September 17, 2017

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Ellen Oh on Her Goosebump-Inducing “Spirit Hunters”

Ellen Oh is the author of the YA “Dragon King Chronicles” series, the editor of Flying Lessons & Other Stories, and a founding member and CEO/president of We Need Diverse Books. Her latest novel, Spirit Hunters, is a riveting middle grade ghost story that was recently named an SLJ Popular Pick.

Who were you as a middle grade reader? What books did you like?

Ellen Oh as a young reader, pictured with her baby sister. [Photo courtesy of Ellen Oh.]

My favorite author was Alexander Dumas, and my favorite book was The Count of Monte Cristo. I was also a huge Agatha Christie fan and read all of her mysteries, which then led me to Stephen King. And I don’t think I’ve been quite the same ever since.

Spirit Hunters is a bit of a departure from your “Dragon King Chronicles.” What motivated you to move to slightly more realistic middle grade fiction?

I’ve always loved ghost stories and horror stories as a kid, especially ones set in contemporary/realistic settings. It is far more frightening when a ghost story feels like it could actually happen to you right at the moment you are reading it. I remember many a frightening night holed up in my bed, unable to even go to the bathroom until the first rays of the sun lit up the morning sky. Writing Spirit Hunters was my way of recapturing those long ago moments of childhood fear. And every time I would write a scene that would raise the hair on the back of my neck, I would remember being 10 and reading The Shining in the middle of the night. Perhaps because young me was so good at scaring myself, I enjoy frightening others a bit too much now, especially my own children. I wanted to write something that would really creep out and terrify my kids.  And I was so happy to hear that I succeeded.

Why is moving to a new neighborhood so often associated with ghosts and haunted houses in middle grade literature? Do you think this combination addresses a common tween angst? Did you move when you were that age?

Why, yes, I did! I feel like you just psychoanalyzed me! I moved from Queens to Brooklyn when I was 11 years old, and it was such a frightening and awful time for me. [I moved] right in the middle of the school year and into a seventh grade class so cliquish and so mean that I still have emotional scars from it decades later. I also moved into a really old building with those old New York City radiators that made the most frightening sounds at all hours of the day. Nighttime was the worst. But it was so bad that being home alone even during the daytime would terrify me. It would literally sound like scary monsters were crawling through the pipes in order to get me.

Grandparents are so important to middle grade students but also are frequently not in the picture. Harper gets a chance to reconnect with her grandmother. What intrigues you most about the grandparent/grandchild relationship?

My mom is a really unusual grandma. She isn’t at all grandmotherly, and she is more energetic than I am. I always thought of my mom as this Wonder Woman figure, and my kids love that she is this youthful, dynamic grandmother. It got me thinking about how we never see grandparents as heroes, and I thought, Why not? Let’s make a grandmother who fights evil and is a total badass. It’s kind of an homage to my mom.

It is a brilliant move to have Harper’s brother possessed by the evil spirit. Sibling relationships are really important to tweens but are not frequently depicted. Does Michael’s possession tell us something about the relationship you have with your own siblings?

I’m the older sibling by eight years, so I really am the big sister. And how Harper loves Michael is how I loved and looked out for my little sister when we were younger. She might have driven me crazy, but she was also the best thing that happened to me as a kid. I adored my sister, and I’m fortunate enough to be the closest of friends with her now as an adult.

Middle grade readers love ghost stories, but we’re just now starting to see some that aren’t creepy Western ghosts. How much research did you have to do into Korean traditions in order to write Spirit Hunters? Can you recommend any other middle grade ghost stories from other cultural traditions?

I did years of research. Because I wanted to really understand about shamanism and especially Korean shamanism. It is fascinating, and I would actually have to force myself to stop researching to actually write. I find ghost lore from around the world to be so fascinating. I love Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies and Ron Smith’s Hoodoo. And I really hope to see more get published.

It’s been more than three years since you and Malinda Lo had the Twitter conversation that led to the formation of We Need Diverse Books. What are the most important changes you have seen in publishing since then? Where are the biggest deficits that remain?

The most important changes are the ones that librarians and teachers are making by valuing the importance of diversity in literature for children. They’ve championed diverse books by giving them awards and putting them on lists and bringing them into their classrooms. They’ve helped dispel the myth once and for all that diverse books don’t sell. And it has been the greatest joy for me to see so many wonderful diverse books hit the best seller lists. To see new authors like Nicola Yoon and Angie Thomas dominate the New York Times best seller lists has been glorious.

I truly believe that diversity in children’s literature is so important to teach all children about empathy, and while we have made a lot of changes, we still have a ways to go. The good news is that children’s book publishing is filled with a lot of people who care. And so I have faith that we will continue to make progress.

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Karen Yingling About Karen Yingling

Karen Yingling is a middle school librarian from the Midwest. She blogs about and reviews children’s literature at msyinglingreads.blogspot.com.

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Comments

  1. Karen, this is a fantastic interview! The thing about moving to a new (old) house – what a great insight!

  2. Mary Charters says:

    So excited to have Ellen as a keynote speaker for the 2018 NYLA SSL (New York Library Association Section of School LIbrarians) conference. This was a great interview!

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