A child of Korean immigrants
I'm originally from New York, and I grew up in Queens and then moved to Brooklyn in middle school, which is probably the worst time to move schools, right? And growing up in New York there's a lot of Asians. There's a lot of Koreans, which is great, except that when you are the child of an immigrant, you have a very different experience with school. It's so different from these days because, my kids say,"Oh, can you pack me sushi for lunch?"
"Wow, you want sushi for lunch? Okay." I'm not making it. I'll buy it, but when I was growing up, my mom would actually, make kimbob and my favorite kind of japchae noodles and all these really delicious Korean dishes, and I'd pack 'em for lunch, and I would be afraid to open it and eat it at school because I knew that I was going to just get humiliated. You know, all I would hear is, "Ew, what's that? Ew, that's so gross. Oh, what is that? Seaweed?"
Now non-Korean kids are packing kim — that's what we call the seaweed —the fried seaweed, and eating it as snacks. So it’s like an upside down world for me sometimes when I think about it, but that experience is a wonderful one, when I think about it, for my kids, you know, having that ability to say, "My food is being accepted now," which I never had that ability before.
So I think that it was maybe being a Korean-American when Korean-Americans were just coming in. There weren't as many Korean-Americans before my parents came, so I think that that made a big difference in terms of my experience and also how I was relating with the world around me, because people didn’t even know Korea was a country.
You're either Chinese or Japanese, which was another long story about having to deal with issues about, you know, being the Asian kid that nobody knew how they could relate to, being called the — you know, horrible words, being called “chink” and “jap” and "what's Korea?" I think that that's all changed now, and I'm so grateful for that, and at the same time some things just still stay the same, which is why I think we have to keep doing better.
Teaching our kids and being more accepting of other experiences, and that getting better is really only from exposure and experience and learning.
A second home in the library
I think my parents probably owe the New York City Library system lots of babysitting fees because they would literally dump me in the library and not even think about me until closing time. I lived in a library. I think that the library probably saved my life because when you're a low-income kid that's depending on free breakfast and lunch at school, books are a luxury.
But for me, books were never a problem because I could go to the library to get anything I wanted to read, and to me, that made my life probably much more bearable.
My favorite book, oh there's so many to choose from, but the ones that I can't ever forget … The Count of Monte Cristo was my favorite book when I read it because it was just about revenge and fairness and rightness, and I think I became a lawyer because of that book, to be honest. I loved The Three Musketeers and The Man in the Iron — I was a big Alexander Dumas fan, clearly, and then I got into the Earthsea series by Ursula Le Guin, and fantasy became one of my favorite genres to read.
I could just go down the rabbit hole of books that I love. I just love reading,
Discovering The Joy Luck Club
It's one of those happy/sad stories. The sad part is I remember being in second grade and my teacher pulled out The Five Chinese Brothers. It's that iconic book with the very, very yellow Chinamen in the pigtails, and I don't remember having any other opinion about that book at the time of the reading other than, "Oh, this is kind of a fun story."
And then recess came and the kids started chasing me around and pulling slanted eyes on me — and really being cruel as they can be when they've been exposed to something that is a caricature of reality, and then they're taking it as reality. And in an art class, the boy who was sitting next to me decided I was the wrong color for a Chinaman and began painting my arm mustard yellow, and I remember thinking, — after getting in trouble for dumping the paint on the boy — I remember thinking, "Why did he think he was okay to do that?"
Right? And he thought it was okay because he had read a book that showed that Chinamen were mustard yellow. I mean, it was literally that simple, and so from that point on it became the book that I despised the most, and I don't ever remember having a positive experience until I read The Joy Luck Club, and I was in college. I mean, I was a grownup, and at that moment I realized that I had been missing something, but I never knew that I was missing it because I had never had it.
I think that's why it was such an emotional connection for me. That book makes me cry harder than any other book. 20, 30 years later it's stil such an emotional book for me because it was that first time that I saw, “Here is a family, an immigrant family just like mine. They speak broken English just like mine. They eat rice with every meal.” They're Chinese, I'm Korean, but still, you know? I felt a connection, and I am forever grateful to Amy Tan for that.
The teacher who encouraged me to write
When I was in high school, my favorite English teacher was actually the one who told me I could be a great writer. And that was actually the first time anybody had said that to me, and I've never forgotten it because I don't think I thought I was a good writer until that moment — until I had that moment where an adult who I respected told me I could do something really well.
