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Inspiring Women Series: Axie Oh, Young Adult Writer

Yesterday we observed International Women's Day and throughout March we celebrate Women's History Month. As such, this month's posts will showcase women who inspire me and I believe can inspire our students. First up is Axie Oh.

Axie-Oh-thumbnail-150x150.jpgAxie is an aspiring young adult writer who was recently named a finalist for the New Visions Award in recognition of her novel, The Amaterasu Project. This award is described on their website as "given to a middle grade or young adult fantasy, science fiction or mystery novel by a writer of color. The intent behind the award is to give authors of color a chance to break into the world of publishing for young readers." Axie's work to diversify literature for young readers is not only inspiring, but very needed. In the interview below, she shares more on her thoughts around diversity in young adult fiction and how she came to pursue her dream.

Why do you think diversity in young adult and middle grades books is so lacking?

According to CCBC (Cooperative Children's Book Center), 2014 marked an increase in books by and/or about people of color from 10% in 2013 to 14% in 2014 -- a success, for now. However, this percentage is low. It also includes novels written about people of color by people not of that color (more than half, in fact, according to Lee & Low's analysis of the CCBC statistics. Therefore, yes, it is fact: diversity in young adult and middle grade books is lacking. Christopher Myers, in his opinion piece for The New York Times, blames The Market for this lack of diversity--that intangible beast that tells us "white kids won't read books about kids of color", that says "books about people of color won't sell". These statements lead writers of color to self reject before they've even attempted to break into the industry, which according to a Publisher's Weekly 2014 survey, has gatekeepers who predominantly identify as white/Caucasian (89%). We need more diverse books, but we also need more diverse people in publishing - editors and agents - as well as booksellers and librarians. Diversity matters, not for The Market, but for readers, those children who need to not only find themselves in books, but also to see the world as it really is - in all its colors.

What other awards/grants/internships are there for diverse writers?

We Need Diverse Books Short Story Contest (April 27 - May 8, 2015). From the website: "WNDB is proud to announce that the anthology will have one story reserved for a previously unpublished diverse author. WNDB will fill that slot via a short story contest."

Walter Dean Myers Award and Grant (2015). From the website: "The Walter Dean Myers Grant "will be awarded to up-and-coming, unpublished diverse authors and illustrators who require financial support in order to help them achieve their goal of publication."

We Need Diverse Books Internship Program (2015). From the website: "The WNDB Internship Program provides grants to students from diverse backgrounds (people of color, people with disabilities, people from the LGBTQIA+ community, and other underrepresented groups) who wish to pursue a career in the publishing industry, specifically in children's literature."

SCBWI Work-in-Progress Multicultural Grant (March 1 - March 31, 2015). From the website: "The SCBWI Work-In-Progress (WIP) Awards assist children's book writers and illustrators in the publication of a specific project currently not under contract."

SCBWI Emerging Voices Award (September 15 - November 17, 2015). From the website: "The SCBWI established the On-The-Verge Emerging Voices Award in 2012 with funding from Martin and Sue Schmitt of the 455 Foundation. The grant was created to foster the emergence of diverse voices in children's books."

See the Lee & Low blog for more award and grants for authors of color.

Do you have any favorite books that feature diverse characters?

My favorite diverse fantasy series translated from Japanese into English is the superb Tales of the Magatama series by Noriko Ogiwara. Recently I read the beautiful historical fantasy/ghost story set in turn-of-the-century Malaya, The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo. However, both of these titles are categorized as adult novels, although they can be read by a younger audience. For young adult, the contemporary novel To All the Boys I've Loved Before by Korean-American author Jenny Han is a wonderfully authentic coming-of-age story about a girl from a multicultural family. Some titles which I have not read yet, but plan on reading due to rave reviews include: Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz & Pointe by Brandy Colbert. For more book recommendations, please check out the We Need Diverse Books website & tumblr, where they regularly update on old and new releases of diverse books.

Please tell us about your book.

Taken from the Lee & Low website: The Amaterasu Project is a YA science fiction/action novel set in Korea about a former gangster who is recruited into the military over a secret prototype weapons project--which turns out to be a genetically modified girl.

What inspired you to write it?

The opening scene of my novel is inspired by a song written and performed by a Korean artist. The main heroine is inspired by a dream I had of a girl standing on the rooftop of a tower above the clouds, hearing the melody of a song drifting through the sky. The futuristic, sci-fi setting is inspired by a combination of Japanese concept art and animated television series. At the time I first began outlining the novel, I was studying the Korean Independence movement of the early 20th century, when Korea was under Japanese rule. There are parallels between the ideologies of that historical movement and some of the themes pervasive in my novel. I was also watching a Korean historical drama at the time, based off a popular Korean comic which featured a main character who was a freedom fighter. All these elements combined inspired me to write this particular novel.

When did you know you wanted to be an author?

My writing was encouraged all throughout high school, but I didn't know I wanted to be an author until college. I followed the "success stories" of some of my favorite authors, chronicled through blog posts. I also discovered author signings. My local independent bookstore, Mysterious Galaxy, would have author signings regularly, and I would attend the signings and be inspired by the passion these authors had for their novels, careers, and readers.

Was there anything your teachers did to support you in this goal?

Lots of encouragement and validation that what I wanted to do was what I should be doing.

Do you have any suggestions for students who are aspiring for a career as an author?

Read. Write. Join a critique group. Join an organization for writers. If you write children's books (picture books, chapter books, middle grade books or young adult books), I suggest joining the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI).There are many ways to live a writerly life beyond writing--go to book signings, volunteer at a library, intern for a publishing house or literary agency. Surround yourself with books and writers and people and places that inspire you to write.


Read more interviews in the Inspiring Women series:

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