Why We Need Diverse Books

Guest Post by Ellen Oh

Young adult author and educator Ellen Oh, founder of the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign, shares some of the personal reasons that compelled her call-to-arms for more diversity in contemporary literature.

So the first thing people ask me these days is how did the WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign come about? There's the basic answer -- the one about how I've been fighting for diversity and against racism for years. And then there's the series of events that all lead up to it. I haven't felt up to talking about the private stuff before. But I realize it is an important part of how I ended up here.

Earlier this year, my dad had a major stroke so severe that the doctors told my family to say our goodbyes. And then a miracle, he survived. But at what cost? He was paralyzed and his memory was so badly affected that he didn't remember our names, and sometimes even who we were.

As I tried to deal with the emotional turmoil in my personal life, I was overwhelmed by a feeling of helplessness. I couldn't fix my father. And the help I could give felt useless. I didn't know what to do but I focused on supporting my mother with my dad. It was in the midst of my personal despair that news about the BookCon Blockbuster's Read program hit Twitter and I remember talking to Malinda Lo about the continued lack of representation at these major book events. We kept talking about it and I began to feel a growing rage within me. And then something just snapped. I was just so angry and frustrated and feeling so helpless. I just wanted to hit something. I just needed to do something. I needed to channel my rage into something positive. And I kept saying over and over again "We need to do something really big. So big that no one can ignore us anymore." There were quite a few people who scoffed at me. Told me I was wasting my time. However, there was even more people who came to me and said, "What do you want to do? I'm in!"

I don't think any of my team knows that when I was saying "Let's do something big" I actually had no idea what I was talking about. But then I remembered being with my Dad and how much he enjoyed seeing pictures of his grandchildren, even though he couldn't remember their names. There is something so powerful about a picture.

That's when the idea came to me. I'd loved the cue card campaigns done for many social justice issues on tumblr. What if we used the cards to let the people tell their story? Let them tell us why we need diverse books. When I explained my idea to my team, they loved it. 22 people worked on figuring out the right hashtag. Because my first idea was #WeNeedDiverseChildren'sandYoungAdultLiterature or something ridiculous like that! Fortunately we were able to pare it down to the much shorter and much more inclusive #WeNeedDiverseBooks and a hashtag was born.

I don't think any of us could have predicted the response we got. Nor could we have predicted how moved we'd be by the submissions. "#WeNeedDiverseBooks because" let people tell us exactly how not having enough diversity affected their lives. From the queer girl who told us that she might not have tried to commit suicide if she'd seen someone like her reflected back in her books, to the little black boys who said "I'm a superhero, too!" These were powerful stories that were even more meaningful when paired with the visual of a real life human.

I just wanted to share two of my favorite submissions which also are the two most popular submissions for the campaign.

We are still getting submissions. People want to share their stories and experiences. And we are getting out there, meeting directly with readers, publishing industry leaders, librarians, and teachers. We have a lot of supporters. Now we are trying to move them all into action. The time for effective change is now. And we believe that we can make that change happen. By partnering with some really amazing organizations like the National Education Association's Read Across America, and First Book, and the SCBWI, we are moving forward to the next steps of our campaign. The NEA has pledged to promote diverse books to their over 2.5 million membership and we've just announced our Diversity in the Classroom Initiative. But the most exciting news is our announcement of the development of the first ever Children's Literature Diversity Festival, to be held in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2016. This will be a celebration of diverse authors and authors who write diversely. It will be a festival where every panel and every event will celebrate diversity in all of its glory. This is something I feel passionate about.

I wish I could tell my dad about the campaign. I wish he could remember who I am. Because if he could remember, then I know he'd be proud of me. I was always the kid that would fight for the underdog, be furious about injustices, complain about inequality. Just like my dad. I remember how hard it was for him working in big business and constantly being passed over for promotions by younger white males, until the day came that he was laid off. A casualty of corporate racism. Instead of going back into the business world, he became a social worker and worked for decades fighting for the rights of Korean Americans in NYC. He wrote many articles on social injustices that happened in this country that he loved. He fought for the rights of those who couldn't fight for themselves. He was the original Angry Asian Man.

I am my father's daughter. It's why I became a lawyer. I have my father's need to fight against injustice. My dad used to call me Xena, the warrior princess, back when I used to have bangs. It used to irritate me, but now I miss it. I miss my dad.

If he could remember me now, he'd probably laugh and say, "Who are you fighting for this time?"

And I'd answer, "All of us, dad. For all of us."

Originally from NYC, Ellen Oh is an adjunct college instructor and former entertainment lawyer with an insatiable curiosity for ancient Asian history. She is the author of the YA fantasy trilogy, The Prophecy Series, also known as The Dragon King Chronicles. Ellen lives in Bethesda, Maryland with her husband and three daughters and has yet to satisfy her quest for a decent bagel.

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