Ellen Oh

Episode 12

Ellen Oh

Eye of the Tiger: Ellen Oh on Rising Up for the Right to Read

Masthead Waves

About this episode

Author of the “Prophecy” and “Spirit Hunters” series and the founder of We Need Diverse Books, Ellen Oh is equal parts no-nonsense and hilarious truth-teller.


"We all know the importance of representation in books and how life-affirming it can be for those who are historically underrepresented. Books are powerful. There's a reason for all this book banning. Books are more important than ever.” - Ellen Oh


As a child, Ellen Oh craved justice. Growing up as a Korean-American in New York City, discrimination was all around her. Public libraries became her safe haven, a place to escape and let her imagination wander. They even helped her reconnect with her culture through the long-loved Korean tradition of horror novels. After becoming a parent, Ellen chose to use her voice to give stories to those same underrepresented children. 
On this episode, Ellen joins us for a live conversation at the 2023 ALA LibLearnX conference in New Orleans to share more about how racism and social injustice inspired writing. She'll speak about growing up with racism in the classroom, ‘soft censorship’ and the recent classroom book-ban conflict, and how she co-founded “We Need Diverse Books” to support diversity in children's literature.

  • Chapter 1 - The library a.k.a the babysitter
  • Chapter 2 - Spreading the horror
  • Chapter 3 - Don’t Feed the Tiger 
  • Chapter 4 - The Joy Luck Club
  • Chapter 5 - We Needed “We Need Diverse Books”
  • Chapter 6 - Soft censorship
  • Chapter 7 - What can you do?
  • Chapter 8 - The power of a librarian
  • Chapter 9 - You Are Here: Connecting Flights
  • Chapter 10 - Books Save Lives
  • Chapter 11 - Listener Questions

Ellen's Reading Challenge

Download the free reading challenge worksheet, or view the challenge materials on our helpdesk.

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Ellen Oh: I think it's probably my legal background too. Like I always wanna fix things. I wanna like, what's the answer? Let's resolve it. Let's fix it. I have to learn the hard way through my kids. You can't fix everything, but at least we can try.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Ellen Oh, known for the Prophecy Trilogy and the Spirit Hunter Series. Among other stories like Finding Junie Kim was seemingly born with a craving for justice. Her first career appropriately was in law, but when she became a parent, she was reawakened to the distressing lack of diversity in children's literature. So she made a very Ellen Oh choice. She switched careers and started writing that diverse content herself, but that need for justice was still not met. And eventually she co-founded the organization, We Need Diverse Books. That's the very short version of the story. The full version is even more compelling and thankfully she told me that one herself at the ALA LibLearnX Conference in New Orleans this January. Today's episode is a special one. We recorded that live onstage conversation with Ellen Oh, and now we get to bring it to everyone who didn't have the opportunity to be there in person. You'll hear from Ellen about how Grumpy Cat helped ignite the diverse books movement. How she's still motivated by the intense racism she faced as a schoolgirl and her list of the top three things you can do now to fight the spread of book bans. Plus we'll learn about the horrifying family tradition she grew up with and then passed on to her own kids.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: My name is Jordan Lloyd Bookey, and this is the Reading Culture. A show where we speak with authors and reading enthusiasts to explore ways to build a stronger culture of reading in our communities. We dive into their personal experiences, their inspirations, and why their stories and ideas motivate kids to read more. It's time to head to New Orleans. So let's get started. So I want to welcome to the Reading Culture podcast, Ellen. I'm very excited to have Ellen Oh here today as our guest. For those who don't already know Ellen, you should. But Ellen is the author of the Prophecy series, Spirit Hunters, Finding Junie Kim and the editor of a variety of anthologies, including this one that's about to come out.

Ellen Oh: You Are Here.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: You Are Here. [chuckle] She also, that we're gonna talk a lot about today, co-founded and leads an organization called We Need Diverse Books. So have you all heard of that before? Yeah. All right. Let's give it up for, We Need Diverse Books, which is amazing.


Jordan Lloyd Bookey: [chuckle] I've read that you, you said your, your parents still owe the New York Public Library some babysitting fees.

Ellen Oh: Oh yeah.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: So you wanna tell us a little bit about your about your experience with libraries as a young kid? What was your experience at the library? 

