When Selah Thompson came home from her first day of kindergarten in 2017, she was sad that a portion of her classmates did not know how to read. She immediately knew she needed to do something.
“She said that a lot of her new friends at school didn’t know their ABCs,” Selah’s father, Khalil Thompson, told CNN. “We used it as a teachable moment to explain that different kids come from different backgrounds.”
This is when Selah, then 5 years old, challenged her father and mother, Nicole Thompson, with a proposal they could not turn down. She requested that they give away 2 million books to children.
So her parents began to do some research to find out the root of the problem and the ways they could best help.
They soon discovered the literacy epidemic that exists here in America as they shared statistics found from the nonprofit organization Literacy Inc. that said 85% of juveniles in the juvenile prison system were functionally illiterate and that two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare.
“All these crazy statistics for literacy blew our minds,” said Khalil Thompson. “The statistics said some prisons forecast the number of prison cells they are going to build in the future based off of third grade reading test scores.”
The birth of a literacy project
Selah, now 8 years old, and her family created The Empowered Readers Literacy Project, a non-profit aimed at helping families build strong reading rituals and getting kids excited about books.
In 2018, more than 2,400 children and parents attended the project’s first event, a march for literacy in Atlanta.
“We realized that a lot of people felt this way,” said Khalil Thompson. “Illiteracy was the origin point of so many problems and if we could just focus on fixing that, then we could have a real impact.”
They defined the main issue was that very little representation of characters of color are in children’s books.
“Children are not excited about reading when they do not see themselves on the pages of the book,” Nicole Thompson told CNN. “That is when that representation component really came in for us.”
A need for diverse representation in children books
Selah had been noticing that hardly any characters in the stories she was reading looked like her and had started developing “Penelope the Pirate Princess,” where the main character looked like her and shared her passion for learning about outer space and science.
Most parents would not believe that a young child was serious about publishing a book, but Selah persisted and her parents began to realize the impact a story like this would have on other children across the world.
After a nearly two-year process of developing the idea and finding the resources to put it into action, Selah became a children’s book author in November 2019 when “Penelope the Pirate Princess” was published.
The Empowered Readers Literacy Project has donated at least 8,000 books to children since 2018 and Selah’s book has been added to the distributions.
“There is so much inspiration behind the fact that this is a child that wrote this story and came up with this,” said Khalil Thompson. “You (children) can reclaim your story, do your own story and do all the things that adults can do at a young age and you should really know that you have power in your voice and ideas.”
Pandemic stimulates creative sequel
When Covid-19 hit, most of the school outreach and book readings that were bringing Selah’s story to life were put on hold and her parents wondered what the future of their project would be. When Khalil Thompson came across a Covid-19 children’s book contest held by Emory University, he knew that the whole family would have to help to create a sequel to Selah’s original story.
“Covid is like glitter,” Selah told CNN. “It spreads everywhere, and it doesn’t stop.”
Using the concept of “glitter spot dots,” Selah and her younger sister, Syrai, worked together to pen the story.
“My daddy doesn’t like glitter,” Syrai told CNN. “It is kind of funny to me and my sister.”
Her parents were able to expedite the copyright process, having already experienced it with the first book. “Penelope the Pirate Princess: A Bad Case of Glitter Spot Dots” will be published on December 15.
The Empowered Readers Literacy Project is hosting a Diverse Holiday Book Drive that has already collected at least 670 books since November. Their goal is to donate 1,000 books to the organizations Cool Girls Inc. and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta in time for Christmas.
“People are really understanding the power of the message of diversity and how important it is for all of our kids to see,” said Nicole Thompson. “We are just trying to do our little part to heal a big wound that our country has.”