March-April 2022 | Parenting

Meet the Rockville resident behind a viral movement to diversify children’s books

When Ellen Oh couldn't find books reflecting her Asian American kids, she chose to write them herself

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Ellen Oh, pictured at the community center at Tower Oaks, near her Rockville home, was inspired to write when she couldn’t find children’s books that reflected Korean American voices and stories. Photo by Louis Tinsley

After Ellen Oh had her first child, she went shopping at the old Barnes & Noble bookstore in downtown Bethesda. “She’s a baby, she can’t even read, but I was going to get a whole set of books for my kids,” Oh recalls. “And I’m in the bookstore and I’m looking and I’m looking and I’m realizing not much has changed since I was little. There were not many Asian faces. So, I was convinced at the time that we needed more stories, but I didn’t think that I would write them.”

Well, she did. More than 20 years later, seven of her books have been published, and an eighth is due out this summer. All are rooted in Korean folktales or feature Korean American youngsters as the main characters.

“My background has been part of every book I’ve written in some way,” she says over tea one chilly January afternoon.

“I started writing because I wanted my kids and kids like them to see themselves and be a part of the literature experience. That is a really important part of growing up in this country because otherwise you always feel othered. Then as I started writing them, I went from telling kids like me, yes, you do belong here, to writing for a bigger audience, to say to all kids, yes, we belong here and you should know that we belong here.”

Now 55, Ellen is a funny and fearless mother of three, residing in Rockville with her lawyer husband and reveling in hair dyed a light shade of purple. But growing up in Brooklyn, with parents who had emigrated from South Korea, she faced relentless racial bias. “It was pretty bad,” she recalls. “The worst was in middle school. This kid spit on me, I mean right in my face. I had cigarette butts put out in my hair and on my skin, kids calling me chink, every kind of racist commentary. The worst you hear is the one that says, ‘Go back to your own country.’ It doesn’t matter how perfect your English is. It doesn’t matter how American you feel. They look at you and they go, ‘We don’t want you here.’ That was a refrain I heard all my life.”

All through that childhood, however, words and stories provided an escape. She grew up poor. Her parents owned “a whole string of failed businesses,” and often they would park her at the local library while they worked. “The library was my refuge,” she recalls. “My joke is that my parents owed babysitting fees to the entire New York library system.”

Her father found work at an agency that supported other Korean immigrants, and at age 10 or 11, Ellen would help him write advice columns. “Sometimes it was legal advice. Sometimes it was how to get a license or just navigate life in New York City,” she says. “I’d help him find the English words for what he needed to include in his articles.”

“My dad was a great storyteller,” Oh continues. “He would always tell these scary stories, and they always had a moral, and a bad girl that didn’t listen named Ellen was always in there somewhere. Those stories were all about scaring me with different myths and legends. So, when I had kids, I decided I had to scare them too. Now I write scary stories for a living.”

But first came college at New York University and law school at Georgetown University. After meeting her husband, who grew up in Potomac, they settled in the Whitley Park neighborhood of Bethesda, and she worked as a lawyer for several nonprofits. Eventually Ellen started writing on the side, but her early novels were regularly rejected by agents and publishers. “They were right. They were terrible,” she now says with a laugh. “I had to learn my craft better.”

Her breakthrough came one day while she was driving to work at the National Wildlife Federation in Reston, Virginia, and decided to write a story aimed at younger readers like her own children, then in their early teens: “That was a big change, because I didn’t know if I could write for children, but I made that connection to my kids and wanting to write stories for them. All of a sudden, this idea comes into my head. What if everyone thinks that this boy is the hero of this prophecy to save the world, but they are all wrong? And it’s actually his cousin who is a girl. I’m stuck in traffic, and I started writing notes on Post-its and sticking them on the dashboard of my car. By the time I pulled up to work, I had almost 30 Post-its all over my dashboard. And that was the start of my first book, Prophecy.”

It took three years, with much of her writing done in local libraries and bookstores, before Prophecy was published in 2013. A year later, a major literary convention staged a panel on children’s books featuring five white men. “There was a huge protest, and all the writers of color said, ‘Hey, welcome to our world. We’re always forgotten here,’ ” Oh recalls. “And we got together and we started a hashtag. And I think that we just took advantage of social media and how it amplifies voices in a way that we never had before.” Their protest went viral and led to the formation of an organization, We Need Diverse Books, which Ellen ran for years on a part-time basis. Today it has two full-time staffers and promotes nontraditional authors—from racial and ethnic minorities to LGBTQIA and disabled writers—by awarding grants and distributing their books to underprivileged schools.

Asian American youngsters can now find many more stories with characters that look like them, stories that teach Ellen Oh’s lesson: “We belong here.” It’s a lesson the rest of us can learn as well. 

Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. His new book is Cokie: A Life Well-Lived. Send column ideas to sroberts@gwu.edu.