Ellen Oh: I mean, I love libraries, right? School libraries, public libraries. They were like my safe spaces sometimes from bullies, sometimes just from being a poor Asian kid in New York City and not having a lot of resources, right? Not having the ability to buy books. But like with the library, I always had books available to me and that was probably a life-saving thing for me. Especially, I was like Matilda with a red wagon going to school, to the library. Except, you know, I'm a poor kid. So I had the shopping cart, you know the wire shopping cart, you stick like a paper bag in there and you fill it up with books and like greeting all the grandmas on the way, "Hey, yeah, on my way to the library." The library was like just my favorite place in the world. Also, my parents used to forget me at the library all the time. And the librarians were really nice. They'd wait with me till my parents would come to pick me up, until I was eight and then I was able to do it by myself. See? So that was my experience. Yeah.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: [chuckle] What kind of books were you reading? What kind of books did, were you drawn to as a little bitty kid? 

Ellen Oh: So I feel like I had to look it up. Like I had... 'cause it's been so long, I'm old. But I realized that I like was a huge Beverly Cleary fan. Then I graduated to the racy Judy Blume books. I mean like, I still remember reading Forever, like woo. And then, let's see, thrillers. I love Lois Duncan, right? Like the killing Mr. Griffin and I Know What You Did Last Summer. All those books. Like, so I graduated from Lois Duncan to Stephen King and I think I was reading too fast when I was young. So like, I was reading Stephen King in middle school and that's not always great 'cause the first time I read Salem's Lot in the middle of the night, I could not sleep. I would not put my feet down on the floor 'cause, there's something under my bed. I couldn't pee. I just like was in bed awake all night. And I loved it.

Ellen Oh: And that's why I wanted to write horror novels, also because I had parents that they're like old school Korean immigrants and their favorite thing in the world was to scare me with stories, not every story.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Is that like a thing? We should know that? 

Ellen Oh: Yes.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Because if that's a... I guess with like the recent all the...


Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Like all the Korean pop culture that's coming out, maybe that should be obvious.

Ellen Oh: Exactly. Koreans love horror.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: That's like that they like to scare.

Ellen Oh: Yes, they do. They absolutely do. Like if you go to a Korean, Korean house and even if they have little kids, they'll have like something horrifying on the TV screen and they don't care. There's like just no... My kids took me to a werewolf movie when I was two. My mom's like, "I had to cover my eyes and you were watching the whole thing. Ellen, I just don't understand." I'm like, "I was traumatized mom. Why didn't you cover my eyes?"

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: But you were also hooked basically, it sounds like.

Ellen Oh: Yes, I was... Yeah. So then I grew up to be a mom that likes to scare her kids, right? Like I was that mom, I would wait in a room covered up until one of my kids would waddle in, "Mama," and I would go "Waa."


Ellen Oh: So all three of my kids are in therapy, has nothing to do with the fact that I like to scare them.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Do they like to read horror? 

Ellen Oh: They don't. I don't know why.


Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Yeah. And then, you also, I think in the library wrote... Well, we can get to writing, but you did, it sounds like you wrote about your first book in the various public libraries. And is that true? 

Ellen Oh: Yeah, in fact, I think I wrote my first book Prophecy mostly in the Bethesda Public Library. First of all, it's quieter than a bookstore. And the problem with working in a bookstore is then you start listening to people's conversations and they're always really interesting and you don't get any work done. So at the library I knew I would get work done. But also like I had the resources there, right? Like I could read anything I want. Let me tell you, my favorite book actually when I was younger was actually the Counts of Monte Cristo, which gave me a really terrible revenge complex by the way.


Ellen Oh: Like revenge. And I actually read that while I was reading my Prophecy. I don't think I had my copy, so I would go to the library stacks and then pull the books that I wanted to like reference while I was writing. So it's the best place.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Very cool. I also wanna know like what you were like as a kid when I... I was thinking like the word, I didn't say it when I introduced you, I forgot. But I think of you indomitable. I'm like, that's the word for Ellen. Like it just goes. Also, I don't understand how you are doing all these things but were you like that as a kid or what were you outspoken as you are now or what was your...

Ellen Oh: Yeah, I kind of was a little jerk.


Ellen Oh: I admit that, but I also had a very strong sense of like fair play and justice and revenge, Count of Monte Cristo.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Why were you a jerk? 

