Q&A: Ellen Oh, Author and Co-founder of We Need Diverse Books

Tired of seeing a lack of Asian representation in kid lit, the Bethesda author began writing her own children's books

Author Ellen Oh talks about her nonprofit We Need Diverse Books
Photo: Graysin Oh

Ellen Oh was tired of seeing a lack of Asian representation in books. So she took matters into her own hands.

The Bethesda author and mom of three now has a growing collection of novels, with titles for middle grade readers (the “Spirit Hunters” series and “The Dragon Egg Princess”) and others for young adults (the “Prophecy” series and “A Thousand Beginnings and Endings”).

Oh also co-founded in 2014 We Need Diverse Books, a non-profit aimed toward increasing diversity in children’s books.

She told School Library Journal in July 2019 that one of WNDB’s main missions was to end the notion that “diverse books don’t sell.”

“What we’ve always believed is that these books can’t sell if no one knows about them. And the push, the focus, the celebration of diverse books that WNDB has made part of its mission is, I believe, a driving force of dispelling that myth,” she told SLJ.

Montgomery Magazine spoke to Oh via email to delve deeper into some of these topics. 

Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you get into writing?

I was a practicing attorney when I became fascinated by Asian history, specifically ancient Korean history. But I discovered how hard it was to find books in the U.S. about it. At the same time, I’d had my first child and I’d noticed that the kid lit books were no more diverse than when I was young. And I wanted a book with an Asian girl hero for my daughter to read about. So when I couldn’t find it, I decided to write it myself. 

What are some of your personal inspirations for your writing?

Every time I meet a young reader who tells me how much my book meant to them, then I am inspired all over again. It makes me want to keep writing because there is no greater praise for a writer than a kid who enjoyed a story you wrote. But I’m also inspired to share parts of my culture that I love and which shows up in all of my stories.  

What are some of your favorite things/topics to write about?

I love fantasy and horror. They are my favorite things to write! 

As the Black Lives Matter movement has gained significant mainstream attention recently, is there a heightened desire/need for antiracist literature? What can people achieve from reading antiracist literature, as well as other books written by non-white authors?

There is already plenty of antiracist literature out there. People have to read them and then do a deep internal dive to root out their own internal racism. It’s hard, it’s ugly, but we all have to do it. Anti-Blackness is systemic and so deeply rooted that most non-Black people’s immediate instinct is to deny any allegations of racism because they themselves don’t understand how deep racism is in this country. That’s why just reading it isn’t enough. You have to read, reflect, internalize, and then act to do better and be better.  

Do you have any suggestions for any antiracist books or other books written by POC that you would recommend people read? 

WNDB has a list of books they recommend. For me, I think everyone should read Jason Reynolds’s “Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You,” which is a take on Ibram X. Kendi’s novel 2016 award-winning novel “Stamped From the Beginning,” and Jacqueline Woodson’s “Brown Girl Dreaming.” I think they are both must-reads.  

Do you have any projects that you’re working on currently or have been working on throughout quarantine?

I’ve been working on a new middle grade book based on my parents experience during the Korean War and a YA book about a webcomic artist who gets sucked into her comic world.


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