Author Ellen Oh shares her thoughts on the importance of diversity in children’s literature and how audiobooks enhance diverse stories in this interview with her editor, Crown Books for Young Readers co-publisher, Phoebe Yeh. Plus, hear clips from every short story in FLYING LESSONS & OTHER STORIES. Edited by Ellen, this incredible anthology includes stories by bestselling authors Walter Dean Myers, Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Peña, Grace Lin, Tim Federle, Meg Medina, Tim Tingle, Soman Chainani, and Kwame Alexander—plus new author and We Need Diverse Books contest winner Kelly J. Baptist.
We are just like you and we are all a community.”
Listen to the full Q&A here and read the highlights below:
What is We Need Diverse Books (WNDB)?
Ellen Oh: We Need Diverse Books is a non-profit organization that started as a hashtag. The hashtag began when a group of children’s book authors, librarians, teachers, and bloggers got together to address the lack of diversity in children’s literature.”
How does WNDB define diversity?
EO: “For us, diversity is all about representing marginalized communities…people of color, the disabilities community, the LGBTQIA community and religious minorities. We want to make sure all voices from marginalized communities get heard and are represented.”
Why do we need to see this in children’s books?
EO: “The lack of diversity in children’s books has a profound effect on many things—the lack of empathy, possibly related to the rise of hatred and bigotry that we’ve seen. Also, the lower reading scores the we’re seeing in African American, Latino, and Native American children, [due to] the relation between not seeing themselves represented and [their] ability to read. There is an actual correlation between the two. It is a very important mission of ours to help change the industry.”
How did you come up with the idea for FLYING LESSONS & OTHER STORIES?
EO: “I was with author Soman Chainani…we were sharing these awesome stories about growing up as immigrant kids and how our larger-than-life parents and grandparents affected us…I said to him, ‘These would make wonderful stories to share with the world. There should be a book of stories like that.'”
Hear a clip from Soman Chainani’s story “Flying Lessons,” read by Sunil Malhotra:
How did you choose the other authors in the anthology?
EO: “We first turned to our WNDB advisory board and asked our wonderful authors like Jacqueline Woodson, Matt de la Peña, Tim Federle, Grace Lin…Their response was to say, ‘Yes, of course!”…because they believe in our mission so strongly.”
How did WNDB find debut author Kelly J. Baptist?
EO: “WNDB held a contest in order to find an unpublished author and put their story in this anthology with all these great, published authors…Our inaugural winner was Kelly J. Baptist who wrote this amazing story called “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn.” It was literally one of those stories that just makes you cry. Everybody who read it cried and loved it and so it just became our unanimous winner.”
Hear a clip from Kelly J. Baptist’s story “The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn,” read by Adam Lazarre-White:
Why is FLYING LESSONS dedicated to Walter Dean Myers?
EO: “The year that WNDB formed was actually, in part, due to two articles in The New York Times: the first one was by Walter Dean Myers called, “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” and the second was by Christopher Myers, his son, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature.” And these two posts together became a rallying cry to respond to this lack of diversity in children’s literature…It was very important to us to honor the legacy of Walter Dean Myers, who has always been a huge advocate for diversity in children’s literature.”
Hear a clip from Walter Dean Myers’ “Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push,” read by Dominic Hoffman:
The themes in the anthology are very universal, but the voices are very singular. What guidance did you give to the authors?
EO: “We told all the authors to follow Walter Dean Myers’ admonition that ‘Reading is not optional.’ From there, our hope was that we would get a bunch of wonderful stories that were never told before, that were never heard before, and that were stories that these authors would have wanted to have read when they were kids themselves.”
What makes the experience of listening to the FLYING LESSONS audiobook so special?
EO: “One of the examples that comes to mind is listening to Kwame Alexander read his epic poem, ‘Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents.’ There is nothing like hearing the rhythm and the beat and the cadence of what a story is supposed to sound like. We all can imagine how we read it in our own heads, but to hear the story as it is supposed to be told is an experience that cannot be beat.”
