When she noticed none of the reading books assigned to her school class featured girls of color, 11-year-old Marley Dias of New Jersey took matters into her own hands. Alongside her mother, Dr. Janice Johnson Dias, Marley has started a drive to collect 1,000 children's books featuring black girls as the main character.
Marley explained the impetus behind #1000BlackGirlBooks, as the project is being called, to Fox 29 News:
In my fifth grade class, we were only reading books about white boys and their dogs. And I understood why my teacher wanted us to read those books, because those are the books he could connect with. But I didn’t necessarily connect with them. ... So my mom asked me what I wanted to do, and I told her I wanted to start a book drive.
Marley hopes to show that diverse children’s books are most certainly out there, while also benefiting a school library in need of resources. The #1000BlackGirlBooks books will be donated to Retreat Primary and Junior School and Library, in Saint Mary, Jamaica, where Janice was born. Marley told Philly Voice that she has already collected 400 books and is therefore nearly halfway to hitting her target by Feb. 1. They'll be delivered during a trip to Jamaica later that month.
Marley's efforts highlights a bigger issue: a study by the Co-operative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin found that out of 3,500 children’s books published in 2014, only 180 featured black characters (just over 5 percent). This was a big step up from 2013's figure of just under 3 percent, but it's still a pretty unimpressive statistic given that black Americans make up over 12 percent of the U.S. population. (Representation of other ethnic groups in children's literature also needs serious improvement: only 66 of the 3,500 books featured Latina/o characters—not even 2 percent—even though Latina/o people comprise 16 percent of the U.S. population.)
In an email interview with the Daily Dot, children’s author Kelly Starling Lyons, whose books center around young black protagonists, called Marley "an inspiration." Lyons continued, "[Marley] recognized the need to see herself in books, articulated that desire and became an agent of change. ... All kids deserve to see reflections of their lives."
Lyons was inspired to become an author by Mildred D. Taylor’s famous tale of racial tension in 1930s Mississippi, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Referring to the novel's spirited 9-year-old protagonist Cassie, Starling Lyons explained, "For the first time, I saw a girl who looked like me as the central character. That meant everything to me.”