Ellen Oh is a novelist. 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.
1. Why do we need diversity in books?
Books are often our introduction to people and cultures that are different from our own. Books help readers relate to new experiences and new worlds. In this way, they teach us about empathy. That’s how to combat bigotry and hate.
2. When you were a kid, did you feel that you couldn’t relate to characters in books?
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.
3. What was the life-changing book?
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.
4. How did that experience influence your writing?
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. So I decided that if I couldn’t find those books, I was going to write my own.
5. What does WNDB do to promote diversity?
We give books to schools all over the country. We also have an award, the Walter Award [after author Walter Dean Myers], which is a celebration of the most outstanding diverse books in the industry. We focus on marketing and promoting these books.COURTESY WE NEED DIVERSE BOOKS
6. Have you seen more diversity in books since you started WNDB?
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 The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas. It has been on the New York Times best-seller list for 110 weeks! Books by Jason Reynolds, Nicola Yoon, Jacqueline Woodson, Kwame Alexander—there’s a market for all of them. This proves to the industry that people are hungry for these books.
7. Do you think a lack of diversity in books can discourage writers?
Absolutely. Seeing writers of color empowers young people, because they know that they can write too. They see a path that they thought wasn’t open to them.
8. What’s your advice for aspiring writers?
Read a lot of books. That will open up your world, so you can be honest and true about how you tell your story. Second piece of advice: Write. Don’t worry if it’s terrible. You can always revise. Just get those words on paper.