So it's amazing how the words of a teacher can be so impact in a person, and which is why I'm so mindful about what I say to kids. I never want to discourage them from something. I want to be able to say, "You should try. You never know, right?" And then we might be better at some things than others, but to tell anybody that they are just bad at something is, I think, never the right thing to do. So those are my memories from school.
From lawyer to YA author
I went to law school first because my parents — well, I had traditional Asian parents who decided that their child was going to be a doctor no matter what. And so I went to NYU, and I was pre-med for way too long until finally I said, "I hate this. I prefer to write. I prefer history. I prefer my English classes, you know, my political science classes. I'm going to do something different."
And my mom didn’t speak to me for a year, which was really uncomfortable because I was living in the same house with her for the year, but anyway, I got into law school, and I went down that path. As you know with being a lawyer, you do a lot of reading, a lot of writing, a lot of researching, so I felt like it kinda set me up to be a better writer so that when I was ready to finally write books — not that it was easy because you have to switch from the legal to the fiction mind, and so I had to educate myself a lot in that process.
But I think having that legal background did help me in putting together the process of writing that works for me — which is I love research, and I love outlining, and I always write the conclusion of any story or book that I'm working on first because then I am going to write to that conclusion — which is kinda like when anything I did as a lawyer. I knew that there was an outcome that I was looking for and I was going to find all the research to support that.
Inspiration for the Prophecy series
The first time I realized I had any interest in writing was because in the year 2000 the Time Magazine cover for Man of the Millennium was Genghis Khan, and I remember going, "Oh, my God, there's an Asian man on the cover of Time, and he's Man of the Millennium, right? Not just Man of the Year, and he's Asian. Whoa." So I went and I got a biography.
I started reading about Genghis Khan and the Mongolian Empire, and in the process I actually started reading and learning about Korean history, Japanese history, Chinese history, all this history about East Asia that you never learn in American schools, and I was fascinated by it. I thought it was just so interesting, and I kept wondering why aren't there books about this? There's nothing really out there, and I thought, "Somebody should put this into, like, a fantasy or, an adventure novel, because this would be great."
And that thought process was in my head, and I kept getting all these books, and I was buying books off of the Internet and asking my dad to send me books from Korea. And then I couldn't read it because I'm illiterate in Korean, and so he would translate them all. I have these beautiful Korean research books with big Post-its with my dad's handwriting just, translating every page. It's amazing.
And I realized if you go into a bookstore in the States, literally Korean history starts with the Korean War, and that's it, but I wanted to look at all the beautiful, rich history that was behind that.
I decided when Harry Potter came out that maybe what I want to do is write these stories for kids, because I had been going through the bookstore and I was looking for books for my daughter, and thank God for Linda Sue Park and An Na, and I'm just so grateful that they have written their books, but there were no fantasy books.
There were no adventure books where an Asian girl was a hero, and that's what I want. I've got a daughter and I want her see herself as a hero. Well, I'm going to write it myself, and that's how I ended up writing The Prophecy Series.
Weaving in Korean mythology
Kira is one of those girls that I wanted to channel myself into. For example, she has a really good sense of smell — everybody calls me “bloodhound nose” because I can smell if somebody took their shoes off two rooms away — and so I wanted to utilize that sense. And then she also has a tiger spirit, and she's got these golden eyes like a tiger, and so she has powers that are from being imbued with a tiger spirit.
And she's a demon fighter, so I wanted a tough girl heroine who was not going to need anybody to protect her. She was the one actually protecting the prince, so she's the prince's bodyguard.
I love some of the legends that were in Korean history, especially the ones that we're talking about what actually happened when there were all these invasions. Korea has been invaded so many times just because it's a peninsula and it's next to China and Japan, and it's a beautiful country, so it has been invaded many, many, many times.
So there are all these stories about the heroism by locals, by villagers, not by royals — you know, the common folk — and I thought that was really intense, and I wanted to bring some of those tales into my story. I also wanted to bring in some of the mythology, like the kumiho, which is the nine-tailed fox demon that can transform into a beautiful woman and then will eat the livers and hearts of men because they betrayed her in some way, which I think, of course, that always happens, so there you go.
That's the myth right there, and I wanted to include the imugi, which is, like, half-dragon, half-eel, so there are these things that were very specific to Korea or to East Asia that I wanted to bring to a book that hasn't really been read by a lot of American kids — and even my kids didn't know them. So that was kind of fun.
