More articulate and poised than your average adult, even in a room full of people who make it their job to talk about books all day, 12-year-old Marley Dias fielded questions from Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books and Music in Rhinebeck, N.Y., about her #1000blackgirlbooks campaign and her upcoming book for budding activists, Marley Gets It Done (And So Can You!) (Scholastic, Jan. 2018). The pair were in conversation as part of a featured talk on “Inspiring Readers to Enact Change” at Children’s Institute 5 in Portland, Ore., earlier this month.
“School wasn’t promoting the right books for everyone,” Dias told Hermans in response to a question about why she started her #1000blackgirlbooks movement. Dias, who began reading independently at age two and a half, said that she’d grown tired of reading about “white boys and their dogs” in books. She decided that black girls needed to see themselves represented on the page. Although she didn’t lack for diversity on her (ample) bookshelves at home, Dias wanted all kids to have the resources she had: to see themselves in the stories they read and feel a sense of pride. Even though she collects books with young black, female protagonists, Dias told the audience, “black girl stories aren’t just for black girls: they’re for everybody.”
Dias told the audience that there were three things she hoped to achieve with #1000blackgirlbooks. One goal was to include books from smaller publishers and self-publishers in her 1,000 Black Girls Books Resource Guide.The second was to “connect with schools” and make sure there were both “resources for all kids” as well as “books that kids want to read.” Finally, she moved away from the specifics of her campaign and spoke to the need for education to widen its focus when teaching students about black culture. “Black History Month could focus less on slavery and civil rights and more on the Harlem Renaissance and everything we have achieved,” Dias said. “I want to know about the whole black experience.” She advocated for kids to read “not just slave narratives [but books that] show what we’ve overcome and accomplished.”
Dais’s forthcoming book—a concept she finds a bit mind-boggling—is intended to be “a practical guide for kids,” she said. She’s not trying to turn them into Marley Dias clones. Instead, she wants kids to “take the thing that you love [because] that’s what’s going to take you to the top.” That might be part of a pep talk for kids, but it’s solid advice for adults, too. Dias is resolute about pursuing something that resonates for the doer, because “integrity is what people want, and if you’re not yourself, [whatever you’re doing] is not going to click.”
For all her grown-up wisdom, Dias is still a 12-year-old girl. Her age only made her a more compelling speaker, as she told the audience that not only does she “not Google [herself]” but “the Internet has never not existed for [her].” Dias admitted that when she was nine, she thought she knew everything—no one, she insists, should say that, because it’s never true. “But then I read [Jacqueline Woodson’s] Brown Girl Dreaming,” she said, adding that she didn’t understand it. Maybe her mother was tricking her. So she waited a year, until the age of 10, and reread it. “After that, I knew what the words meant.” Since then, Dais has met Woodson, Michelle Obama, and Oprah.
Dias has no plans to stop now, she told the crowd. When Hermans asked her whether she’d like to stay in the literary world, Dias nodded enthusiastically. And she explained that she’d “like to become an editor for my own magazine.” But, she added, if she ever ran for political office (this got a ripple of applause), one of her first orders of business would be installing bus stops at libraries, because she finds it appalling that some kids can’t even go to their local library because there isn’t a city bus that serves the area. Even her local branch in New Jersey is near a busy intersection. When she’s not advocating for library bus stops, Dias wants to “continue collecting books and giving them away all over the world.” She has sent books to Haiti and Jamaica, but she said that it’s just as important for girls in Japan and Sri Lanka to have stories.
Whenever Dias gets discouraged about giving a speech or something else, she said, she remembers what her mother always tells her: “What is there to lose? All you have to do is try your best. All you’re going to do is gain. You’re either going to gain knowledge from your mistakes or you’re going to gain a new experience that you can tell your kids or that I can tell you when you’re nervous again.” Dias added, “I love that she says that to me, even when it’s what she told me last time. It always makes me feel comfortable and cheers me up.”