Own Voices



  • I think this was a great subject to bring up. Its been bothering me too, and I have been trying to stay out of it. I was asked by an african american woman author to draw some illustrations for her (self published) book, of an african american boy. it has to do with him and a cat, so hopefully I don't have to run into any of these issues.



  • Ok, so for context this is coming from someone who has studied race and gender and I teach ethnic and gender studies in my college courses, so buckle in...

    I totally get where you guys are coming from, but I think you may be missing a key component to what this movement MIGHT be trying to accomplish: representation.

    I don't believe the "Own Voices" movement is about preventing stories of diversity, but rather, it is serving as an opportunity to give under represented groups a chance to tell their stories from their perspective. This movement is happening because for sooooooo long, the conversation in the arts has been absolutely dominated by white, heteronormative, straight, men. That is the prevailing voice, and when THAT voice tells the story of someone of color, someone who is oppressed or marginalized, it is a form of cultural/soci-economic/gender/etc. appropriation. It is a form of intellectual tourism. If the conversation as been only focused on one group for so long, I think publishers are now trying to create more opportunities for other points of view, or frames of reference. I personally believe that the industry is looking to find new and upcoming artists and authors of diverse backgrounds to tell diverse stories. This helps them avoid looking as if they are simply placating or pandering to a more diverse population by presenting stories of diversity from authors and illustrators who are not, in fact, "other".

    I don't think it means you cannot include a diverse cast of characters. I dont think it means as a white illustrator I cannot draw black people. What it DOES mean, is that I should exercise caution before telling the story of a child of color growing up in abject poverty because that is a life experience I cannot adeptly speak to with authenticity.

    A couple of things here: Please be careful of falling into the 'we are all humans' or 'I don't see color' trap. I know when people say that, they mean well, but what that does is erase the diversity of many marginalized groups who have been made to feel sub-human for centuries. What many oppressed groups want instead is for you to see and recognize, and RESPECT their differences, not erase them when they make you uncomfortable.

    Another comment that I think needs to be addressed is @mattramsey's comment about the intersectional unicorn. I get where you are coming from. Psychologically, there are things that ALL humans feel. Getting punched hurts. Having your heart broken sucks. Making a new friends is awesome. But THOSE is not the type of stories I believe the "Own Voices" movement is trying to tell. Of course anyone creative can imagine what it may have felt like to be picked on for being gay, or fat, or black, or disabled. But if you are none of those things, you don't have an honest place from which to tell that story. You may accidentally get some of it right, but wouldn't an authentic voice from someone who has not had the same opportunities to share that story be more powerful? Wouldn't that be an opportunity to learn and grow? And perhaps more importantly for the AUDIENCE (who has been alarmingly missing from this discourse) wouldn't be awesome to see yourself represented by someone who is like you? THAT is what this idea is really supposed to be about. Representation

    Also, I hope before you spout off about "gay, asian muslim men" or "transgender lesbian black disabled women" as some sort of "holy grail" of diversity you stop to remember that those labels ARE attributed to and DO affect REAL people. Some people don't have the privilege to only wear those labels to write or illustrate a story. Some people have to live it every second of every day...and every action they preform or interaction they have is colored by those labels. Understanding privilege is a great way to help see the other side of the story. I can PROMISE you without a doubt that anyone identifying as any combination of those labels you tossed so carelessly have been hurt by, or discriminated against in ways you take for granted every day. The transgender lesbian disabled black women has to worry about that building having wheelchair access. She has to worry about getting jumped for using the "wrong" bathroom and she has to hope the store manager doesn't follow her around because she looks like she might steal something. She has to worry about getting mugged because of who she loves. Because of who she IS. That is her life. I can assure you she doesn't see herself as some coveted intersectional Holy Grail.

    What the "Own Voices" movement realizes, that many people here seem to be missing is that you simply CAN'T know all the myriad and nuanced ways the daily life of those different than you are impacted by being different. You can try to, or pretend to, but that is just it. It's not real or authentic. Maybe this topic is not as relevant in children's media but it certainly is a big issue in almost all other forms of creative expression.

    One final thought on why diversity in children's media is so important, and why having authentic voices share those stories is so valuable: Steven Universe. This show is an excellent example of diverse characters who are not telling stories ABOUT diversity. They are written honestly and authentically without losing the target audience. And the creator speaks very eloquently about the importance of LGBTQ representation for young children. Hope this helped provide some context.



