Eleven year-old Marley Dias loves reading, yet she found that most of the books she read at school focused on white boys or dogs (or both) as the main character. At home, Marley has a library of books with diverse characters, but she was frustrated by the fact that the reading selections being chosen for school were limited in their range and often didn’t feature relatable characters. So this enterprising now-sixth-grader came up with a plan: collect and give out 1,000 books that feature African-American girls as an important character. What happened next in her #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign far surpassed her expectations.
Through social media and online exposure, Marley has now received donations of over 4,000 books, and she will continue to collect and distribute books. Her next goal includes getting school boards to assign books with diverse characters for classroom reading. While Marley’s efforts are impressive for someone of such a young age, she has tapped into an issue that spans far beyond what is being read at her own school. Less than 10% of books that were published in 2015 had an African-American leading character. The statistics were much lower for Latinos, Asian Americans, and First Nations peoples, and this information has sparked a national conversation on the need for diversity in books and has launched efforts such as #colormyshelf to share a range of literary options for kids.
As the white mother of an African-American preschooler, I can honestly say that I had not given nearly enough thought to this issue… until it became time to choose books for my own daughter. There are great online recommendations available, but I was surprised by how few books with main characters of color I could find in my own very diverse city’s bookstores. Considering the diversity of the country in which we live, we should expect and request a much more varied and inclusive selection of books for our children to read. Reading and learning to read is an eye-opening experience for children. Books help expose us to different cultures and traditions, they help us understand our own backgrounds and histories better, and they create worlds both real and imagined for us to take temporary residence. Having accessible and relatable characters available for ALL kids is necessary in order to cultivate a love of literacy. Check out Marley’s list of recommendations here and ask your local bookseller for more options for identifiable characters for all children.