A Diversity Reading List from Ellen Oh

02/06/2013 6:52PM | Posted by: EllenC.Oh | Author Guest Posts

We’ve been featuring guest posts from Ellen Oh, author of Prophecy over on Pitch Dark and today we’re lucky to share her final post. View her other entries on Pitch Dark: Kdrama 101, a lesson on Korean mythology and Ellen’s favorite anime films.


It’s no secret that I’m a huge book nerd. I’m pretty proud of it. Reading is an essential part of my life—like breathing, sleeping, and eating. As a child, my books were my teachers and friends and to this day, they hold a very special place in my heart. There is only one thing that I could have wished for. I just wished there had been more books that featured someone like me.

This wish became a nagging thorn in my side when I became a mom. I have 3 beautiful young girls and it was important for me to nurture their love for books. But it was still hard to find what I was looking for.

I knew what I wanted. I didn’t want a ‘princess waiting to be saved by a handsome prince’ story. That’s not the message I wanted my girls to learn. I wanted an Asian female protagonist who was strong enough to save not only herself, but the whole world. But no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find anything like it.

So I wrote it myself.

I wrote it for my daughters and all the other girls out there looking for someone like Kira, my main character from PROPHECY. But mostly, I wrote it for the 11 year old me who once scoured every single book in the library looking for an Asian girl hero.

When I was asked to do a post talking about diversity for Epic Reads, I was going to focus on why it is important for minority kids growing up in this country to see themselves represented in literature. But I realized that this is only part of the problem. Diversity is not only for the under-represented—the truth is, diversity is important for everyone. All people need to be exposed to other races and other cultures in positive ways. All people need to learn tolerance and acceptance of differences. When we promote only a homogeneous view of society in our literature, and deem books about minorities as unsuccessful, it harms everyone. But worse, we fail in our duty to educate and inspire the minds of our children.

Diversity is important because racism still exists in the world. And racism comes from ignorance. We saw it in the racist responses from people who were upset that Rue was black in The Hunger Games. We also saw it in the racist comments made by our own media when Jeremy Lin and Linsanity became huge. I’m sad to say that I too have recently received emails that contained racist and sexist remarks aimed at both my book and my person. As an author, I don’t expect everyone to like my book and I must accept criticisms about my writing, plotting, characters, etc. But it was a shock to receive emails that were so discriminatory in nature, that they could only be categorized as hate mail. It made me realize how important this discussion is. Now more than ever, we need diversity.

Literature is one of the best ways to reach out to all children, to teach someone to care about and love a character regardless of their skin color or hair type or religious beliefs. It exposes young minds to a world outside of their own limited view and, with repeated exposure, will make such differences less exotic, less weird. It breeds acceptance and tolerance through opening their minds and hearts. We must remember that racism is not just a KKK or neo-nazi problem. Hate and ignorance transcends race. And I believe that we can combat it through education and shared experiences.

So I challenge all of you to look for more diverse books and to read and promote them! And if you don’t see enough diversity in your library or bookstore, then write the story you want to read yourself! We need new voices to represent our multi-cultural world. If you are already a writer, I challenge you to add more diversity to your own writing! Don’t be afraid to write about people of color. And when you do this, you make us a part of your experience instead of shutting us out. Help us make diversity the norm, and not the unusual. Two wonderful things will come out of this. It opens up a whole new world to all of our children and it tells minority kids that they are important too.

The following is a list of books that I believe provide wonderful multi-cultural reading experiences. This compilation is filled with books that have impacted my life in some way. They made me laugh, they made me cry, they made me hungry! I know this list isn’t complete and I would love to hear from all of you about any titles that I’ve missed. Please submit more titles in the comments below.

I hope we can keep adding to this list until the time comes when we no longer need to talk about diversity, because diversity will have become the new normal.


Diverse books that I think everyone should read:


Picture Books:

Amazing GraceMary Hoffman
Lissy’s FriendsGrace Lin
Big Red Lollipop – Rukhsana Khan
We Are America – Walter Dean Myers
Yoko – Rosemary Wells



Middle Grade:

Year of Impossible Goodbyes – Sook Nyul Choi
One Crazy Summer – Rita Williams-Garcia
Kira-Kira – Cynthia Kadohata
Inside Out and Back Again – Thannha Lai
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon - Grace Lin
A Step from Heaven – An Na
When My Name was Keoka – Linda Sue Park
The Trouble with Half a Moon – Danette Vigilante



Young Adult:


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian – Sherman Alexie
Subway Girl – Peter Jacob Converse
The First Part Last – Angela Johnson
Summer of the Mariposas – Guadalupe Garcia McCall
Monster and Lockdown – Walter Dean Myers
Silver Phoenix – Cindy Pon
Tankborn – Karen Sandler
Shooting Kabul – N. H. Senzai
The Last Summer of the Death Warriors – Francisco X. Stork
American Born Chinese – Gene Luen Yang
Huntress by Malinda Lo




The Plague of Doves – Louise Erdrich
Like Water for Chocolate – Laura Esquivel
A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini
An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro
The Namesake – Jumpa Lahiri
Beloved – Toni Morrison
Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan
The Color Purple Alice Walker
Native Son – Richard Wright


What books would you add to this list?


User Comments 10 comments

  1. February 7, 2013 | 1:45 am

    Thank you for such an awesome post! I’ve been wanting to do a diversity type book for my book club but have had a really hard time coming up with titles that arent popular. THis helps a great deal =]]

  2. February 7, 2013 | 2:06 am

    Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez and The Arrival by Shaun Tan are also great choices.