Spirit Hunters: a ghost story
So Spirit Hunters is very different in that it's contemporary, but it uses Korean shamanism as part of the baseline of the story. I love ghost stories. I hate horror movies after watching The Ring. I've never been able to watch another horror movie because that movie scared me too hard. But I love reading horror books.
I was a kid that read Stephen King books too late in the night, and then I couldn't go to the bathroom all night because I'm thinking, "Oh, my God. The hallway is dark. There's a vampire," and so I wanted to write a really scary story for kids because I think kids love scary stories, right? Just like being able to scare somebody — it's the best feeling.
In fact, I love scaring my kids. Their whole life I've traumatized them. I just hide. I'll wait an hour to hide and then pop out and scare them. So when I wanted to do it at a broader scale I decided to do a ghost story, and I wanted it to be a really scary story, so I got some possessions and scary monsters that I could add and made a two-book series.
Spirit Hunters is about a Korean-American girl who moves to the Washington DC area with her family and quickly realizes that there's something really wrong with the house because her little brother has suddenly changed dramatically.
And I think that a lot of what I put into the book in terms of being in a mental hospital, being hospitalized, and dealing with issues of anxiety and depression is, in a way, being trapped in kind of your own little horror story.
So that became part of the refrain that I was using when I was writing Spirit Hunters, and what I also wanted to be able to say is that these kids are strong and they can survive, and that they will find a way to survive.
We Need Diverse Books: origins of a movement
We Need Diverse Books came about as a hashtag, and it was because Book Con had made an announcement for an all-white male panel that was called Luminaries of Children's Literature.
I remember the outcry because women were really upset about the fact that they had been completely excluded from this panel, and then I remember all the writers of color saying, "Hey, welcome to our world. This is what we deal with all the time." But then not even a week later, Book Con announces its one-day full lineup, guest lineup, and it was 30 amazing guests, authors and celebrities, and the only diversity was a cat, the Grumpy Cat.
There were plenty of women writers, but there was just no diversity, and I think for the first time it became really obvious how ingrained the problem was, and we had an idea for a campaign. We really decided that this was a time we were going to make a big ruckus, that we wanted to make it so loud that people couldn’t ignore us anymore.
These were conversations that we've been having in these little bubbles everywhere but that it needed to be a larger conversation, and thankfully social media has allowed us to do that. So we came up with a hashtag. We added a visual component to it, especially for Tumblr and Facebook and Pinterest, and for people to be able to see that We Need Diverse Books is not just about words, but that there's actually a person that is behind those words.
And that's what the visual allowed people to see. For example, three little black boys dressed up in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes saying, "We need diverse books because we're heroes too." I thought the concept of that was so important for people to realize, that when you haven't seen yourself in books that you doubt that you can be what all the white kids have never, ever doubted that they can be.
And so the hashtag really took off. It went viral. We were surprised at how many people took it to heart, how not being able to see yourself in books really personally affected so many people, and we were able to move that from just a hashtag to a real-life nonprofit company and come up with programs that could make changes happen.
We Need Diverse Books: success stories
So what we were able to do is channel a lot of the support that we got for We Need Diverse Books into programs that were aimed specifically to make the changes that we were looking for. For example, we have the internship program that puts college students from marginalized backgrounds in publishing, because statistically it's been proven that publishing is 90% white.
And so as much as people in publishing are wonderful and they want to do the right thing, if they're not having representation there with them to tell them, "Yeah, you need these books," and "Yeah, maybe this book isn't quite the right fit for what you want to say, maybe this author's not the right author to tell this story," — these things you can't know. You don't know what you don't know, right?
So we got an internship program going with Linda Sue Park being our chair, and it brings in all these college students to be interns at publishing houses.
We have had a huge success record of interns getting jobs, permanent jobs as assistant editors and in publicity and marketing and all levels of publishing, and that's been a huge success for us. And we also have the mentorship program and the grants program that gives money to writers of color and other writers from marginalized backgrounds, like the LGBT community and the disabilities community.
One of our greatest success stories has been Angie Thomas, who is the author of The Hate You Give. She won the inaugural Walter grant award that helped her go on and finish her book.
We were also really fortunate to work with Walter Dean Myers' family and be able to present an award in his honor because he was such a huge advocate for diversity in children's literature, and so we have the Walter Dean Myers Award.