Ellen Oh: Yeah, no. So this kind of goes back to my dad. So when I was growing up in New York, I had bullies, right? My dad was like, "Okay, I'm gonna tell you a story. And I was like, "Okay." And he was like, "Back in Korea a long time ago, there was this old woman who had children and she went to get food at the town and the tiger was following her and said, give me some of your food and I won't eat you. And so the woman gives the food, but the tiger keeps following her and says, give me some of your food. I won't eat you. So finally she has no more food and the tiger eats her," right? And my dad says, "Your bully is the tiger and if you don't fight back, they will bother you until they eat you one day. And so when you know you are faced with your tiger, you have to hit back 10 times harder." But I was this really literal kid. So 10 times harder meant 10 times harder. Right.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: So you decided you're gonna use your words to become a lawyer. Can you talk a little bit, I guess about your journey from lawyer? We won't dwell on the time that you were a lawyer except for just to know it. But then can you tell us a little bit about how you came to writing? 

Ellen Oh: When I went to like decided that I wanted to to write, it's kind of one of those stories where I never had that intention, I never thought I was gonna be an author. Like when I was in college, I loved writing. When I was in high school, my English high school teacher was great and he said I was a good writer. But I never thought of it as something that I would do. And it wasn't until I had my first child that I went to the bookstore and like I was determined to go and look for books and I just, I remember that moment of like, I've got my daughter in a stroller and I walk into Barnes and Nobles and the particular Barnes and Nobles near me, the kids section was behind these two like walls of all White books. And I had never seen so many beautiful White girls in dresses facing me. It was like blindingly beautifully White. And I remember looking at that going...


Ellen Oh: When I was a kid and that feeling of like never belonging would've hit me so hard at this moment. And that was when I was like, "I wanna do something about that." Imagine a daughter not knowing her own mother. And then it occurs to me they are frightened in me. They see their own daughters just as ignorant, just as unmindful of all the truths and hopes they have brought to America. They see daughters who grow impatient when their mothers talk in Chinese who think they are stupid when they explain things in fractured English. They see that joy and luck do not mean the same to their daughters. That to these closed American born minds, joy luck is not a word. It does not exist. They see daughters who will bear grandchildren born without any connecting hope passed from generation to generation. I will tell them everything I say simply. And the aunties look at me with doubtful faces. I will remember everything about her and tell them, I say more firmly, and gradually, one by one they smile and pat my hand. They still look troubled as if something were out of balance. But they also look hopeful that what I will say will become true. What more can they ask? What more can I promise? 

Ellen Oh: This is a passage when June joins the Mahjong table after her mother died and the aunties have told her she has to go to China and tell her lost twin sisters about her mother. So let me explain why I chose this to to read because when I was growing up in New York, like racism was really in your face. And if I had a dollar for every time somebody told me to go back to my own country or go back to China. I'm Korean, not Chinese. If I had a dollar for that, I would be a billionaire, right? Because it's just like the most racist but fundamental thing that people would wanna say when they wanna other you. And it felt very much like I never belonged. And the books that we saw, like in second grade, my teacher read The Five Chinese Brothers, the really, really yellow version of the Chinese brothers with the slitty eyes, right? 

Ellen Oh: And when we went to art later that day, the boy next to me, he like painted my arm mustard yellow and he... 'cause he said I was the wrong color for a China man, right? And so that moment I realized, "Oh my gosh, a book can actually be racist." I'm in second grade. Like, you know. And you don't really understand until you grow up. Like you don't understand what you've been missing if you've never seen it before. And when I was in college, I saw the Joy Luck Club and I read it and it was life transforming. It was like that moment when I went, oh my gosh, for the first time I feel like, and I can actually say I belong because here in this book that's a New York Times bestseller that white people are reading is the experience of my life. And it didn't matter that it's Chinese American and I'm Korean American. It was actually seeing that experience on, in the pages of a book that was so life transforming. So I actually remember having that same push and pull relationship with my own parents, where they were like so disappointed that I didn't speak Korean, that I'm not fluent in reading and writing my mother language. That I was too Americanized. And so I felt this passage deeply because that was literally my own parents relationship with me.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Well, you have three kids. In relation to this passage, what is your relationship to them and do you think you experience anything of the same with them? 