  3. February 7, 2013 | 10:03 pm

    Thank you so much Ellen for all these choices. I definitely LOVED Joy Luck Club..I’m adding more to my TBR list thanks to you :)

  4. February 7, 2013 | 10:06 pm

    OHH And I forgot to add my titles..

    Off the top of my head, I clearly remember:

    [url=http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/930.Memoirs_of_a_Geisha]Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden[/url]
    [url=http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/4667024-the-help]The Help by Kathryn Stockett[/url]

  5. February 9, 2013 | 3:58 am

    STegosaurusrav – you are very welcome!! Let me know if you try one and what you think! I would love to hear!

    Ah yes! The Arrival and The Help – both books I LOVED! Thank you both!

    And I should have added The Caliigrapher’s Daughter by Eugenia Kim and Snow Flower and the SEcret Fan by Lisa See.

    I hope people keep adding to the list!!

  6. February 12, 2013 | 3:54 am

    Thank you for the list of diversity books. What I appreciate most is that you have organized them for appropriate age levels. I will use these when I am thinking of books as gifts.
    I wanted to add to your booklist. Last semester for one of my courses in higher education we read “Lakeside University Cover-Up” by Dr. Charles Taylor. It was very useful for my classmates in that it offered so many discussion points. I think the format of the book was very useful for a community interested in discussions on diversity. It is an e-book, which is my preferred method of reading these days. I hope you have the opportunity to check it out for yourself!

  7. February 12, 2013 | 8:36 pm

    Hi Tommy! Thanks for the recommendation. I had never heard of that book before so now I’m eager to check it out! And I’m so glad this list will be helpful to you. I hope to keep adding to it!

  8. February 17, 2013 | 3:06 am

    Great post and something I really support, being a Chinese-Australian teen myself. Really good books listed, definitely some more books I’m interested in reading now! Here are my recommendations:

    Middle Grade:

    - A Ghost in My Suitcase by Gabrielle Wang. This is a suspenseful and surprising book which weaves historical, mythological (ghosts) and modern Chinese elements that I’d recommend to anyone. And…it has an Asian female protag who saves the day! Something I think your daughters would enjoy?

    - Wonder by R.J. Palacio. Unlike a lot of books with diversity, it’s not necessarily about the ‘non-white experience’ – it’s a book about something totally different which happens to have non-white title characters, and with themes running through it that support diversity. From the blurb I was subconsciously expecting all the characters to be white and was presently surprised when the diversity of the characters was revealed, and race was talked about in a way that, for me, was very normal and relatable and not about racism.


    - Preloved by Shirley Marr. Another story about Chinese mythology and ghosts – but approached with in a totally different way to A Ghost in My Suitcase. A paranormal romance with lots of mystery, which I loved. :)

    - Little Paradise also by Gabrielle Wang, although it’s very different. A novel set during WW2 in Australia & Shanghai about the love between two young Chinese people. The story is very sweet, with some really sad and tense parts, but overall it left me with a warm fuzzy feeling at the end!

    That’s only four books – my absolute favourites – but did you notice that three out of four of them are Australian books? I’m not sure how much you’ve read of Australian children’s literature, though I’m assuming not much since there weren’t any Australian books in your blog post. =P (sorry if I’m wrong) I just wanted to let you know that there are a heck of a lot of Australian children’s books with diversity in them compared to American and British literature (I know this as I read a lot of books from all three countries) and I think you’d be pleasantly surprised if you had a look into Australian kidlit!

    A good place to start would be the Children’s Book Council of Australia annual shortlists; they include quite a lot of diversity (though you probably won’t be able to tell just from the title and blurb – it’s more subtle in the story and treated as the ‘norm’ rather than being specifically about the non-white characters) not because diversity is something the CBCA specifically targets but because Australia just happens to have many good books with diversity in them!

    One more thing – if you do pick up any of these books, I’d recommend getting the Australian editions from somewhere like Bookworld. Why? I don’t know if you realise this, but when an Australian book becomes popular and is released in an American edition, a lot of the ‘Australian’ parts of it is cut out in order to be ‘Americanised’ (kind of like with the Philosopher’s Stone/Sorcerer’s Stone thing in Harry Potter, only it’s often more than that) and the Australian setting reduced to a vague American one. Personally, I don’t think diversity in children’s literature (in America, especially) should be just about characters of non-white races – it should be about being exposed to other countries and cultures’ literature, hence why I am against the ‘Americanising’ of Australian books.

    This turned out a lot longer than I expected. Hope you all find something worthwhile in what I’ve provided!

  9. February 20, 2013 | 11:31 pm

    Such a great list! I’ve read many of these and shared them on my blog, which focuses on diversity in children’s literature – Sprout’s Bookshelf (www.sproutsbookshelf.com). I’ll definitely be adding Ellen’s book to my TBR list!

  10. February 23, 2013 | 5:26 pm

    Excellent list! I’ve read several of these and now have the rest added to my TBR list. :) I would also recommend anything by Lisa See, Toni Morrison’s other novels, An American Brat by Bapsi Sidhwa, Cracking India also by Bapsi Sidhwa, The Circuit by Francisco Jimenez, The Color of My Words by Lynn Joseph, The Good Braider by Terry Farish, Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowder, Sold by Patricia McCormick, The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera, and Words in the Dust by Trent Reedy.

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