to the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. for answers. But do they hold up anymore? He starts a journal to Dr. King to find out.
Then comes the day Justyce goes driving with his best friend, Manny. The windows are rolled down and the music is turned up very loud. This loud music angers a white off-duty cop. Words fly. Shots are fired. Justyce and Manny are caught in the crosshairs. In the media fallout, it’s Justyce who is under attack.
7. All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
When Rashad bumps into a lady while walking out of a store, she assumes he is stealing from her. The police agree and beat him badly. So Rashad stops coming to school. The beating is caught on camera and the community is at odds over what happened. Rashad realizes that racism and prejudice are not a thing of the past.
8. You Bring the Distance Near by Mitali Perkins
You Bring the Distant Near explores sisterhood, first loves, friendship, and the inheritance of culture. Ranee is worried that her children are losing their Indian culture. Sonia is wrapped up in a forbidden biracial love affair. Tara is seeking the limelight to hide her true self. Shanti is desperately trying to make peace in the family. And, Anna is fighting to preserve Bengal tigers and her Bengali identity. Five girls and three generations come together in this story.
9. North of Happy by Adi Alsaid
Carlos Portillo has grown up in a wealthy family attending an elite international school. Carlos is a rule follower and a parent pleaser who loves food and cooking, but his parents see it as just a hobby. Then his older brother, Felix is killed, and this pushes Carlos to run away to the United States where he manages to secure a job with his favorite celebrity chef.
10. The Lines We Cross by Randa Abdel-Fattah
Michael usually concerns himself with basketball and hanging out with his friends, but every once in a while, his parents drag him to meetings and rallies with their anti-immigrant group. And it all makes sense to Michael. Until Mina, a beautiful girl from the other side of the protest lines, shows up at his school, and turns out to be funny, smart, and a Muslim refugee from Afghanistan. Suddenly, his parents’ politics seem much more complicated.
11. Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson
Jade wants to get out of her poor neighborhood, but her mother says she’ll be okay if she takes advantage of every opportunity. And Jade has: every day she rides the bus away from her friends and to the private school where she feels like an outsider, but where she has plenty of opportunities. But just because her mentor is black and graduated from the same high school doesn’t mean she understands where Jade is coming from.
12. Out of My Mind by Sharon M. Draper
Eleven-year-old Melody can’t walk, talk, or write because she has cerebral palsy. She also has a photographic memory; she can remember every detail of everything she has ever experienced. She’s the smartest kid in her whole school, but NO ONE knows it. Most people—her teachers, her doctors, her classmates—dismiss her as mentally challenged because she can’t tell them otherwise. But Melody refuses to be defined by her disability. And she’s determined to let everyone know it…somehow.
13. I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez
Julia is not the perfect Mexican daughter. Olga, her sister, was. Then Olga dies in a tragic accident in Chicago. Julia’s mother channels her grief into pointing out every possible way Julia has failed. But it’s not long before Julia discovers that Olga might not have been as perfect as everyone thought.
14. Empress of a Thousand Skies by Rhoda Belleza
Crown Princess Rhiannon “Rhee” Ta’an is the sole survivor of a crash that killed the royal clan. But an assassination attempt the night before her crowning throws her into a relationship with Aly, the boy accused of trying to kill her. Aly and Rhee discover a plot to steal people’s memories.
15. We Are Okay by Nina LaCour
Marin hasn’t spoken to anyone from her old life since the day she left everything behind. No one knows the truth about those final weeks. Not even her best friend Mabel. But even thousands of miles away from the California coast, at college in New York, Marin still feels the pull of the life and tragedy she’s tried to outrun. Now, months later, alone in an emptied dorm for winter break, Marin waits. Mabel is coming to visit and Marin will be forced to face everything that’s been left unsaid.
16. American Street by Ibi Zoboi
Fabiola Toussaint thinks she will finally have a good life in America, but after she and her family leave Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Fabiola’s mother is detained by U.S. immigration. Now Fabiola must navigate her loud American cousins, Chantal, Donna, and Princess. Plus, Detroit’s west side and a new school make it hard for her on her own. Just as she finds her footing, she must make a choice that will change everything.
17. When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon
Dimple Shah has it all figured out. With graduation behind her, she’s more than ready for a break from her family, from Mamma’s inexplicable obsession with her finding the “Ideal Indian Husband.” Dimple knows they must respect her principles on some level. If they truly believed she needed a husband right now, they wouldn’t have paid for her to attend a summer program for aspiring web developers … right?
18. George by Alex Gino
When people look at George, they think they see a boy. But she knows she’s not a boy. She knows she’s a girl. George thinks she’ll have to keep this a secret forever. Then her teacher announces that their class play is going to be Charlotte’s Web. George really wants to play Charlotte. But the teacher says she can’t even try out for the part because she’s a boy. With the help of her best friend, Kelly, George comes up with a plan.
19. The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Natasha is a girl who believes in science and facts. Daniel is the good son in his family. The two fall in love, but fate is against them. Her family is about to be deported to Jamaica.
20. On the Edge of Gone by Corinne Duyvis
This one is from the author who started the whole #onevoices concept.
On January 29, 2035, a comet is scheduled to hit—the big one. Denise and her mother and sister, Iris, have been assigned to a temporary shelter outside their hometown of Amsterdam to wait out the blast, but Iris is nowhere to be found, and at the rate Denise’s drug-addicted mother is going, they’ll never reach the shelter in time. A last-minute meeting leads them to something better than a temporary shelter—a generation ship, scheduled to leave Earth behind to colonize new worlds after the comet hits. But everyone on the ship has been chosen because of their usefulness. Denise is autistic and fears that she’ll never be allowed to stay.
Alyssa P., a teacher, shares that she thought she was doing an amazing job by picking books with people of color for her whole class novels. Then, she went to a conference where a speaker mentioned that too often we see stories about or with main characters of color in historical fiction. That’s still great, but the speaker discussed how it can show students that their significant stories are in the past. We need to empower them in the present too, and the #ownvoices movement can help us do that.