Ellen Oh: It's really interesting because... So my kids are third generation so their experience is very different. Like they almost can't relate to the Joy Luck Club the way I did. Like this is why you need a lot of different various perspectives in books, right? You can't ever rely on that one single story. Their relation to Joy Luck Club is more like oh interesting. It isn't that umm, right. But also for, especially like for my oldest, Linda Sue Park started writing when she was in elementary school. So the first time she read a book about a Korean American kid was when she was in third grade. And so that makes that difference, where she was far more like, I'm happy to accept my Korean culture and also to accept my American culture, which I never could do that. I was always like very embarrassed almost about being so different, whereas my kids actually have pride in it. So that was very different.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Which is like it's so amazing and so much about what I think the beginning of We Need Diverse Books. Even just like the hashtag that we shared before, it was really about, was about increasing diversity in children's literature. So that's the beginning. So maybe you can talk a little bit about BookCon and that period and then the beginning vision for We Need Diverse Books.

Ellen Oh: I think actually with We Need Diverse Books. People forget that people have been working for diversity for a very long time. It's just that We Need Diverse Books was kind of like that perfect storm of social media and also BookCon really screwing up royally and so publicly. And I really think that that was all the factors that made it work. Also was the first time that an organization was not saying, This is only for Asians or this is only for black writers and this is only for LGBTQ," it was literally we all need to work together to represent our interests. We work better when we work together. And that I think is also why We Need Diverse Books was so helpful but, was so successful. I like to go back to the beginning of 2014, Meg Medina and Lamar Giles and I were at a festival and we were just talking about how we were so tired of being on diversity panels and why can't we just be talking about being writers and like the hero's journey and all that.

Ellen Oh: And I think I turned to Lamar and Megan, I was like, "You know, we need to do something big, so big that people can't forget it." And Lamar was like, "Literally, as long as it's not illegal, I am in." And Meg was like, "Okay Ellen, what are you thinking?" And I had no idea. And fast forward like a couple of weeks and BookCon makes that announcement, I don't know if you guys remember, it was like the rock stars of Kid Lit and it was like four White guys, right? And now as we all know, there's a lot of women writers in Kid Lit and they all were rightfully angry and all the BIPOC writers went, "Hahaha, welcome to our world." And then not even like a week later or so, BookCon comes out with another announcement and they're like, look at our list of BookCon guests headed by John Green. And that list was 30 White people and the Grumpy Cat. So like, it literally, they had just compounded the problem, right? And everybody's attention was so directed at it that we were like, "Okay," I think I was on Twitter, I was talking with Malinda Lo, "Oh we need to do something." I did that thing again, "We need to do something big." And more people came over and said, "Yes, what do you wanna do?" And I'm like, okay, now I have to actually think of something.

Ellen Oh: But at that moment, so like Twitter and Tumblr especially, there was a thing where people were telling kind of stories with a hashtag and a picture and I was like, "That is really such a wonderful way to express a story. Like really the visual and the words combined." So this is why I love graphic novels. And so we're like, "Okay, let's do a hashtag and do this campaign and let people tell stories about how not having diversity really hurt them. And we can call it, We Need Diverse Books, Goddammit 'cause it's 2014 and how long, much longer are we gonna... "


Ellen Oh: Alright, no, so I'm not good at hashtags. And then 20 other people said, "Why don't we just say We Need Diverse Books?" And so that's basically how it came about. It was a team of amazing people. I gotta shout them out now. Like I was fortunate to work with Lamar Giles, Meg Medina, Linda Sue Park, Aisha Saeed, Marika Nishcamp, Miranda Paul, Eileen Wong, Mike Junk, Caroline Richmond, Dhonielle Clayton, Ellerbe Missoula, Rude Prakavich, Stacey Lee, so many more. But these people all worked like round the clock like crazy to make a hashtag become a nonprofit organization. And I don't have to tell you guys how hard that is, but it was a lot of work. My lawyer brain was good in saying, we need a plan and we need to execute it. Right? I think a lot of times when you have hashtags and stuff, people are like, "Yay, let's make a lot of noise and bring a lot of attention to it." And then it just fades away. And I didn't want that to happen. I was like, "If we're going to... If we wanna take advantage of this moment where we've gone viral, then let's actually make programming that will fix what we're complaining about."

