Fourteen-Year-Old Marley Dias, Tireless Promoter of Diversity in Literature
"It started in fifth grade, when Dias noticed a lack of diversity in the books she read in school."
Two minutes into a conversation with Marley Dias, it’s easy to see why her star has risen so fast. In the last few years, she’s appeared on CBS This Morning, The View, and has spoken at the United State of Women Summit, a stage that has also featured luminaries like Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey.
That kind of resume is impressive for anyone, but it’s all the more remarkable when you learn that Dias is 14 years old. She speaks about a mile a minute, so intelligently and confidently that I can barely keep up with my notes. But it’s her passion for what she does that captivates most.
It started in fifth grade, when Dias noticed a lack of diversity in the books she and her classmates read in school.
“It was reading Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, which was the last book I read in fifth grade,” she says. “I’d also read Old Yeller and the Shiloh series [in class]. So that was five books where white boys and their dogs were the main characters, and that was in one year. I noticed that pattern was happening a lot, and I became frustrated, because as much as I like those stories and I liked my teacher, I wanted to see myself and I wanted to see other people and their experiences.”
Like all great activists, rather than just complain to her teacher about it, Dias recognized this lack of diversity as symptomatic of a larger issue. So she launched the #1000blackgirlbooks social media initiative in 2016. Since then, Dias has collected over 10,000 books in which black girls are the main characters and donated them to communities that need them.
This summer, Dias has been furthering the cause by partnering with JetBlue as an ambassador for the ninth year of the airline’s Soar with Reading campaign. The award-winning campaign, much like Dias’s, focuses on getting books into the hands of children in underserved communities. This year, for the first time, Soar with Reading is employing the use of free vending machines in New York City.
“There are six vending machines going across all five boroughs, with two in Queens,” says Dias. “We’re making sure that kids can take as many books as they want that represent both themselves and their experiences, and make them feel like reading is a fun thing to do, especially in the summer when they don’t feel encouraged to read very much.”
Dias spoke to me from Riverbank State Park in Manhattan, where her own book, Marley Dias Gets It Done and So Can You, “a guide about how kids ten and up can use their gifts and talents to make the world a better place,” is one of the titles available. She was spending the day showing people how to use the machine, signing books, and of course, doing what she does best: promoting diversity in literature.
“I think that Soar with Reading is doing a really interesting thing by combining both technology and access with actual books,” Dias says. “I know a lot of the time when I speak to adults, they think of technology as inferior to reading. But I think that this is showing that we can use technology to help kids see that reading is fun and important.”
The vending machines are available throughout the summer, until the day after Labor Day. Titles are refreshed every week, so children can go back as many times as they want and find a new selection. The locations are:
Brooklyn: Brownsville Recreation Center | 1555 Linden Blvd.
Bronx: PAL, Inc. New South Bronx Center | 991 Longwood Ave
Manhattan: Riverbank State Park | 679 Riverside Drive
Queens: The Queens Public Library – Main Branch | 89-11 Merrick Blvd
Queens: Ocean Bay Community Cornerstone | 67-10 Beach Channel Drive
Staten Island: Faber Park, Richmond Terrace | Staten Island, NY 10302
To support Dias and her work, you can also donate to the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign.