Ellen Oh on the Modern First Library

modernfirstlibrary4Ellen Oh, CEO and President of We Need Diverse Books, joins us today in our Modern First Library blog series.

Read on for Ellen Oh’s thoughts on the Modern First Library.

The word library is a word that is near and dear to my heart. First of all, I am a child of the public library system. When you are a low income child reliant on free breakfast and lunch at school for regular meals, books are a luxury. But not for me. I had every book I could ever want to read and more at my fingertips. I was Matilda walking the ten blocks to my local library – except I didn’t have a pretty little red wagon. I had the ugly, square, rickety, wire-shopping cart that all the grandmothers in my Brooklyn neighborhood would use for groceries. But I would fill that cart up every single week. I am grateful for all the librarians in my life who kept my imagination fed throughout my life.

But the word library also means building your own personal collection filled with your favorites, well worn and well read. When I was young, it was rare that I’d be allowed to buy a book. They were a luxury I couldn’t afford. But once in awhile, my parents would help me save up as much money as I could and buy a book. I remember my first purchase when I was 7 or 8 years old – a beautiful fairy tale collection with pictures so bright and vivid that I would stare at them for hours. I’d read all the stories in the book already just from every previous empty-handed trip to the bookstore, but I knew I had to have it. It had taken me several months to save up for it. I remember how proudly I took it up to the cashier and how devastated I was to realize I hadn’t factored in for taxes. And I remember the cashier taking my money and passing me my book with a smile, telling me to enjoy it. Booksellers and librarians tend to be the best people in the world. They don’t even know it but they impact a person’s life everyday.

As an Asian American kid, books were my refuge. They were filled with friendships and adventures and mysteries so very different from my own life. I had a rough childhood. Growing up in NYC meant dealing with racism on a very close and personal level every day of my life. I talk about it with my husband, a Korean American who grew up in Potomac, MD. Our experiences were so different. He remembers the stares and the othering and the off handed remarks that are clearly racist but in a more subtle way. My experience were being called chink, being spit on, being beat up, fighting my way through life. Very different experiences but at the core they all come from the same thing – racism, prejudice, hate.

I always assumed that by the time my kids would be in school, that life would change. That it would be better. I was so wrong. But it is because children’s books have been so slow to change. So slow to embrace more diversity. I remember that all the books I loved also helped to develop a sense of shame in myself for not being white. It wasn’t until I was in college that I finally saw myself reflected back in the pages of a book. It was Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club that stunned me with the knowledge of what I had been missing my entire life. Representation. And it was empowering, self-affirming, and life changing in a way that a person who has never had this problem can’t understand. It made me realize just how important representation is. Without proper representation, a child can learn to hate themselves or believe they have no potential. That they are not worthy enough to have their story told. Proper representation is key. But it has to be done right. Bad representation is worse than no representation at all. I repeat. Bad representation is worse than no representation at all.

When I was in elementary school, my teacher read the old racist version of the book The Five Chinese Brothers to the entire class. The stereotypical depictions of the characters bothered me, but I loved the story. Until I was hounded, harassed, mocked, and bullied. Kids ran after me pulling their eyes into slits. In art class, a boy sitting next to me painted my arm mustard yellow because I was not the right color for a chinaman. To this day, I shudder at the mere thought of that book. Bad representation can cause harm in ways people still don’t seem to understand. Bad representation leads to the continued stereotyping and hateful rhetoric that has plagued this entire election cycle.

However, we are now finally seeing the changes needed to combat hate and racism, and they are happening in children’s literature. Books like Brown Girl Dreaming, Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, Last Stop on Market Street, El Deafo, George, and other amazing stories of characters from all backgrounds and cultures. These books give us a chance to build new modern libraries that represent all our children. And nothing excites me more than being able to share the beautiful diversity that makes up our world. There is no greater gift to a child than a book. Books can change lives. Books can teach empathy and caring. We owe that to all of our children.


Check out the BookPeople Modern First Library Initiative. Pairing beloved picture books that will never go out of style along with other favorites that reflect the diverse, global society of the 21st century, we’ve set out to make building a thoughtful library for any child in your life easy.

Ellen Oh (CEO & President of We Need Diverse Books) is a former corporate attorney with twenty years of experience in nonprofit, and entertainment/Intellectual Property Law. She is also a former adjunct college instructor and the author of the YA fantasy trilogy, The Prophecy Series, and the upcoming MG novel, The Spirit Hunters, to be published in fall 2017.  

Looking for more thoughts on the Modern First Library? Check out the rest of the posts in the blog series:

Our Modern First Library Turns Two by Meghan Goel
Modern First Library by Chris Barton
The Word Library by Ellen Oh
I Need a Diverse Book by Phoebe Yeh

8 thoughts on “Ellen Oh on the Modern First Library

  1. I used to love the the local library, I’d sit, curl up on the bean bag and read for hours. I still remember searching through charity shops and car boot sales for books that I’d been hankering after.
    Reading can be a great way to escape, and learn, and find a place for ourself, especially when the kids in books can be so much kinder than the ones in real life.

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