Ellen Oh is a writer. In 2014, she cofounded We Need Diverse Books (WNDB). The group promotes books featuring characters from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds. She spoke with TFK Kid Reporter Josh Lee.
Books are often our introduction to people and cultures different from our own. In this way, they teach us about empathy. That’s how to combat bigotry and hate.
I didn’t find many characters who looked like me or shared my background. But I did relate to them in some ways. In A Wrinkle in Time [by Madeleine L’Engle], there’s a smart, nerdy book girl who’s a lot like me. But something was missing. The first time I saw myself in a book was life-transforming.
It was The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan. I saw a family that was like mine, talking about the immigrant experience. For a long time, I felt like an outsider. People would ask me, “Where are you from?” They thought I couldn’t be American because I didn’t look like them. Reading Tan’s book was the first time I felt like I belonged.
When I got older, there were more books being published that had characters like me. But there wasn’t a hero. There was no Katniss [of The Hunger Games] for Asians. I decided that if I couldn’t find those books, I would write my own.
We give books to schools all over the country. We also have the Walter Award. It’s a celebration of the most outstanding diverse books.
READ ON! Students in Santa Paula, California, hold up Schomburg, a 2018 Walter Award winner.
COURTESY WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS
Yes. There was a myth in publishing for a long time that books by and about people of color don’t sell. But look at books by Jason Reynolds, Nicola Yoon, Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander—there’s a market for all of them. This proves that people are hungry for these books.
Absolutely. Seeing writers of color empowers young people.
Read a lot of books. That will open up your world. Second piece of advice: Write. Don’t worry if it’s terrible. You can always revise. Just get those words on paper.