Monday, February 01, 2016

1000 Black Girl Books

11-year-old Marley Dias created  #1000BlackGirlBooks
After months of political posturing, televised debates, town hall-style Q&A's, political commercials, lengthy robo-calls and snarky video soundbites, caucus night has finally arrived in Iowa for the presidential hopefuls of both parties.

After tonight the shape of the 2016 presidential race will come into much sharper focus, and there will be plenty of time to to dive into the harsh reality that some of the Republican hopefuls will be facing over breakfast tomorrow.

But before I settle in to binge on live caucus updates from WNYC, as we kick off Black History Month it seems appropriate to give props to an impressive grassroots literary movement started by a young African-American girl who used a mix of social media and moxie to confront racial bias in children's literature.

As you may have heard, a gifted 11-year-old student from West Orange, New Jersey named Marley Dias (pictured above) has been making headlines after launching a book drive last November with the catchy title, "1000 Black Girl Books".

As Amy Kuperinsky reported on last Friday, this sixth-grader who skipped a grade and reads on an eighth grade level grew frustrated with reading books at Thomas A. Edison Middle School that didn't have any girls as characters who looked like her.

As Marley famously observed, the majority of the books she read in her classes were about "white boys and their dogs" and she found it troubling to her sense of self esteem that she never found any characters who looked like her in the pages she was reading.

So rather than become embittered or angry, she decided to do something about it.

With the help and encouragement of her mother Janice Johnson Dias, a social worker and community activist, Marley started a book drive with the ambitious goal of collecting 1,000 books with girls of color as the lead character.

Her book drive was started as a project under the umbrella of her mother's community organization known as Grass Roots Community Foundation (GCF); which seeks to improve the lives of women and young girls whose lives are impacted by poverty.

She also started a Twitter hashtag, #1000BlackGirlBooks that's made national headlines and her collection of books will be donated to the rural Jamaican school where her mother and grandmother were educated.

She's already received more than 850 from people of all races from around the nation who hear about her efforts; and many more are expected to be donated.

It's a great story about literature, the thirst for knowledge and the human condition.

Last Friday morning The Brian Lehrer Show also did an interesting segment on the book drive in which the topic of diversity in children's publishing was also discussed; give it a listen it runs about 15 minutes.

Brian had Brooklyn author Zetta Elliot on the segment shared a few of the African-American-themed children's books that she's written including "The Girl Who Swallowed the Sun".

Listeners also called in with a variety of interesting suggestions for Marley's book list including the Newbery Medal winning book "Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry" by Mildred D. Taylor.

The segment also examined the how and why Marley Dias faced such a challenge finding children's books with diverse characters and story lines by looking deeper at the disparities inside the world of children's book publishing.

Brian's conversation with publisher Jason Low of  Lee and Low Books, the largest independent publisher of children's books in the United States, offered some interesting insight; including the fact that while people of color (African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans etc.) make up about 37% of the American population, over the course of the past 21 years, only 10% of the children's books published in the U.S. contained multicultural content.

Marley Dias' story struck a chord with me as I was raised with a love of books and reading and spent many hours as a child doing just that.

While I was content to loose myself in fictional worlds with a variety of characters and settings, I never really spent a lot of time thinking about myself in relation to the racial identity of the protagonists in the pages I read.

Up until the third grade I mostly read for pleasure, but it was in the fourth grade when I read white journalist John Howard Griffin's searing non-fiction portrait of the racial climate in the southern U.S. in the late 1950's "Black Like Me" that I began to start to seek out books about the African-American experience.

After seeing the 1972 movie Sounder in the late 70's when it was rebroadcast on ABC, I remember being deeply moved by the injustices portrayed in the story and feeling a connection with the young protagonist.

That feeling of seeing someone who looked like me in a film sparked me to read the book by William H. Armstrong (which won the Newbery Award in 1970) in about fifth or sixth grade.

Not long after that I read The Learning Tree by Gordon Parks in seventh grade.

Those were the first books I recall reading with young African-American men as protagonists.

I suppose children of all races or ethnic backgrounds who are inclined to read are eventually drawn to literary experiences that help lead them along the path of the universal question "Who Am I?" in their own time.

But I'm impressed with the fact that 11 year-old Marley Dias had the presence of mind, maturity and awareness of self to step back and question why she so rarely saw herself in the pages of the books she read in school.

In doing so, she sparked a national conversation about race, children's publishing and diversity in the American educational curriculum.

I can't recall a more widespread grass roots national discussion on the issue of diversity within children's publishing, and as far as it being sparked by an 11-year-old from West Orange, NJ, the old adage taken from the Biblical verse of Isaiah, "And the children shall lead" certainly applies here.

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