Part of navigating childhood means searching for role models of all kinds, whether they’re in the music industry, on YouTube, or at the movies. Books, of course, are the classic example, but it can be a challenge to find stories in public and school libraries featuring diverse characters and experiences. Kaya Thomas, who’s currently a senior at Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH, found herself in this exact position when she was growing up on Staten Island in New York City.
“I loved books as a kid—and still do—and I visited the library after school nearly every day,” she explains. Thomas devoured Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and Eoin Colfer’s “Artemis Fowl” series, though neither one can claim diverse characters as heroes. But while that gap may have frustrated her at the St. George branch of the New York Public Library and, later, as a high schooler in New Rochelle, NY, the path to a smart solution was on the horizon: coding. Thomas was introduced to the field early in her college career and later became proficient while at a summer internship at a publishing company. Armed with this new skill, she addressed the dearth of diverse book choices by creating an app called We Read Too.
Launched in August 2014, the free iOS app allows users to tap into hundreds of books for kids in elementary through high school starring characters of color written by authors of color. Selections can be viewed by title, author, or genre; Additional books can be suggested. But the best part? That reading material is front and center, at the touch of a screen, relieving kids and teens of Thomas’s experience of having to go look for it in sections of the library labeled “urban,” “ethnic,” or worse, “other.”
So far, 15,000 people have downloaded Thomas’s app—and kids aren’t the only fans. Parents, librarians, and educators have flocked to it, happy in the fact that these books are smartly compiled in one place. The next steps for Thomas include growing the number of titles in the directory and creating an Android version of the app. To that end, she’s started an Indiegogo campaign to defray the cost of a developer and has raised $15,000 to date. If funds allow, she hopes to launch an accompanying website, add more features to the iPhone version, and include adult titles among the book choices.
The app has had wide success, with Thomas reporting excellent feedback from parents, educators, students, and librarians. Improvements are always a part of app development, though, and We Read Too is no different. “I’ve recently been asked for more defined age groups for the titles and I’m working on re-categorizing the directory,” she states. Her hard work has been recognized with several positive reviews. One educator noted how difficult is to find resources for books about children of color—even online—and lamented the need to fix this problem. Thankfully, Thomas’s app is well on the way.
As she wraps up her last year of college, Thomas is now turning her sights to her post-graduation plans. “I’ll be moving to California to work as a software engineer at Slack,” she says. More innovation is sure to flow from Thomas, only now from the West Coast.
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