I’ve been hearing pronouncements and dire warnings about printed books and literacy itself dying out for–decades? Most of my life? A really long time. I was going through old books recently and found an ad from an advocacy group at the back of one from the early 80s warning that by the year 2000, it was estimated that only 20% of adults would be able to read. (Commas and apostrophes may be under threat, but whoever came up with that dark future plainly underestimated the popularity of computers and mobile phones.)
We have a variety of new and newly popular means of reading and listening to books, but the form isn’t going anywhere. People haven’t ceased reading and writing books; there are more than ever. While this has produced some markedly disappointing trends (*cough* Fifty Shades *cough*), it has been a joy to watch people take advantage of these new formats to find books that speak to their personal experience so much more easily, and the number of independent presses and self-published works that have taken off–particularly in YA and children’s literature.
One such effort I came across recently is a new publishing venture called Queen Girls, a currently small outfit that produces children’s books featuring real-life women who were heroes of their time. Their first book is Bessie, Queen of the Sky, about Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African- and Native-American descent to earn a pilot’s license, in 1921.
The kickstarter campaign for this first book is proving wildly successful, and there are plans for further titles in the future. The women running the imprint are focused not only on telling women’s stories, but on the achievements of women from a variety of backgrounds–stories that still aren’t being told as often as they should, because they come from other cultures, other classes, or just periods of the past that aren’t in fashion, so to speak, and are thus neglected. The illustrations are also lovely, which is a definite plus for attracting younger readers.
The books are designed for reading ages 4 to 8, and are available in e-format in English and in Spanish. The publisher is also partnering with literacy organizations here in the U.S. and internationally: For every book that is sold, another copy will be donated, in the interest of encouraging literacy and empowering girls. A limited edition hardback copy of Bessie, Queen of the Sky is available here, for those who prefer paper books. I find the book wholly charming, and look forward to seeing more titles in the series.
Marley Dias is one of my heroes. Her story started spreading over the Internet at the beginning of this year, when she founded the #1000blackgirlbooks movement. I loved books every bit this much when I was eleven; I had approximately 0% of her social awareness, discipline, or self-confidence. Over twenty-five years later, I have some of her social awareness and a tiny bit of her discipline, maybe a little more self-confidence than I started with, but I’m still lagging waaay behind. I still 100% hate being in front of a camera. Forget just being a role model for kids; a lot of grown-ups could learn a thing or two from her.
In addition to her ongoing book campaign,–she has hit her target, but why quit when you’re ahead?–and BAM, a related project/website she runs with her friends Briana and Amina, the magazine Elle recently invited her to edit a special edition ‘zine called Marley Mag. (I’m not entirely sure how a ‘zine is different from a magazine; is this a new thing, or just shorthand for the same thing we pick up next to the grocery-store check-out?) She is self-possessed when meeting the likes of Oprah and Ellen, and not a little photogenic; that she finds time to do all this and still attend school on a regular basis–and still read books–amazes me. I get a little tired just thinking about how much energy that must take.
I’d put money on her becoming the Lin-Manuel Miranda or Misty Copeland of the publishing world by the time she’s 30 20, at the rate she’s going.
I might have mentioned a time or twenty that I’m an avid reader; I also work in the publishing industry, and am a writer myself. I hear and read a great deal about how literacy is dying, people aren’t learning handwriting any more, everyone’s reading e-books and computers instead of printed books, and thus not absorbing as much of what they read. Insofar as that is true–and I agree that it is, at least in part, although all the dire warnings from the 1980s that by the year 2000 only a fraction of the population might be able to read proved wildly overstated, and I suspect that the predictions of the extinction of the printed page will prove similarly exaggerated–it is on us to keep that from happening. There are severe problems with the educational system, to be sure, and they do need fixing, but no one is going to enjoy reading if they only do it in the schoolroom and then in the workplace. Bemoaning the loss of literacy and writing skills makes no sense when as a nation we take such brief notice of people like Marley and other kids with similar, if less revolutionary, aims, such as Blake Ansari, Tyler Fugett, Evan Feldberg-Bannatyne, and Kirstin Shipp. I love that someone this young, with a bit of star quality and a ton of ambition, has made the celebration of reading and a demand for greater diversity in literature her mission in life. This is how we can save our literary culture. More power to her, and all those who have decided to emulate her.