The Power of Representation by Ellen Oh
When I was little, I loved books so much I would eat them. Literally. Yes, I found the taste of paper as delightful as candy. So it was no surprise to anyone that I became an avid reader, although it took a while to break the paper-eating habit.
Librarians are the best people in the world. When I was eight years old, I lost a library book. I was too afraid to tell my parents so I went to my librarian and confessed and asked how much it would cost me to replace the book. When she told me it cost ten dollars I thought it might as well have been a hundred dollars. I think she saw the despair in my face and she said to me, “Sometimes a book is not lost. Sometimes it is just misplaced and will find its own way back to the library” — which is lovely, but the problem with talking figuratively to an eight-year-old is that they will take you literally. So every day like clockwork, I went to the library and asked if the book had found its way home. I think it took two or three weeks of daily checking until one day she saw me coming to her desk and she whipped out the book I had lost and said “Look what made it back safely!”
I was too relieved to comment on the fact that the book she was holding was a lot newer than the version I lost. But I shall never forget her kindness.
I admit that I tend to like books better than people. I’m not shy, just antisocial. After all, books don’t tend to judge you by how you look. A book doesn’t ask, “So what are you?”
I’ve always hated this question. As if I were a thing. A curiosity. An object to be examined.
In books, you can be anything you want. A rock star, an astronaut, a warrior queen, a wizard, a superhero, or just a normal average kid. You know. Not a freak or a weirdo or an alien creature to be stared at and asked if they eat dog meat for breakfast. Books allowed me to escape from the hardships of real life. Made me forget that I was poor and hungry and always angry. Reading was a solace to me. But I didn’t know that it also helped me develop a complex. You see, all I ever read were books about white kids. All I ever saw on the television screen and the movie theater, were stories about white kids. When I was young, I internalized a belief that being white was better and I learned to hate myself.
But at the worst of my self-loathing, my father shared with me his own stories about growing up in South Korea. About war and hunger and running away from Communist recruiters by hiding in the mountains and eating sticky rice balls made with only salt.
My father’s stories helped me realize that being Asian was nothing to be ashamed of. And then I found a book that helped me find myself.
When you’re little, you don’t know what you’ve been missing if you’ve never seen it before. I didn’t know that the hole in my heart that had been filled with self-loathing and a wish that I could have been born white, had formed because of a lack of representation. I didn’t know that seeing yourself in the pages of a book would be life transforming. That book was The Joy Luck Club.
No other book has ever affected me as deeply as The Joy Luck Club. Because this once upon a time was about a girl like me, with parents like mine, and experiences so similar to my own. It didn’t matter that the story was about Chinese Americans and I am a Korean American. What it did was make me recognize my own Asian American immigrant family experience in the pages of a book. A book like one I had never read before. A book that helped save me from my own self-hatred.
This is the power of books. The power of reading. It is also the power of representation.
WNDB’s new anthology, Flying Lessons, is the exact sort of book that I wish I’d had when I was young. A book of stories both ordinary and extraordinary, of kids as diverse as our beautiful world. And sharing this book with kids from all over the country is one of the finest accomplishments that I could have hoped for. Because this is a book with a story for everyone.
Ellen Oh is cofounder and president of We Need Diverse Books (WNDB) and author of the YA fantasy trilogy the Prophecy series and the middle-grade novel The Spirit Hunters, to be published in fall 2017. She was named one of Publishers Weekly’s Notable People of 2014. Ellen met Walter Dean Myers and his son Christopher Myers at one of her first book festivals. Already nervous, her mouth dropped open when she saw the pair towering over the crowd. Chris took pity on an awestruck Ellen and introduced himself, and he and Walter couldn’t have been nicer, taking her under their wing and treating her like an old friend. Oh resides in Bethesda, Maryland, with her husband and three children. Discover more at ellenoh.com.
Librarians are good people. They ‘disappeared’ many a library fine, mysteriously, when I was a kid.
Amazing column! Love your message in regard to diverse books. So needed!
I agree with everything you say about needing representation – wonderful post! Also, when I was 10 I had a $14 library fine that the library let me work off by shelving books because my mom refused (rightly) to pay it for me since it was my responsibility 🙂 I will never forget that!
Love this post about the power of representation and the power of one book. Thanks for your work with WNDB Love your comments about meeting Walter Dean Meyers! I still remember hearing him speak at the National Book Festival in 2012. It’s one of those moments I’ll always hold close to my heart.
Hi Ellen, I don’t know if you remember me. We met and had dinner at Ruby Tuesday’s with Joy George and Jodi Meadows in Charlottesville. I love your post and I look forward to reading Flying Lessons. Our library in school has it! I hope all is well with you.
Love this, Ellen! Can’t wait to read FLYING LESSONS. I plan on putting a copy in our little library in our neighborhood.
Thank you so much for this! I can’t help but think my daughter would have had an easier transition to living as her true self if only she had seen transgender characters in the books she read growing up. Thank you for all of your work to help all sorts of readers see themselves represented. Thank you.
I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I also ate paper as a kid! I never associated it with my love of books, though. I didn’t chew up books, but pulled strips off the edges of notebook paper, and to this day I guiltily yet nostalgically nibble a little bit of the paper stick if I eat a lollipop. As an adult, I’ve wondered if it was an anxiety behavior or pica, like the pregnant women get…
I’m sorry it took so long to find yourself reflected in a wonderful book, but I’m so glad you did. 🙂
I’m always curious to how authors and readers come to books and which books they identify with. Most often there is one book that changes their life forever forward. I can think of a few that impacted me that way over the stages of my life – The Botany of Desire, Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Zhuangzi. The Joy Luck Club was beautifully written and (IMHO) thoughtfully adapted for screen. Like you, I’m so proud to be part of this community where all voices can find representation. Thank you Ellen for sharing such a heart rendering post.
What an adorable story!