  • Years ago when I was creating a lot of work for a publishing company it was specified that I had to include x number whites, x number black, x number asian, etc. It was so ridiculous that they even specified hair and eye color for the various characters. My belief then (and now) if that is what the client wants it is my job to deliver it and deliver it to the best of my abilities since that is what I was hired for.

    That's a different perspective from the "Own Voices" idea. Own Voices is simply a form of racism and bigotry as it segregates, separates and compartmentalize people (the artists) by race. While popular with "educators" it is wrong for the real world.

    If a person is a good artist (written or drawn) their audience will recognize a white person. They will recognize a black person and they will recognize an asian, a hispanic, etc, etc, etc.

    The same goes for authors. Guess what, Rowlings was never a 10 year old boy wizard yet she wrote Harry Potter. Twain was not a black slave yet "Jim" from Huck Finn is a well rounded and believable character that is from the best piece of American fiction that was ever written

    What I tell my kids when they are confronted with this in school is to substitute "white or caucasian" with whatever other race you are being told and if the person telling you would have a problem with the statement using white, it is racist.

    You can agree or disagree and I am fine with that.

    Quality art (written or drawn) is simply quality art. It does not matter what color the person who created it is and for that to matter and make a difference is bigoted.



  • Let's not let this get too political at the risk of upsetting anyone. I think there is room for all of us in this industry, and whatever we hope to do there will be an avenue for each perspective and style. I have my own convinctions, and if I get offered a job (if I ever get good enough) in the future that I do not feel I can morally take, I will politely decline. Life is a bunch of hills, and I won't die on this one.

    However, reverting back to the issue first brought up by @smceccarelli : I would personally email the instructors on this subject. It seems as though it is a touchy issue, and a private conversation will grant them more leeway with advice for you (I have no clue what their views are btw)

    I can understand the confussion, especially if you are living in a part of the world that is not as politically polarizing as America's is. As someone who lives in the US and was born and raised in Southern California and in one of the most liberal cities outside of San Francisco all the while being raised in a conservative home, I can tell you that it is best to just roll with the punches (not assuming you are conservative or liberal)

    A good illustrator is going to get work, and a good book will always be a good book. I just believe that. So I don't think we should be all that concerned.

    Of course this comment will be much more brilliant in the future after I win the Caldecott....soooo...make sure to bookmark 😉



  • @kimchizerbe said in Own Voices:

    I don't believe the "Own Voices" movement is about preventing stories of diversity, but rather, it is serving as an opportunity to give under represented groups a chance to tell their stories from their perspective.

    Right. And also preventing a person who doesn't fit in that particular exact category from telling said story.

    This movement is happening because for sooooooo long, the conversation in the arts has been absolutely dominated by white, heteronormative, straight, men.

    Have you heard of Broadway?*

    is a form of cultural/soci-economic/gender/etc. appropriation.

    What do you mean by this? Do you mean that a White female author who writes a story that has a young Black girl (for example) in it is appropriating the Black girl's culture? If so, Ok. I'll refrain from giving my opinion on that opinion. If not, what do you mean?

    What it DOES mean, is that I should exercise caution before telling the story of a child of color growing up in abject poverty because that is a life experience I cannot adeptly speak to with authenticity.

    You seem to be saying that a Black person who grew up in poverty can't "authentically" write about a poor White person. What if they were neighbors? Skin tone, for you, would make any writing about shared day-to-day struggles in the same socio-economic and geographical location ring untrue?

    What if a Black person who grew up poor DREW a poor White child? Surely we can agree that there would be no "problematic" issues with that....right?

    But THOSE is not the type of stories I believe the "Own Voices" movement is trying to tell.

    Ok. I would imagine that they are (at least for some), but fine.

    Of course anyone creative can imagine what it may have felt like to be picked on for being gay, or fat, or black, or disabled. But if you are none of those things, you don't have an honest place from which to tell that story. You may accidentally get some of it right, but wouldn't an authentic voice from someone who has not had the same opportunities to share that story be more powerful?

    I don't know. Depends on how well they write I suppose. All things being equal: sure? I don't think anyone would argue that, again, all writing skills being equal, a person who lived an experience could tell a "better" story than someone writing about someone experiencing that experience (e.g., autobiography vs. biography).

    Wouldn't that be an opportunity to learn and grow? And perhaps more importantly for the AUDIENCE (who has been alarmingly missing from this discourse) wouldn't be awesome to see yourself represented by someone who is like you? THAT is what this idea is really supposed to be about. Representation

    Alright, sure. I can admit that I may be unique in this but I have never, ever, finished a book and then decided to do some research on the author to see if I should enjoy the story more, or get more meaning and impact out of the story based on the author's gender (sometimes this can be deduced by the name), race, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, or abled status.