Ellen Oh: And I think it's probably my legal background too, I always wanna fix things, I wanna... Like, "What's the answer? Let's resolve it. Let's fix it." I have to learn the hard way, through my kids. You can't fix everything, but at least we can try.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: So the initial focus was really on having one more recognition for writers who were already writing, to also getting more content out there. Would you say that's an accurate reflection? 

Ellen Oh: Yeah, I think also remembering that there's a lot of wonderful books already out there being published all the time, and getting those books the attention that they needed, getting wonderful authors the marketing that they never get.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Yeah.

Ellen Oh: So part of the WNDB was to support books by bringing more attention to them, that's really the impotence of doing the Walter Awards. And again, I wanna take the moment to say WNDB was only successful because it worked on the shoulders of the giants before us like Walter Dean Myers, Nikki Grimes, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, Jacqueline Woodson, there are so many people who work so hard to make diversity and kill it important, and we were able to kind of work because of what they put and the foundation that they built. We just were able to use social media at that time, and that's what really helped us.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Yeah, and I think, which then... You're right. That's right. Everything's built. And I heard, I think maybe it's the National Book Festival or I can't remember where, but you quoted Walter Dean Myers in the last article that he wrote. And I think he ends with, "There's work to be done. There's still work to be done." One thing when I was watching that in preparation for this, but one thing that made me think about is that the goalposts feel like they've moved to use... I love when I can use a sports analogy.

Ellen Oh: Yeah.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: So, okay, yes, maybe haven't achieved every single goal that you set out at the beginning for We Need Diverse Books, and you have so much more to go, but it feels like now there are far more books out there and books out there that are being celebrated, not just by We Need Diverse Books, but in general, there's so much more diversity in children's literature. But now, you refer to what I heard, I saw you recently called it a counter-movement. Yeah, you can speak a little bit to that, the work that you did and how what's happening right now is sort of feels like a response.

Ellen Oh: You have to think back. So I tried to start writing when I was... Actually, back in 2000, I can pinpoint that. I tried to start writing, it took 10 years, and when I finally got a book deal, it was right around 2012 when that really kind of famous infographic was making the rounds.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Yeah, Wisconsin.

Ellen Oh: Another one... Yeah.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Yeah.

Ellen Oh: The children's cooperative did all those statistics. And so there was... I forgot the name of the artist who did it, Kugler, maybe. Anyway, she did this beautiful infographic where they showed how little books, there were for Black kids and Asian kids, and especially indigenous kids, and then this towering stack of 92% books for White kids. And I remember seeing that at that time and I'm going, "This is what has to change. They can't have books about BIPOC being only 7% of what's being published." So now when we look at those statistics, yes, we've made a dramatic change. I think the last statistic I saw, we're at 35%, possibly more. We also were hitting the New York Times best sellers list with authors like... Think about Angie Thomas who by the way was a WNDB grant winner who won the grant and was able to buy a brand new laptop, finished her manuscript that went on to become this now perennial bestseller. That's kind of an amazing story. It really tells you what can be achieved if you put the support behind it.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Yeah.

Ellen Oh: And publishing in general was not putting support behind Black books and books by BIPOC authors because there was that myth, that myth that Black books don't sell. That books about people of color don't sell, and that was what we wanted to change, and I think we did a good job. But when change like that happens in a very public way, in a very sudden way, there is going to be whiplash reactions. And I can just tell you right now, from the beginning, the amount of hate mail that I would get that would basically say, "You are causing White genocide." Like literally, this is diversity for children's literature, I promise you, I'm not causing genocide.


Ellen Oh: People get very upset.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Just like parents or teach, who? 

Ellen Oh: Just everybody. You would not have wanted to see my mail during the first three, four years of WNDB because people were just so hateful, they were so angry at what we were trying to achieve. So I'm not surprised at what's happening now, and book bans have always been around, but this particular level of book banning is actually really dangerous, it does feel like an existential threat.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: You've talked about soft censorship, can you help us understand or speak to that? 

