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“A Conversation with Ellen Oh” event at Simmons University

Photo: Elissa Gershowitz.

Earlier this week, Cindy and I attended a talk at Simmons University by author and anthologist Ellen Oh, cofounder, president, and CEO of We Need Diverse Books. She started her presentation with some of the reasons why We Need Diverse Books, both broad (statistics about POC representation and lack thereof; how exposing all children to books about  a wide range of identities and experiences encourages empathy, a key component, she believes, to building a better tomorrow) and personal (her childhood harassment for being Asian American; difficulties her family members have faced, which helped broaden WNDB’s definition of diversity).

Photos: Cindy Ritter.

Hearing her relate the history of WNDB’s founding and the events leading up to it put into perspective how much has happened in such a short time: I have clear memories of reading the landmark 2014 New York Times articles by Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers while I was working on the floor of Brookline Booksmith (I promise I finished that morning’s opening tasks first!) and of teaching myself Hootsuite to join the initial #WeNeedDiverseBooks social media campaign. In the five years since, Ellen said, WNDB has initiated internship grants and unpublished author grants that have kick-started careers (ever heard of, oh, Angie Thomas?), the Walter Awards, the creation of three anthologies, and more.

Questions from the group ranged from how to diversify classroom libraries to how to have a conversation with someone with a bigoted perspective to who has the right to tell whose stories. Ellen’s take on that last one: your background should not necessarily prevent you from writing stories about identities not your own, but if you feel compelled to write about another group’s experiences, ask yourself why, and if you do, be sure you’ve really done your research. She particularly discourages authors from writing about another group’s pain.

If some of this sounds heavy, that’s because the need for authentic and respectful representation of diverse identities is serious — but Ellen was frequently funny and always candid, making for an engaging discussion. She urged the audience to spread the word about WNDB’s mission and commit to working for change, and I encourage you take up that mantle as well.

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

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Comments

  1. I respect WNDB, and I agree that authors need to research their work carefully, although I think that is true regardless of whether their subjects share certain characteristics with them or not.. However, I strongly object to the idea that Ellen Oh, or anyone, has the right to “particularly discourage(s) authors from writing about another group’s pain.” No one has the authority to discourage anyone from choosing the topic for a book or any other creative project! If the result seems bad or inadequate, than you have the absolute right to criticize it, including from the perspective of having misrepresented people or events in the book. If we were to apply this criterion of identity, then we could not read a very large percentage of the greatest works of literature. Furthermore, what does it mean to apply the term “group?” Is it race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, political ideology, gender? Adam Gidwitz is Jewish. Does that mean he has a special right to portray the Jewish characters in The Inquisitor’s Tale, but not the Christian and Muslim ones? In fact, as a 21st century Jewish American, does he really have greater access to the experience of a Jew living in the Middle Ages than a non-Jewish author would? To me, this way of thinking is completely antithetical to the purpose and meaning of literature and of creativity.
    One of the best books I read last year was Jonathan Auxier’s Sweep: The Story of a Girl and Her Monster. The author conveys tremendous empathy for characters who are outside of his “group:” girls, women, Jews, economically marginalized and oppressed children. I really hope that readers will consider what it means to set limits this way, and to punish authors or prospective authors who dare to transgress them.

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