Our first inaugural winner was All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and this past award was March by Congressman John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell. So it's been an amazing experience to have this award go out to such outstanding books.
A sea change in the children’s book community
I think that what we've done is really open people up to the idea that diversity is a good thing, and I've been really grateful that We Need Diverse Books has been embraced so well by librarians and book-sellers and teachers and parents. It's been remarkable, the support that we've gotten. I think that without that support we would never have gotten as far as we've come.
Librarians have been the reason why. If you look at the award ceremonies, you see a huge change. I mean, the first year after We Need Diverse Books became a true organization, you saw the Newbery Award go to three diverse authors for three diverse books. The Newbery Award went to Kwame Alexander's Crossover, Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming, and Cece Bell's El Deafo.
And then the year after, it went to Matt de la Peña for Last Stop on Market Street, and it was the first time a Latino author had won in 90 years. So I'm seeing a lot of change. I'm seeing that the hashtag is no longer just a hashtag.
It's being embraced by a lot of people who are recognizing that it's not just a trend. It's actually important. It's allowing people to empathize with others. It's recognizing that we are all kind of connected by the human experience.
Flying Lessons: stories for everybody
I was really fortunate to edit this wonderful anthology called Flying Lessons for WNDB, We Need Diverse Books, and it has amazing authors. It has Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Peña, Kwame Alexander, Soman Chainani, Meg Medina — oh, my gosh, so many — Grace Lin, so many more. I think what the most important part of that book is that there's a story for everybody, which is our mission.
We believe that there should be a story for everybody, so it's been such a pleasure to work on this anthology knowing that there is something that someone anywhere will be able to pick up and enjoy and be able to say, "Hey, I can relate to this."
Our second anthology is being edited by Lamar Giles, who is an amazing YA author (Fake ID), and who is also an advisory board member of WNDB and a long-time friend of mine. He is the editor for the WNDB YA anthology with authors like Daniel José Older, Gene Luen Yang, Malinda Lo, Melissa de la Cruz, and Nicola Yoon, and Jason Reynolds — yes, another star-packed anthology coming next year .
And the second anthology is called Fresh Ink, and it should be out next summer .
We need diverse books because …
We need diverse books because it's 2017 and we are still having this conversation.
Ellen Oh reads an excerpt from Spirit Hunters
Hi, my name is Ellen Oh, and I'm going to be reading an excerpt from the beginning of my new book, Spirit Hunters.
Harper was walking over to the door when Michael stopped her. "Hey, Harper, wait. Billy said don't go up into the attic." "Why?" Michael shrugged. "He just doesn't want anyone up there." "Well, I don't think Mom and Dad plan on touching the attic for a while," Harper said. "They're focused on fixing — "
"They're focused on fixing the central air conditioning and everything else that's wrong with this stupid house." The spotty air conditioning was their first priority. They'd only been in Washington DC for two days and were already suffering from the heat and humidity, yet Harper found it odd that the old house was strangely cold in certain spots, like Michael's room.
Michael stopped playing with his LEGO toys and looked up at Harper with a serious expression. "Billy doesn't like it when you call his house stupid," he said. "Well, it's not his house. It's our house," she answered. "No, Harper. This is Billy's house. He's one of the people who lived here before us." The cold in the room deepened causing goosebumps to spread all over her arms and back. Harper fumbled for the doorknob. She was desperate to get away.
Harper fumbled for the doorknob. She was desperate to get away.
Ellen Oh is co-founder, President, and CEO of We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing diversity in children’s literature. She is the author of the YA Prophecy fantasy trilogy set in feudal Korea (Prophecy, Warrior, and King), and Spirit Hunters, a mystery for middle grade students.
Ellen grew up in Brooklyn, NY. Her favorite teacher was a high school English teacher who encouraged her to write creatively. Ellen says he’s the reason she learned to love writing. She started writing in 2000, after reading an article about Ghengis Khan in Time Magazine. They had just named him Man of the Millenium and she was intrigued enough to buy a biography on him. Little did she know that she would learn about ancient Korean history from a biography about a Mongol! Ellen continued to dig into Korean history, with help from her father who translated many Korean books for her.
Ellen has an undergraduate degree from New York University and a law degree from Georgetown University Law School. She doesn’t miss practicing law at all.
Ellen lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with her husband and three daughters.