Ellen Oh: We're seeing it, and soft censorship, of course, is even more dangerous than the outright book bans because it's the books that are being pulled. Like in Florida, did you guys see that video of the school library where all the books are off the shelves because teachers and librarians are afraid to possibly be in violation of that stupid statute there, that will actually get them charged with a third degree felony? Who's gonna risk that? This is dangerous times. Soft censorship, it's self-censorship, it's they're pulling it because they're afraid. That's where we're now in, we're in this George Orwellian times of tip lines and snitch lines happening for people to report librarians and teachers teaching their kids history or about LGBTQ, people who live in their communities with them. It's scary, it's disgusting. It's just so wrong. And it's up to all of us, every single one of us to fight back. I know librarians and teachers are on the front lines fighting, and that's why we have to support every single one of them. Rally the community, it's that important.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: What do you have for the people in this room and people who will be listening to the podcast? What are things that you wish that every person took away and thought, "Okay, I'm gonna do at least this one, two, three things"? 

Ellen Oh: Well, I think one of the most important things we have to do is talk. Conversations, tell everybody we know about what's happening. If people really understand what's happening, I think they would be really horrified and wanna fight back. I think right now we have a bit of complacency going on, myths like, "Oh, but when they ban books, that's good for sales, right?" No, it's not. It's actually quite terrible. It really destroys careers. I think that's something we have to explain. So Maus got banned and it became a best seller. Yeah, it was probably already selling really well. Usually the books that are high enough profile that get that will sell well, but it's one. Look at the hundreds and thousands of books that are being attacked, those books will die terrible, sad and lonely deaths. Authors who could depend on complementing their income by going to do school and library visits, they're drying up, they're not being invited. I know my school visits, they have been halved if not even more. They dropped so, so much because I've heard librarians saying, "I can't invite you because somebody complained." So authors, Middle East authors that you love, won't get new book deals because their books aren't selling and publishing is a business. So book bans are terrible, terrible, they destroy careers for authors.

Ellen Oh: We need to let people know that. They don't know that. They literally think book bans are good for authors. We need to also explain exactly in detail what librarians and teachers are being held accountable to and how it's hurting kids, it's hurting all kids, not just some. And we wanna point out also that this idea of, we're doing this to protect kids, they're only doing it to protect certain kids. Whereas librarians and teachers, your job is to protect all kids, that is another counter-narrative. And the big thing I wanna remind people of is if we believe and accept that parents should have the authority to decide what their kids can and can't read, then isn't these book bans counter-intuitive? Like literally, you're saying, "Okay, we don't trust you to protect your kids appropriately, therefore, we will decide what books you are allowed to let your children have access to." That's what a book ban is doing.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: You wanna clap? You're clapping. If you can clap for it. I think we all wanna clap. [laughter]


Jordan Lloyd Bookey: I think everybody in the room is feeling what you're saying. I wonder, you said a lot of your visits have been cancelled. Have you visited schools, libraries, communities where you feel like they are building this culture of reading that does represent the ideal diverse cultures doing it? What does that look like, I guess for you? 

Ellen Oh: My favorite visits have always been when I go to a school, I go into their school library and you can see how welcoming and what a safe space it is. It's like the sign that says all are welcome and come in and that there are students there who come and you can tell that they feel like they have a place to feel safe. And I can't tell you how important that is for a lot of kids, especially LGBTQ kids right now. And I visited places. I was in South Carolina where the school librarians there were very supportive of their LGBTQ kids, and I had lunch with them, and they were like, this is... We're allowed to write stories and read the books that we want, and that it made them feel confident. And that... I would hear from them, "I wanna tell our stories. I want everyone to know who we are and that we are here, and we're just like you." These are kids talking. And because those kids were so confident in who they were and confident in their safe spaces, the student body was much more open and welcoming also. So I do feel like that library safe space is so important.

Ellen Oh: It's like a core safety-positivity zone that kind of feeds out to the rest of school, where... I've had different experiences where I've gone to a school and the librarian was very closed. They didn't even want me there. The PTA actually was the one that brought me in, and I could see the librarian didn't want me there at all. And I had talked to a couple of the students and the students... I remember this, I'll never forget it. They were like, "Yeah, when the librarian book talks books, she only book talks the White books. At the time, I think... Oh, what was the... Kwame's book? 

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Yeah.

