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Nov 14, 2017

From Young Activist to Young Author: A New Jersey 12-Year-Old Gets Her Own Book

Marley Dias last year launched a drive, #1000blackgirlbooks, aiming for more diversity in school literature.

Marley Dias, at the Liliʻuokalani Trust in Honolulu in August, has traveled the U.S. talking about the need for diversity in books.  PHOTO: LILIʻUOKALANI TRUST

By Zolan Kanno-Youngs, Wall Street Journal

Updated Nov. 13, 2017 6:16p.m. ET

An 11-year-old girl in West Orange, N.J., drew international attention last year when she became frustrated with the lack of diversity in her school’s literature—and decided to do something about it.

Marley Dias’s blog post calling for donations of books featuring black girls as main characters turned into a viral social media campaign in early 2016, dubbed #1000blackgirlbooks. Within a month, people from around the world sent Marley more than 4,000 books.

Now 12 years old, Marley has written the book she felt was missing from her school: a story about a black girl by a black girl.

“Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You!” is being published by Scholastic Inc. and will be released Jan. 30. Marley said she wanted to use her own experience in activism to show anyone can make positive changes in their communities despite their age.

“I’ve always wanted to be an author,” Marley said in a recent interview as she ate two California rolls. “I don’t really like my creative writing and I didn’t want to write a memoir because I’m like 12. Why write a memoir when you’re 12?”

One chapter, “The Activist’s Toolbox,” is a blueprint for young people seeking to make social change. Another, titled “Herstory,” touches on her book drive, which has now collected more than 10,000 books.

“The only books we’d read with black characters at school were slave narratives set in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,” Marley writes in the book. “Which, while extremely important historically, can get depressing. The range of black girl experiences is so much broader, and deeper, and richer than that!”

Lionel Hush, principal of Marley’s current school, Roosevelt Middle School, said her campaign improved literature offerings. “Coming from a student’s perspective, it carries a significant amount of weight,” Mr. Hush said. “You have a young woman of color recognizing or taking on this task, realizing that diversity did not exist in many of the libraries she had visited. It was necessary to bring awareness.”

Andrea Pinkney, vice president and executive editor of the trade publishing division of Scholastic Inc., said she hopes the book encourages children to “galvanize their strengths.” She declined to specify the value of Marley’s book deal.

In anticipation of the book’s release, the eighth-grader has traveled the country emphasizing the importance of diverse characters in school books. She has met former first lady Michelle Obama, ballet dancer Misty Copeland, singer Rihanna and filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Marley has almost 15,000 followers on Instagram herself.

She attended a National Education Association convention in Boston earlier this year where she learned the lack of an eclectic book collection in schools could be due to funding shortages.

Marley created a library in her mother’s office from the thousands of donated books. It has sections for literature featuring minorities other than black girls as main characters, including characters with disabilities.

Her mother, Janice Johnson Dias, an associate professor of sociology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, worries that her daughter takes herself too seriously at times.

“We would like her to consider maybe not being so great at everything,” Dr. Johnson Dias said. “And recognizing she can make more mistakes. But I think she takes the responsibility of the message very seriously.”

Marley said she has continued to meet children who feel they can’t relate to what they are studying in school.

“I feel like when I’m older—like older, older—I guess I’ll feel like ‘Wow, when I was doing that, that was a lot for a 12-year-old to do,’” Marley said. “But now it’s part of my life. Not just being in the public eye but thinking about social change.”

What’s in store for her teenage years? She wants to work on a film. She already has one supporter: Ms. DuVernay, director of the film “Selma” who also wrote the foreword for Marley’s book.

“Embrace passion for your ideas and do not let it go. Period,” Ms. DuVernay wrote. “Every success story has this rule at its heart. Marley’s included.”

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