Ellen Oh: Here Be the Real Everyday Heroes That Our Children Need | 2022 SLJ Summit

Ellen Oh's keynote address at the 2022 SLJ Summit extolled the impact of school librarians, the power of books, and the need to keep fighting against censorship attempts.

Ellen Oh never aspired to be an activist.

“It's a label I never sought out for myself,” Oh told attendees during her keynote address at the 2022 SLJ Summit: Advocacy in Action in Minneapolis on Nov. 5. “I've proudly called myself a lawyer—even though my mom was still mad about that [because] she wanted me to be a doctor—but I call myself a lawyer, a daughter, a sister, a wife, and an angry loudmouth, opinionated word that rhymes with witch. But activist was not on my resume—until the day I added mother and writer to my labels.”

Ellen OhOh began writing out of “a burning desire” that her children not endure the same lack of representation that impacted her when she was young. It took her more than a decade to get published, making it very clear how difficult it was for a BIPOC writer to tell their stories. She co-founded We Need Diverse Books to help push publishing toward better representation and still didn’t consider herself an activist “because honestly I didn't think working with children's books was political.”

Then the mail started.

“I got my first wave of hate mail proclaiming that I was promoting white genocide, that I was a racist ... that they didn't want me here in this country that I call home.” said Oh. “Folded within the enormous hatefest were emails wishing all sorts of horrible death on me. It was then that I realized that asking for inclusion in children's books was inherently political because we live in a society based on winners and losers who possess and distribute power. And as we began to achieve victories, the other side was gearing up for a campaign aimed to shut down all of our progress.”

The current wave of book banning attempts is part of those attempts to shut down that progress, she notes, and take away what has been gained. And it is particularly personal to Oh.

“Given the fact that the books they focus their attention on tend to be those by LGBTQ+ and BIPOC authors, it really does feel like they're calling our mere existence evil,” she said.

“Everyone in this room knows how powerful books are,” she said. “It's why there's so many attempts to ban them, censor them, burn them. Books contain knowledge, books teach empathy, books open us up to new worlds and thoughts and lives. … If racism and bigotry [are] not taught in the classroom, if books about marginalized kids are censored and unavailable, we risk creating a generation of kids who have never learned the true meaning of empathy, that never learned the true, shameful history of this country and who will repeat the atrocities of the past. And when marginalized kids don't see themselves in the literature they read, we teach them that they are not valued, not wanted, that they are not equal. There is no greater devastation to a child than to feel that there is no place for them in the world.”

Read: Making an Impact in Difficult Times | SLJ Summit 2022 

Educators must help the young people who are already taking the steps to fight for their rights, she said.

“I believe in all of us,” Oh said. “Because here be activists, here be protectors of freedom of speech and thought and expression. Here be teachers, educators, librarians. Here be the real everyday heroes that our children need.”

She acknowledged how hard it was to fight and the stories of librarians and teachers who have lost their jobs, been harassed, or are dealing with stress-related illnesses. She knows there is fear about speaking up. But, she said, she knew most would keep fighting because everyone understood what was at stake.

“We're fighting for all of our children, not just a chosen few,” she said. “We are hoping for a better future for all of us. And while we're not going to win every battle [and] we're not going to change everyone's minds, we will stay strong, positive in the face of anger, hostility, and misguided notions of what's actually at stake. And even if things get worse and the future looks grim, that's not going to stop us. We will keep writing. We will keep teaching and educating. We will keep raising our voices and telling our truth. Our stories will be still shared, but maybe in different ways.

“We will be both bold and subtle. We will be forthright and devious. We will be subversive. We will fight back prejudice and hate in so many different ways they won't know what hit them, because they cannot break us. Remember, we are many, and there is far too much at stake. And we will keep fighting for a world that says to all of our children: You are seen. You are loved. And you are safe to be who you are.”

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Kara Yorio

Kara Yorio (kyorio@mediasourceinc.com, @karayorio) is senior news editor at School Library Journal.

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