Ellen Oh: Had won the Newbery. And they were like, "When they book talked the books, she didn't even talk about Crossover, she left it on the bottom of the pile." Only the kids who knew about it went to get it. And I was just like, "Wow." So again, the librarian. Her attitudes, his attitudes will really dictate how the level of safety and openness that can feed out to the rest of the school, that's why it's so important.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Yeah, it is. And why it's so scary when it's like threatened?

Ellen Oh: Exactly.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: The ability to do that is threatened. Can we talk... I didn't get to ask you my question about your newest anthology which is coming up and is contemporary Asian-American Voices.

Ellen Oh: Yes.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: You are here connecting flights, you wanna just talk about it briefly, sorry.

Ellen Oh: I do wanna talk about.


Ellen Oh: How many here know Flying Lessons by We Need Diverse Books? Yeah, thank you very much. So when we did Flying Lessons, Grace Lin did this wonderful story about a girl pirate. And I loved it, and Grace was so into it and we were so proud of the story, and then we got an email from an Asian blogger who was really disappointed that the only East Asian story was set in China and wasn't American. And Grace and I were like...


Ellen Oh: We were like, "Oh my gosh, we're Asian, and we completely missed this ourselves." And it became a mission for us to kind of tell an anthology of stories that was very Asian-American to give that voice for Asian-Americans. And of course, before we got to do that, the pandemic hit, Asian hate rose. We were seeing a lot of violence towards Asian, and it became even more important to do this anthology, which I actually shouldn't call it anthology, I don't wanna call it that, it is a novel of 12 interconnected stories that should read very smoothly. It's a novel, not an anthology, that's how I'm going to actually pitch it from now on. And it was probably the best experience of my life to work with these authors and just tell a story about the Asian-American experience, how much we love being American and how much it's difficult sometimes to be othered and yet we still love it here, and giving that kind of pride and affirmation to all the kids who will hopefully read this book and enjoy it.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: When's it available again? 

Ellen Oh: March 3rd.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: This is my last question for Ellen. So if you have things, be thinking of something you'd like to ask, this is your moment's about to be here. Beanstack has reading challenges on our platform, and so we always ask and we put them on there, but also we make it just on a nice piece of paper that anybody can go and participate in the reading challenge that our guests offer. So I wanted to know what your reading challenge is for us.

Ellen Oh: I'm gonna read it. Read my reading challenge. Okay, I believe that books save lives. And as dramatic or even cheesy as that sounds, I want to remind people of the power of books and that it is their ability to show each reader that they are not alone. We all know the importance of representation in books and how life-affirming it can be for those who are historically underrepresented. Books are powerful. There's a reason for all this book banning, they know just how important these books are and with states passing laws that are flagrantly anti-LGBTQ, anti-CRT, which is another way of just being racist, books are more important than ever. Books are a lifeline for kids, and so is library, especially LGBTQ kids whose very existence is being threatened right now. It is our responsibility to fight for all kids, not just the privileged ones. And there are more of us that believe in these books and believe in all of our kids. We just have to make ourselves be heard over all of the noise and lies and fear. So what I wanna do is I want to push a list of books as the parent of a LGBTQ child, that is basically what my reading challenge is going to be based on.

Ellen Oh: I wanted to mention When The Moons Was Ours because my youngest is transgender, and he had a very difficult experience. He was hospitalized for a week. He had a lot of bullying issues, it was really hard also with what was happening in the news to let him know that it was gonna be all okay 'cause it just didn't feel like it was gonna be all okay. And then one day he came to me, he said, "Hey, Mom, you know how you haven't been talking about me publicly... " I'm like, "Yeah." He's like, "You could talk about me now." I was like, "Okay, why? What happened?" He's like, "I want people to know that we deserve our happy ever afters also. That we shouldn't just be some lesson or some tragic story. Tell everybody that we want our books, our stories told." And I realized at that moment that he had actually fallen in love with Anna-Marie McLemore's book. And it was actually the first time he had seen himself the way he wanted to be seen in the pages of a book. And so when I say books save lives, I really mean it. And I want people to find those books that you think save lives and add them to my list also because there's so many, and I know that there's gonna be a kid somewhere that is gonna need that book and it will save their lives. So thank you for that.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Thank you.


Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Okay, well, I'm now crying.


