By the time a child is 13, he or she would have been asked the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” too many times to recall. It’s not a bad question, per se. It encourages children to think about and envision the future. But perhaps it does impose a bit of a limit, because it suggests that greatness or fulfillment is something they only achieve in adulthood, once they have completed their education and embarked on careers. But what about now? What if children are instead asked what they are interested in or passionate about right now—at 8, 11, or 13—and encouraged to pursue it? They could very well become forces of change like Marley Dias who, at 13, is an activist and newly minted author. Her book Marley Dias Gets It Done – And So Can You was published by Scholastic in January this year.
For the record, Marley doesn’t yet know what she wants to be when she grows up, but she said, “I feel like I’m being what I’ve always wanted to be right now. I always tell kids that in some cases, you can be [what you want to be] now, or you can learn about those things now and reach a portion of your goals at this time.”
Marley has many interests, but her great passion is reading. When she was 11, she began to notice a pattern in the storybooks she was being assigned at her New Jersey public school: none of them had black girls as the main characters. Tired of reading about “white boys and their dogs”, she decided to do something about it. With the help and support of her parents, Dr Janice Johnson Dias and Scott Dias, she channeled her frustration with this lack of representation into creating the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign, which was launched in November 2015. Her goal was to collect and donate 1,000 books that feature black girls as the main characters. To date, she has collected more than 11,000 books—including about 1,500 unique titles—and has made donations to schools in the United States, Greece, Ghana, Singapore and here in Jamaica, where her mother was born and raised in Retreat, St Mary.
Marley’s activism quickly came to national attention in her homeland and soon spread around the world thanks to social media. It wasn’t long before she became a sensation. She has racked up features in major publications and on popular television programmes and spoken passionately about reading inequality before audiences around the globe, even sharing the stage with the likes of former First Lady Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Last year, she was the youngest person to make the annual Forbes 30 Under 30 list.
The Dias family was in Jamaica for the 2018 Kingston Book Festival, held March 4-11. Marley Dias Gets It Done – And So Can You had its official international launch on Saturday, March 10 at the Kingston and St Andrew Parish Library. “We were very, very deliberate in looking at how we could impact our youth and our children, and plant that seed of belief in themselves and spark their imagination. There was no better fit to that agenda than Marley joining us,” said Latoya West-Blackwood, chairman of the Book Industry Association of Jamaica (BIAJ), organiser of the Festival.
Marley spent the previous day on a mini school tour, which took her to early childhood institution Fundaciones and later to St Hugh’s Preparatory School. At Fundaciones, she read briefly from her book and interacted with the little ones by asking them about the things they like to do, their favourite fruits and colours. Of course, there were also lots of photo ops with the excited children and their teachers (plus a few parents who had stayed behind long after drop off.)
It was Reading Day at St Hugh’s Prep, and Marley read to and spoke with students from the early childhood group and grades one to three. Dr Janice also spoke to the older students about passion and joined her daughter in encouraging them to find something they love to do and pursue it, and also find something that frustrates them and use their voices to help change it. After all, this is what Marley has done, with tremendous success. “This book is about why I started this process (#1000BlackGirlBooks) and why it’s important for us as young people and as kids to speak up about our ideas that we care about,” she told the first to third graders.
The older students were joined by peers from Alvernia Prep, St Francis Primary, Holy Family Primary and Infant, Mona Practising Infant and Primary and Mona High schools for readings and a lively Q&A session with Marley and fellow authors Raymond Antrobus, Nicole Dennis-Benn and Justin McKay who, coincidentally, is 12 years old.
Speaking to the large group of students and teachers, she said: “I wrote this book because I’ve been taught a lot of things and I felt the need for them to be shared. I am passionate about reading inequity and I wanted to share that with you all. I also wanted to give you the how-to. For most of us, we read about people who have done things but we never get the details about how they actually did it. One of the main purposes of this book was to give you clear steps, because I want you all to do it, too.”
Marley also spoke on the importance of children seeing themselves in the books they read, and how books help to sensitize them to each other’s differences: “We all want to be treated with dignity and respect, and reading makes that easier to understand. Our differences can serve as windows and mirrors. When I say ‘mirrors’, I mean I want black girls—girls like me—to see books in their schools and to feel valued and to feel their history as a part of their lives. When I say ‘windows’, I mean I want all of us to be open to one another. I want us to see and appreciate our differences and learn from each other so we can grow.”
Her message resonated with the students, several of whom later asked her about her inspirations and how she got the book done. “Marley really spoke to the real world problem of lack of diversity and I think she is very inspiring,” said St Hugh’s Prep sixth grader Joshua Bertram.
Check out our other articles in the series on Marley Dias on the blog.
Tracey-Ann Wisdom is a freelance writer and editor based in Kingston, Jamaica. You can find her online at www.writtenbytracey.com.