Black Characters Matter Mission: A Family is Helping School Libraries Increase Diverse Representation for Young Readers

The inspiring story of a family’s mission to make sure every young reader finds a book on the shelves with main characters who look like them!

black characters matter | books | donation

Words by Melody Cubano

It all began when my daughter Mariah, who was eight at the time, went to the book store with me after Kobe Bryant had passed to pick up his Mamba book.

She noticed a section of books with beautiful covers featuring characters that were Black. She had never seen a display like this before. She asked me: “Mom, why don’t we have books like this at school?” Until that moment, I’d never realized that we didn’t. And thinking back to when I was growing up, I realized I couldn’t remember seeing books with Black or Brown characters, besides the ones they take out on Black History Month or Hispanic Heritage month. So, I couldn’t answer Mariah’s question, and her question became my question. 

That week, when she went back to school and I went back to work (I am a paraeducator at her school), I went into our school library and, low and behold, there were only a few books featuring non-white characters, and all tucked away on shelves. I knew we needed to do something. I’m the mother of six, and I’m always fundraising for football, basketball, things in our community – so I knew I could do something to raise awareness about the importance of diverse representation on our students’ shelves, and raise funds to get books with Black and Brown main characters into our schools’ libraries. 

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s death in May 2020, Mariah suggested selling Black Lives Matter bookmarks to raise money to purchase books with Black and Brown characters to donate to the schools in our community. And that’s how the Black Characters Matter mission came about! It’s a branch of my girls’ group called Love You First, which guides and teaches girls in grades 3-8 about how to set boundaries, communicate, lead, love and listen to themselves first so they can be leaders in the community. Through Love You First, Mariah, my five-year-old son Tyshawn, a teacher at their school named Carrie Clarke and I decided to set up a GoFundMe page to collect contributions for books with Black and Brown characters. We started going around in our community and engaging with folks on social media to achieve our goal; a goal which began as filling one library with 100 books has now become our mission to fill as many as we can!

Over this summer, we attended protests and marched as a family, ran a booth at protests and the kids spoke to the crowd. Mariah even recited a poem she wrote, and was invited to speak at 100 Women of Color. We’ve been featured in the Hartford Courant, on NBC News and Fox 61.

With all of that, the kids have been able to raise over $14,000 and received 600 books in donations, which is amazing! And our mission continues. Each book costs about $12.00 on average, so what we’ve raised so far will get us to around 1000 books. That would mean being able to donate 100 books to 10 school libraries, which is incredible, but we can’t stop there! Reading is so important, and having access to books that represent the child reading it is just as important! We are looking for sponsors that can commit to contributing on a quarterly or annual basis so that we can keep our momentum up, and use it to make sure books with diverse Black and Brown characters continue to grace the displays of the school libraries and community organizations.

black characters matter | books | donation
Image: Melody Cubano

In November 2020, we gave our first book donations to our school. We were interviewed again by NBC News and the journalist asked me, “How do you feel about being a part of history, that you’re making a difference in these libraries?” – and I didn’t know how to answer. I told her I haven’t thought of it like that because, to me, it’s still my present day. I’ve thought about that question in the time since, because I don’t want our work to be just something that happened, just a part of history; I see it as a movement, a shift in a direction towards acceptance and representation of all. 

What’s ahead this week for the kids? Today, January 18th, they are going to be a part of the New Britain Town Hall Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration! And later this week, on Wednesday the 20th, they are receiving the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Service Award for their mission from the New Britain Museum of Arts. It’s a free virtual event occurring at 7:15 ET, and you can register here to get the link and celebrate along with the kids!

Learn more about Mariah, Ty and their mom Melody at the
Riah’s Way Instagram, where the family posts about progress in the Black Characters Matter mission. You can also be a part of the Black Characters Matter mission by contributing to the official GoFundMe fundraiser, or by purchasing books with Black and Brown characters that will be donated to schools via the Amazon Wishlist!

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