Hear a clip from “Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents,” written and read by Kwame Alexander:
What is the benefit of listening to an audiobook?
EO: “[Parents] can put the audiobook on and keep the attention of their kids and know that it is reading! …We always tell parents that reading to their kids is so important. Well, an audiobook is that. It’s the ability to read to a kid and tell them a story. I can’t imagine not having that ability, so I’m profoundly grateful that we have an audiobook of FLYING LESSONS.”
Phoebe Yeh: “I like the sense of community…everybody hearing together.”
EO: “I think short stories also make it easier to have that wonderful listening experience as a family. These short stories are perfect for quality time together, where you can listen to a story and then talk about it. I think it’s great for story-time at school and at libraries.”
PY: “I think what’s really unique about the audiobook is you get to hear the language of a culture come to life…The voice that comes through when you hear the audio adds something extra special and really helps to give you the sense of cultural context that’s embedded in each of the stories.”
One of the contributors to FLYING LESSONS is Tim Tingle, a Choctaw author who also reads his story for the audiobook. Why is it so special to have Tim Tingle tell the story in his own voice?
EO: Tim Tingle is an amazing narrator. He reads his story like nobody else can tell it…it’s a profound experience. I think it’s also really important for everyone to hear him…I’ve heard Tim speak a lot and he tells a story about when he goes to do school visits and kids will say to him, “But I thought there were no more Indians.” That is an incredible statement to make. That there has been an invisibility or disappearance of the Native American experience, to the extent that children in schools would think there are no more American Indians. And what Tim telling the story does is remind us of their rich and beautiful and important history. And I am so proud that he is part of this anthology [and] read his story in his own impressive way on the audiobook.”
Hear a clip from “Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains,” written and read by Tim Tingle:
What’s next for WNDB?
EO: “We have a young adult anthology coming out called Lift Off [on sale Summer 2018] which I’m really excited about. It’s edited by Lamar Giles, a phenomenal young adult author and Senior VP at WNDB. We also have stories by Nicola Yoon and Jason Reynolds, to name a few.
PY: “And of course, you ran a contest so that we can publish a new voice in the volume. We have a story coming from Aminah Mae Safi and Schuyler Bailar.”
EO: “Schuyler, who is absolutely wonderful, is the first transgender person to compete for a Division I school.”
Since FLYING LESSONS has been published, what response has the anthology received from readers and listeners? Are people having more conversations about diversity?
EO: “People are embracing this book as filling a need that sometimes they didn’t even know they had. These are stories for everybody…You have people who read the [stories] and realize that stereotypes they’ve had were completely wrong. Maybe people who they thought they could not relate to, they realize they can relate to. They’re brought into an experience that makes them laugh and cry and get mad, and all of the sudden, they’re empathizing with someone who maybe they’ve been othering their entire life. What this book really does is provide stories that tell people, ‘We’re just like you and we’re all a community.'”
Hear clips from more stories in FLYING LESSONS & OTHER STORIES via SoundCloud:
FLYING LESSONS & OTHER STORIES Table of Contents:
“How to Transform an Everyday Hoop Court Into a Place of Higher Learning and You at the Podium” by Matt de la Peña, read by Dion Graham
“The Difficult Path” by Grace Lin, read by Samantha Quan
“Sol Painting, Inc.,” written and read by Meg Medina
“Secret Samantha” by Tim Federle, read by Julia Whelan
“The Beans and Rice Chronicles of Isaiah Dunn” by Kelly J. Baptist, read by Adam Lazarre-White
“Choctaw Bigfoot, Midnight in the Mountains,” written and read by Tim Tingle
“Main Street” by Jacqueline Woodson, read by Abigail Revasch
“Flying Lessons” by Soman Chainani, read by Sunil Malhotra
“Seventy-Six Dollars and Forty-Nine Cents,” written and read by Kwame Alexander
“Sometimes a Dream Needs a Push” by Walter Dean Myers, read by Dominic Hoffman