WEST ORANGE, NJ — Marley Dias has accomplished a lot in what she calls her “long” 13 years, and it was all on display when she held a question-and-answer session at Roosevelt Middle School before signing copies of her book, “Marley Dias Gets it Done: And So Can You!” As founder of the “1,000 Black Girl Books” movement, Marley has taken the world by storm in the last few years by collecting and donating almost 12,000 books featuring black characters when she found that she wasn’t reading such stories in school. Now she has a published work of her own that aims to teach children her age how to find their own passion.
“They don’t see themselves, and I wanted to make sure they did,” Marley said of African-American readers in a discussion with West Orange Human Relations Commission Chairwoman Tammy Williams and West Orange public information officer Susan Anderson onstage in her school’s auditorium. “I wanted to take it to places where they didn’t have (those books). It wasn’t just a problem that I saw in West Orange, it’s everywhere.”
Marley has traveled around West Orange and the world donating books that feature black characters to be mixed in with the books that she was reading about “white boys and their dogs.” An avid reader, Marley is now an author too.
“It helped that I was writing about now,” she said of the writing process. She also said that having her family help while she was working on her book was a benefit. “Getting to have a second opinion and a trusted opinion helped. It’s been a long road and year but I 100 percent feel like it was worth it.”
Marley has gotten to travel a lot as part of “1,000 Black Girls” and her book tour. She has visited Jamaica, where her mother, Janice Johnson Dias, comes from, and Ghana to donate books. Going to those places has been her favorite part of her experience so far, because she has been able to see the impact of what her work.
“I got to see people in a homogeneous community and that was cool,” she said of her trip to Ghana.
Although Marley is wise beyond her years, she does still get excited about meeting celebrities, just as any young teenager would.
“I got to meet Kim Kardashian, which is a big deal for anyone in my generation,” she joked. “And I met Judge Judy — she was really cool.”
Marley mentioned that her community has been a big support system for her, as evidenced when several teachers took the microphone to speak about what she has accomplished. Eric Price, the principal of St. Cloud Elementary School, where Marley had been a student, and third-grade teacher Robin Berkowitz praised Marley for her accomplishments, as did RMS Principal Lionel Hush.
“She’s a role model for adults as well as students,” Hush said at the event. “She’s demonstrated the power of one. I’m so excited to see what’s next because I’m sure there’s more to come.”
Faith Boyle, the children’s librarian at the West Orange Public Library, has seen the impact Marley has had on young readers in town and everywhere she has donated books.
“It’s important for people to see themselves in the books they are reading,” Boyle said. “She took that problem and she solved it in this really amazing way. I try to make a point of finding those books, and that’s what you’ve done. You’ve really spearheaded a lot.”
Marley’s parents are more excited about her successes than she is, according to Janice Johnson Dias.
“She’s so chill, she just wants to hang out with her friends,” Janice Johnson Dias joked to the West Orange Chronicle in an interview at the event. “We’re more wowed than she is, I think.”
She was excited to see a big group of people in the auditorium supporting her daughter.
“It’s nice to see the diversity here,” she said. “The age differences, the racial and ethnic diversity. It shows the community. It’s half surreal, because who could have imagined all this, but half vindication because people can now see the real power of this.”
Marley’s book is now on shelves, but she is not done working for her cause. When asked what’s next, she looked to the immediate future before anticipating more.
“I have math testing tomorrow,” she said with a smile. “Then I get to travel and go to other schools. It’s really important to me that I get to talk to other students. The goal is not to get to the point I want to get to, and quit.”
“Marley Dias Gets it Done: And So Can You!” is published by Scholastic Press and available at Amazon.com.
Photos by Amanda Valentovic