    In my view art is either good or it isn't. Art is impactful or it isn't. The idea that an artist can't authentically create stories and imagery on a variety of diverse issues removes the "art" from his/her title. In other words, that is one of the very skills that makes an artist an artist.

    Also, I hope before you spout off

    Hmmmm?

    about "gay, asian muslim men" or "transgender lesbian black disabled women" as some sort of "holy grail" of diversity you stop to remember that those labels ARE attributed to and DO affect REAL people. Some people don't have the privilege to only wear those labels to write or illustrate a story.

    I feel like you might be projecting something but I don't want to presume and get into some kind of internet fight. I will say that I did not suggest that no one really is/are those things.

    I can PROMISE you without a doubt that anyone identifying as any combination of those labels you tossed so carelessly

    Ok. How could I have more carefully set them down gently?

    The transgender lesbian disabled black women has to worry about that building having wheelchair access.

    Probably yes.

    She has to worry about getting mugged because of who she loves.

    Now you are just pulling my leg. This part was meant to be levity, right? You can't seriously expect me to believe that there is a contingent of criminals who, not only can tell who someone loves, but also specifically target people based on that criterion.

    I can assure you she doesn't see herself as some coveted intersectional Holy Grail.

    I think you missed my point here.

    many people here seem to be missing is that you simply CAN'T know all the myriad and nuanced ways the daily life of those different than you are impacted by being different.

    You are right, you can't. We are in 100% agreement you and I. And literally** no author/illustrator of any race, orientation, ideology, etc, believes that either.

    Maybe this topic is not as relevant in children's media

    Why wouldn't it be?

    *Hopefully it is clear that this is a joke but the idea that there doesn't exist (or that there hasn't for "soooo long") a massive diversity in the arts--gender, race, sexual orientation--doesn't seem, to me, to ring true. Would be interested in what others think.
    **And by "literally" I, of course, mean: figuratively.



  • @jimsz said in Own Voices:

    The same goes for authors. Guess what, Rowlings was never a 10 year old boy wizard yet she wrote Harry Potter.

    Fair point.

    substitute "white or caucasian" with whatever other race you are being told

    Although I can see where this wouldn't always work, I do find myself automatically doing this.


  • SVS OG

    In the end I don't care if you're a black gay woman or pudgy white guy with a mullet...story is good, art is good...I'll buy it....don't think these small children are looking at a picture book and analyzing it's deeper hidden meaning.....most picture books have what..500 words...people are over thinking this....it's the bottom line...you better sell some books



  • Just wanted to mention a side note... has anyone checked out the #MSWL tag on Twitter yesterday? Wow, literally every agent mentions they're looking for diverse books and #ownvoices. Which is great. It's such a hot topic right now (obviously, this thread a prime example of that!). Unfortunately, when everyone says the same thing (and doesn't mention what ELSE they're looking for), I find that the whole purpose (of MSWL - Manuscript Wish List) to be defeated. I'd imagine that even for the people with #ownvoices manuscripts to find it frustrating - I mean, it's not really narrowing down for you which agents to submit to, when ALL of them say they're open to it!

    @smceccarelli I hope you resolved your original problem or at least had a great conversation about it with your agent. I feel bad for you that your original thread seems to have been totally taken over!



  • This is a huge topic. I was asking my friend the same question a month or two ago, and we gave each other a high five as we don't think of ethnicity when we design a character. I honestly just draw personalities. Yes some would recommend diversity while some say no. I would stick with what I believe is true and hopefully people we see the same. I would pick the one that has the most personality and make people not to think of ethnicity at first impression. I hope this helps.


  • SVS OG

    At the end of the day I think one of the most crucial words is ‘authenticity’…which illustrator is going to make the story feel real and the characters come alive to the audience, so that they can empathise and feel the same struggles as the characters. A lot of different factors are going to come into that choice - not least the quality of art, and the storytelling, as well as their “own voice” distilled from their overall background, influences and experiences of life. I don’t think that’s going to automatically include or exclude illustrators purely on the basis of race/gender etc. Making sure people of all backgrounds have the opportunity to tell those stories is of course something to aim for.