Jordan Lloyd Bookey: So thank you and that's very beautiful. And I wanna open it up to, if anybody has a question. Should we get any questions on the... Also just one more round of applause for Ellen 'cause that was just like that really... I feel like I'm very moved right now, really.


Ellen Oh: Thank you so much for listening.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: And for the bravery of your... I don't know their name, but for their bravery, so really thank you.

Ellen Oh: There was a time where I couldn't tell the story without crying myself so, yeah.


Ellen Oh: It was hard.


Jordan Lloyd Bookey: I really hope you've enjoyed this live uncut interview with Ellen Oh. Typically, this is the part of our podcast when we hear from a Beanstack featured librarian. But for this episode, we will instead feature the librarians who were in the room with us in New Orleans and share some of their questions for Ellen. Let's take a listen.

Speaker 3: Hi. So I am a library supervisor in Florida on the front lines of this. Most of my librarians are not trained librarians, I want to know if you had any strategies to help me teach them how to combat that soft censorship that's going to come around the training that was just released for our house bill.

Ellen Oh: Oh my gosh, I feel so strongly for you with all the news that's coming out of there. I think that right now, the best thing we can do is just look at all the resources that are available that we also have been trying to put together resources, and I know that the... I know ALA Maine is working on having a lot of resources too, but is there a way to have any kind of training like workshops yourself, or is there ways to invite, let's say, if WNDB and PEN America wanted to do a training program and open it up on Zoom to invite the librarians that way, is that something that would be of interest? 

Speaker 3: 100%.

Ellen Oh: Okay, great, so those are things that we would definitely want to work on for you.

Speaker 3: That would be fantastic because when you have librarians without experience and they're hearing their license is on the line and the third-degree felony, they are going to self-censor and they won't put those diverse voices in the library, and then we stop creating those safe spaces.

Ellen Oh: Exactly, absolutely. We are so mindful of that, and so what we are doing is putting those resources together, and also we've been working with PEN America and Freedom to Read in Florida. So I think the next step might be having more of those... Rom is directed to... 'cause we've been doing it for authors for now, but having them actually do four librarians. So that's on our list. Caitlin, we're gonna do it. Hi.

Karen Ap: Hi, my name is Karen Ap and I'm a proud high school librarian from Dougherty Valley in San Ramon, California. And we're actually facing our very first book challenge in liberal California and in my 11 years, and so I just really wanted to say thank you because as we've been meeting and meeting and meeting and talking and discussing amongst our team about how to kind of be brave and get ready to fight the fight, your words just really sink in and as we go back to our first big meeting next week, I just feel so much more empowered from hearing your words and from being here, so I just wanna say thank you for that. And wish us luck. We're fighting to keep gender queer and we're gonna keep it.

Ellen Oh: Well, first of all, thank you for all you're doing and fighting, which is a Korean thing, like fighting.


Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Listen to Ellen's dad. 10 times harder.


Ellen Oh: Absolutely. And I know I don't have to say, you know more than me what's at stake and the kids that need this. Right, so I know you guys are fighting hard already, I'm praying for all of you, giving you strength with all my thoughts, all right.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Let's give one more big round of applause for Ellen Oh.


Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Thank you very, very much for being here, and for doing this...

Ellen Oh: Oh, thank you for having me.

Jordan Lloyd Bookey: And just for the amazing work. We Need Diverse Books, if you're just not as familiar with all their programming, there is an extensive amount of things, and it's diversebooks.org, and please check it out, and also, please make sure if you haven't already celebrated the Walter awards that you do, but there are so many other amazing programs that you guys are doing. So thank you.

Ellen Oh: Yes. Thank you very much for having me. Thank you all for listening and thank you for fighting for our kids, I am proud of all of you. I know how hard it is. Fighting.



Jordan Lloyd Bookey: Thank you. Thanks, everybody.


Jordan Lloyd Bookey: This has been the reading culture, and you've been listening to our conversation with the indomitable Ellen Oh. As always, you can learn more about her reading challenge, Books Save Lives, at the readingculturepod.com. Again, I'm your host, Jordan Lloyd Bookey, and currently, I'm reading Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson, and City Spies, City of the Dead by James Ponti. If you've enjoyed today's show, please show some love and rate, subscribe and share the Reading Culture among your friends and networks. To learn more about how you can help grow your community’s reading culture, you can check out all of our resources at beanstack.com.

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