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

Marley Dias
Andrea Cipriani Mecchi
Marley Dias

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.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Brown Girl Dreaming

by Jacqueline Woodson

Age level: Grades 6-8

Genre: Autobiography

Why Marley recommends it: "It's definitely one of my favorites, mainly because I am a very avid reader and it was one of the first books I ever had a challenge reading. I know that sounds not really good because then you couldn't understand it. But it was like the first time that I ever fully had to wait and think through something and take my time, which I think is definitely something important because you have to be patient.

"It's also a poetry book and I think that poetry is cool even though I don't really write poetry that much. I do think it's cool to read it. And it's a very important book and there's a lot of themes in the book. There's a lot of ways to interpret it, but it's about the '60s and '70s and Jim Crow laws in South Carolina and New York and how a girl talks about her family and racism and how they experience it."

One Crazy Summer

by Rita Williams-Garcia

Age level: Grades 3-5

Genre: Historical fiction

Why Marley recommends it: "The black girls that I know ... thought that this was one of the best books about black girls. I haven't finished reading it yet. I know it's kind of disappointing that I haven't read one of the most popular books that we've been getting. It's about three girls who go to see their mother, who they haven't seen ever since they were babies. So, they go to visit the summer with her and they have a whole giant adventure."

President Of The Whole Fifth Grade

by Sherri Winston

Age Level: Grades 3-5

Genre: Fiction

Why Marley recommends it: "It's about a girl named Brianna Justice who runs for fifth-grade president." Marley explains that the main character is following in the footsteps of her role model, "who's a cupcake baker from the same town in Michigan that she's from. So, it's about her whole journey to become president of the whole fifth grade. It's a series and there's President of the Whole Sixth Grade as well."

Roll Of Thunder, Hear My Cry

by Mildred D. Taylor

Age level: Grades 5-8

Genre: Historical fiction, classic

Why Marley recommends it: "I like this one because it's a classic book in general and it's one of the most famous black girl books ever. The main character, she's very independent. She's very strong. She's very family-oriented and she protects her family. So, that's definitely one of the main things that the book is popular for. It has a very important life lesson: to be protective of the things you have, even though you might not be 100 percent grateful for it, and to always stand up for what you believe in, even if you're the only one. So, I think those are definitely good themes that could help girls — and boys — learn how to represent their voices when there's a problem."

Please, Baby, Please

by Kadir Nelson, Tonya Lewis Lee and Spike Lee

Age level: Ages 2-5

Genre: Comedy

Why Marley recommends it: When it comes to books for little kids, Marley has a tie: Please, Baby, Please and Please, Puppy, Please. "They're really funny and sweet little books about a baby who is being a little troublemaker and then about a dog who's being a little troublemaker. They're funny and they're sweet and kids enjoy them."

Meg Anderson
Meg Anderson is a reporter and editor on NPR's Investigations team. She reported the award-winning series Heat and Health in American Cities, which illustrated how low-income neighborhoods nationwide are often hotter in temperature than their wealthier counterparts. She also investigated the roots of a COVID-19 outbreak in a predominantly Black retirement home, and the failures of the Department of Justice to release at-risk prisoners to safer settings during the pandemic. She serves as a producer and editor for the investigations team, including on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She has also reported for NPR's politics and education desks, and for WAMU, the local Member station in Washington, D.C. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.