    On a side note, thinking about the actual content of my picture book collection, you wouldn’t think you could have such a politically sophisticated discussion about them! (my collection is aimed at the under 5’s though)…it’s full of animals being friends, lost library books, tigers losing their smile, two boys digging a hole, a dog getting dirty, lost cats, assorted nursery rhymes, tigers coming to tea…I mean it’s all cute, and the modern ones are ethnically diverse when there are people in them, but it’s not charged with the racial issues that adults are more tuned into. That doesn’t mean it’s not important to have this discussion - of course it is - but one of the things I like about picture books is that they can talk about timeless topics that are simply ‘human’, by layering them into stories about animals or aliens or whatever.


  • SVS OG

    @Dulcie you said what I was thinking (with much more grace) I think kids need to be able to stay kids for as long as they can without having to worry about this stuff....



  • I think I am just going to draw robots from now on. Just sidestep this whole thing.



  • I think all responses here have been insightful - casting lights on different aspects of the issue. And no, I do not think the topic has been sidetracked - all aspects are related. I am at SCBWI NY, and there was a keynote speaker addressing this topic for illustrators - it is really a hot button right now, my agent was right. It is not so much about not being able to illustrate cultures other than your own, it is more about making sure that these are correctly represented, in a respectful and considerate and truthful way. And is also, in a very big way, about being authentic, being true to who you are, where you come from and your experience of the world. This is for me the biggest take-home message.
    So art directors nowadays is simply not likely to hire an illustrator to illustrate a story that has a distinct ethnic or cultural connotation unless the illustrator is either from that cultural space or has a style that deeply resonates with that particular culture - there is therefore little point in putting such depictions into your portfolio, though you can freely do it for your personal work (with the risk, however, of misprepresentation). It does not mean that you cannot include different ethnicities in a story that has no specific cultural resonance. Several examples were made, and the books discussed were really embedded in a specific cultural universe - Mexican folklore or Native American family life. Clearly stories that I, for one, would be completely unfitting to illustrate anyhow. In this context, I can understand the "own voices" movement a lot better.



  • @smceccarelli said in Own Voices:

    It is not so much about not being able to illustrate cultures other than your own, it is more about making sure that these are correctly represented, in a respectful and considerate and truthful way.

    Several examples were made, and the books discussed were really embedded in a specific cultural universe - Mexican folklore or Native American family life.

    I would imagine that this would seem reasonable to most people.

    Thank you for the insights/clarification!


  • SVS OG

    Totally off topic, but I so wish I was at the conference this year. I feel like so many of my internet friends are there and I wish I could meet them! And it sounds like you're getting lots of good info. If it wouldn't be too much to ask, maybe when you go home you could make a thread sharing your biggest insights/lessons learned, for those of us who couldn't make it.



  • @Sarah-LuAnn I will definitely do that - it is quite exciting to be here!



  • I spoke with one of my friends today who got her YA book published, and I asked her about this topic. She said that it is one of the biggest topics right now in publishing, and she has had to bite her tongue a few times with her agent commenting on her book. She is half white and half asian, and designed her main character around herself. Her agent and the publisher both tried getting her to change her main character from half white and half asian, and remove the reference to her having freckles, because as they put it "asians don't have freckles", she replied by telling them that the character was based off of how she looks, and she does have freckles.

    So to be fair, this isn't easier or harder for one group of people. Everyone is seeing this trend as a bit of a hard pill to swallow.


  • SVS OG

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=56UfBZzaM0w Will Terry and Tyrus Goshay little bit on this subject



  • What a great topic and great comments - I'm not sure if my comments will further this discussion but I felt prompted to try. I don't speak for SVS - these are my personal feelings. We are artists. Art isn't safe. Art doesn't always follow social norms but often challenges them. It is our job to tell visual and written stories. Stories are based on our own personal experiences and imaginations -but we can't know what it's like to be each character we illustrate because most of the time they have similar but different experiences. If we limit ourselves by illustrating only that which we have experienced we will cease to explore, innovate, imagine, create, conjure, describe, relate, depict, conceive, fantasize, and visualize - the essential components of art making. Art doesn't have rules and constraints to prepare and package it for consumption - it must remain unrestrained and unrestricted. We don't all value art the same - so how can we value creativity that conforms to a set of guidelines? If we self censor by creating only that which we have personally experienced - we would have to turn down 99% of all assignments offered. -Will Terry



  • I have my personal opinion about this case and it coincides with yours! http://bigpaperwriter.com/blog/cultural-identity-essay is talking about culture as a way to identify your country and nation!


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