Kaya Thomas Brings Authors of Color to Young People With Her We Read Too App
In 2016, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center reported that only 12% of children’s books they received were written or illustrated by people of color, and in the same study, only 21% of the books received included main characters who were people of color. These statistics are part of a larger trend, where the publishing industry is dominated by white authors as well as white characters.
To combat these looming problems in the literary world, Dartmouth College senior Kaya Thomas created a free iOS app called We Read Too, a mobile database with hundreds of books written by authors of color that include people of color as main characters. Kaya first became aware of the discrepancies in books when she was in high school and noticed that she couldn't relate to the characters in the books she was reading because they didn't look like her or have similar experiences as her. At the time, she told friends that she wished there was an easy resource for people of color like her to find books with characters like them. It wasn't until 2014 that the then-college freshman was first introduced to coding and realized that she could use it as a tool to fix this problem. "It made me feel powerful to realize that I had the ability to create things rather than just consuming things," she tells Teen Vogue.
A summer internship at Time Inc. gave Kaya the opportunity to teach herself iOS development, and soon, We Read Too was born. The app, which features books about people of color written by authors of color, is largely for young people ranging from elementary school through high school and covering children and young adult genres.
Since its launch in August 2014, Kaya's side project has grown to include over 600 carefully selected titles and has received over 15,000 user downloads. SHe says her current goal is to bring the number of books up to 1,000 by the end of 2017. Additionally, the app's following doesn't just includes kids or young adults; Kaya says many parents, librarians, and educators are also fans of We Read Too because they can find books to either read to their children or give to other kids. That said, Kaya aims for the app to be for everyone. "It's for those of who want young people of color to be exposed to books where they seem themselves reflected in the characters and the authors," she explains. "But it's also for people who want to be exposed to different cultures than their own. We Read Too features books by black, Native American, Asian, and Latino authors. I think fiction especially helps you get a better understanding of another person's story, and that helps you build empathy."
Moreover, Kaya recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to help pay for a developer (who she says is a woman of color) to create the Android version of the app. She also wants to redesign the app based on user feedback and hire someone to help her with vet suggestions more regularly. Since she passed her initial goal of $10,000, she says any funds earned from her stretch goals of $15,000 and $25,000 will go toward developing a website for the app and adding adult fiction titles, respectively.
Success aside, Kaya says she has faced challenges during her tech career and in building her app, especially as a young black woman in tech. "For me and for a lot of other people who are part of some underrepresented identity in the tech industry, one of the things that's hard is that if you don't know anyone in the tech industry or you've never been exposed to it at all, it's incredibly challenging to get access to resources or people who work at tech companies," she notes. "The main way I dealt with it was being active on social media, specifically Twitter. I was able to interact and meet with other women of color who were in tech. Having that online community has been essential to my journey."
For young women who are interested in tech, she says it's easy to get involved by going to websites like Code.org to learn more about the field or joining chapters of organizations like Girls Who Code or Black Girls Code to find a community of peers with the same interests. For women who may not have access to these groups, Kaya says to join the conversation on social media and reach out to other women, including her, to find inspiration and help. "Don't be afraid to reach out to people," she says. "Don't let your age or anything else keep you from creating a technological tool that can be part of a solution."
Additionally, given her work on We Read Too, Kaya also has advice for young people looking to create a more inclusive media environment. "Support your local library, and if you know of diverse books, tell your local librarian about them," she says. "Go to your school and tell your English teacher about a diverse book to add to the curriculum. Write a book report on one of these books. Expose these books to people who have the power to teach them to the next generation."
As for what Kaya will be doing upon her graduation from Dartmouth this spring, she'll be moving out to San Francisco to become a software engineer for tech giant Slack. However, she'll still be working on We Read Too as her main side project, and she wants it to be the premier resource for books written about and by people of color. "A big part of the mission is to celebrate and support authors of color," she says. "It's not easy being an author of color in the publishing industry or just in general and to have your work highlighted and supported. I want to lift up their work."