Marley Dias, 13, was enjoying pancakes with her mom at a diner near their New Jersey home when her mom posed a question.
"If you could change one thing, what would it be?"
It's the sort of moment that might have passed without incident — barely a blip. Instead, it triggered a series of events that forever changed Marley's world (and ours) for the better — turning Marley into a budding social activist and now a published author.
But back to the pancakes for a moment. At the time, Marley had just finished reading Jacqueline Woodson's "Brown Girl Dreaming," a birthday gift from her aunt that Marley credits with introducing her to a whole new world.
"A world where modern black girls were the main characters — not invisible, not just the sidekick," Marley writes in her new book, "Marley Dias Gets It Done (And So Can You!). "A world where black girls were free to be complicated, honest, human; to have adventures and emotions unique just to them. A world where black girls' stories mattered."
She told her mom, in response to that what-would-you-change question, that she wanted more kids to read books with black girls as the main characters.
"That definitely was not the world I was experiencing in real life in then-fifth grade," Marley writes. "In my class — in all fifth-grade classes — we were required to read 'classics,' books like 'Shiloh,' which is about a white boy and the dog he rescues. And 'Old Yeller,' which is about a white boy and the dog that rescues him. And 'Where the Red Fern Grows,' which is about a white boy and the two dogs he trains."
So she launched #1000BlackGirlBooks, a social media campaign to collect and distribute 1,000 books with black girl protagonists that she would then donate to libraries around the country.
I wrote about her campaign last spring, and she had collected 9,500 books by then. She made it onto Forbes 30 Under 30 list in December. She also picked up a Smithsonian Magazine's American Ingenuity Award that month.
Her book, which is delightful, hits shelves January 30. On February 1, she comes to Chicago for two events. First, a luncheon and book chat at the Union League Club, where I'll be interviewing her. Second, an evening discussion at Evanston Township High School, sponsored by Family Action Network, where she'll be interviewed by 13-year-old Taryn Robinson, an Evanston eighth-grader.
"I'm really excited, and I've had fun preparing," Taryn told me. "I have three papers full of questions, so I might have to cross some off."
Taryn's dad, Keith Robinson, is an associate principal for educational services at ETHS. When organizers were looking for a young person to chat with Marley onstage Thursday, Taryn raised her hand.
"I'm going to ask her what advice she would give to kids who want to do something to change the world and to parents who have kids that want to do something to change the world," Taryn said. "She said any idea that you put your mind to, you can make happen, so I'm definitely going to listen to that."
In "Marley Dias Gets It Done," Marley describes herself as a TBN: Total book nerd. Taryn, too, loves to read. "All American Boys," by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, and "I Am Malala," by Malala Yousafzai, are two of her recent favorites.
"I really enjoy books more when I can connect to the characters and what they're doing," Taryn said.
When I interviewed Marley, she told me she wants to create "mirrors and windows" for kids all over the world.
"When I say mirrors," she said, "I mean I want these stories to be reflected for the black girls who are reading them, so they can see themselves and identify themselves and learn about their history. When I say windows, I mean open up to people who are different, to understand and to see and grow from those things we don't understand."