Own Voices

We Need Diverse Books (#WNDB) has gained energy and publisher awareness since its launch in 2014. The proportion of published kids’ books continues to skew below parity for those by and about people of color, varied gender and sexual identities, and specific disabilities, with the latter two broad spectra receiving less census taking and data analysis to date in the publishing world. However, inclusivity has become a publishing value, with more people now noticing that skew and more publishers and publishing gatekeepers are actively working to correct it. The efforts have been concentrated on print titles. While both titles for kids and visually read books desperately need this attention and change in publishing traditions, adult readership and readers who use their ears need increased and sustained inclusivity in publishing as well. Among these are reviewers, whose critical pronouncements on audio materials needs to include articulate and culturally competent attention to authentic inclusivity.

An essential element of moving publishing resources toward inclusiveness, again largely in the kids print market, is awareness of own voices, which has been building broader social media consciousness with the #OwnVoices hashtag. This effort draws attention to the need for justice in publishing: narratives from and about marginalized experiences and characters from authentic sources should be sought and supported. Those who live beyond and beside the empowered culture’s contours are the ones whose voices need to be heard. Inclusivity is necessary to all of us if we are to inhabit a cultural home that has windows, mirrors, and doors.

Audiobooks offer multiple facets for delivering this #OwnVoices authenticity. Inclusivity becomes even more fulsome when author and narrator both offer lived apprehension of cultural nuances that they offer to listening readers’ ears—and when marginalized artists have the opportunity to speak to all. This is not to say that excellent accents and cadences are beyond the capacity of voice talent regardless of cultural identity or, even more silly, that only men should perform audiobooks with male characters or by male authors or straight cis women narrate books that present heteronormative romance stories from a female perspective. The call for #OwnVoices inclusivity requires publishing to afford performance opportunities that reflect reality rather than limiting listeners to a small group of voices to represent the wide horizon of increasingly diverse roles and books.

Where publishers strive to make inclusive audiobook decisions consideration needs to reach these questions:

  • How discoverable are audiobooks that resonate if the listener is not a white middle class suburbanite or New York City dweller? Do print bestseller lists truly serve listener potential?
  • How can more works by small presses specializing in books that are inclusive reach audio format for listening readers? Are new books that could have high auditory appeal being acquired for recording when their print sales or forecasted sales strike midlist or below?
  • How well are directors seeking audiobook actors to present a wide range of voices to reflect the wide range of narratives to be performed? Are audiobook publishers relying on a tiny number of minority actors relative to the diversity of audiobook experiences possible to record?

While the children’s and young adult book publishing industry can find annual reports measuring their diversity and inclusivity efforts by consulting the annual statistics collected and published by Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center and the various news services and blogs reporting and analyzing what the statistics reveal, audiobooks have not undergone repeated examinations of how their #OwnVoices realizations might be trending. Anecdotally, it certainly seems that the largest kids’ audiobook publishers, as well as some adult audiobook producers, are stepping up to make #OwnVoices an audiobook norm.

We have reached the point where actual measuring, and reporting of analyzed measurements, is needed to gain traction among audiobook reviewers of the #OwnVoices ethos as well. Seeking honest and useful reviews of audiobooks, for now, is fraught with reading critiques that show reviewers are either unaware of listeners unlike themselves, or the value of inclusivity of authentic to expose both windows and mirrors that are not warped by a tradition of entitlement.

Inclusivity isn’t an “extra” for those who have been left out traditionally or who are young and impressionable. Authenticity requires increasingly larger human resources in voice acting, as in author support, directorial identity, and review editing, so that truly diverse narratives can be discovered. Professional reviewers need to pay attention to how large—or small–the body of voice talent may be when it comes to the presentation of #OwnVoices audio. Authors’ wide range of characterizations, prosody, and mood intentions demand a deep pool of available talent to perform them so that listeners can hear an assortment of skilled interpretive approaches. Simply matching ethnic or sexual identity background is crude and bypasses the point of #OwnVoices support. Discoverability by listening readers requires publishers, and reviewers too, to forego a sense of satisfaction that a well known handful of #OwnVoices have been identified; there is no end to seeking additional inclusivity in the project of #OwnVoices.