Where's The Color In Kids' Lit? Ask The Girl With 1,000 Books (And Counting)

Feb 26, 2016
Originally published on September 26, 2016 4:49 pm

Marley Dias is like a lot of 11-year-olds: She loves getting lost in a book.

But the books she was reading at school were starting to get on her nerves. She enjoyed Where The Red Fern Grows and the Shiloh series, but those classics, found in so many elementary school classrooms, were all about white boys or dogs ... or white boys and their dogs, Marley says.

Black girls, like Marley, were almost never the main character.

What she was noticing is actually a much bigger issue: Fewer than 10 percent of children's books released in 2015 had a black person as the main character, according to a yearly analysis by the Cooperative Children's Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. And while the number of children's books about minorities has increased in the past 20 years, many classroom libraries have older books.

Last fall, Marley decided to do something about it. She set a goal of collecting 1,000 books about black girls by the beginning of February, and #1000blackgirlbooks was born.

She has far exceeded her goal, with almost 4,000 books and counting. Now, she wants to set up a black girl book club and pressure school districts to change which books are assigned to students. Morning Edition's David Greene spoke with Marley about her campaign and how she has handled her success.

The thing NPR Ed wanted to know? Her take on a subject she now knows well: books about black girls. Here are her top five picks.

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Marley Dias is 11 years old. She loves reading. But she noticed that a lot of the books at school were about white boys. Or dogs. Or, like the award-winning children's novel, "Shiloh," they were about white boys and their dogs. We asked Marley to elaborate on what bothered her.

MARLEY DIAS: Basically, it was the lack of diversity in my fifth-grade class. We were only reading books such as "Where The Red Fern Grows," "Crash," the "Shiloh" series and "Old Yeller." So I noticed that. Then I was frustrated because I was never reading books about black girls or any different type of character so I went home and I told my mom, and she said, well, what are you going to do about it? So I decided to start a campaign in which black girls are the main character and then give those books to various schools.

GREENE: Wow. You're 11 years old, and you just decided, this is a problem and I'm going to take it on myself.

MARLEY: Yes, yes I did.

GREENE: And just tell me why it was important to you and why you think it's important for 11-year-olds, you know, to be reading books that have more diversity?

MARLEY: Well, I think it's important in general for kids to be reading books with diversity. When you read about character that you can connect with, you'll remember the things that they learned. So if I like hair bows and the character I'm reading about likes hair bows, I will remember what he or she learned in that book because I have something in common with them.

GREENE: And so it was not a matter of you wanting books to be about black girls, you just wanted the characters to be people who you could relate to more.

MARLEY: Yeah, I just - I think that it was definitely about access. At home, I could read those books and I could read as many as I wanted, but when I came to school it wasn't really available for me to read.

GREENE: OK so you take it upon yourself and you start collecting books that have more diverse characters in them. Where were you getting these books? Were you buying them, or, what was happening?

MARLEY: No, we weren't buying them, we were getting donations from people who saw the campaign on social media. And I think that it's a lot better when they give books because then they know where their money's going. We did get some money donations, which is definitely helpful for us when we travel, and we had to hire people to help log books because there's so many.

GREENE: Were you sort of the boss? Were you kind of giving them instructions on how you wanted this to be done?

MARLEY: Yes, I am, but because I have school I can't spend, like, the day helping opening books all the time, but I try my best because I don't want to just be the boss and be the representative. I want to be a part of every aspect of the work that I created. I just don't want to be, like, the big boss who doesn't do much.

GREENE: I love that. That seems like a very good lesson to learn in life very early on. What's been the most memorable moment so far since you've started doing this?

MARLEY: That's a tough one. Well, of course when we reached 1,000 books, which is so big of a deal, it was really awesome. And then when I went on the "Ellen" show - I've never been on TV or done anything, like, that made me famous or anything in any respect. It's just - all of it really is super important and super special.

GREENE: So the bottom line - you were trying to collect a thousand books and give them away, and you kind of blew right through your goal and have collected a lot more, which is awesome. Do you have a new goal now?

MARLEY: We don't have a new goal, but I do have a bigger idea now that we've reached the goal. It's that we have school boards assigning books where it's very diverse and it's not just one type that they're trying to focus on, it's all different characters, all different races, all different genders. So that's definitely one of the big things that I want to achieve because I know that I'm definitely not the only kid or student out there who's experiencing this problem.

GREENE: Marley, you've probably heard this before - you're a very impressive young woman.

MARLEY: Thank you.

GREENE: Best of luck to you, and thanks for taking the time to talk to us about this.

MARLEY: No problem.

GREENE: She is only 11 years old. That's Marley Dias, and you heard her on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.