"I want this book drive to teach other kids that they can do whatever they want to do," Marley tells PEOPLE
What were you doing when you were in the sixth grade?
Probably not starting a social movement like 11-year-old Marley Emerson Dias from West Orange, New Jersey.
The Thomas A. Edison Middle School student began her campaign – called #1000BlackGirlBooks – after growing tired of reading YA books featuring “white boys and their dogs,” as the main characters, she says.
“When you are reading about a book, you focus on the main character, of course,” Marley tells PEOPLE. “When you have something in common with them and connect with them, you remember the lessons they learned and then you can apply them to your life. So you can live the best life you can.”
The wise pre-teen adds, “I became frustrated when my teacher kept assigning books with characters I couldn’t relate to, so I decided to do something about it.”
With the help of her mother, GrassROOTS Community Foundation co-founder Janice Johnson Dias, and two friends, Briana and Amina, Marley came up with the idea to start a book-drive featuring characters similar to her that she could look up to – “strong, black girls!” she says.
The middle schooler’s goal is to collect 1,000 books, all with relatable lead females. Some of the books will be brought to Saint Mary Parish, Jamaica – Johnson Dias’ hometown – and the rest will be given to New Jersey’s St. Cloud Elementary School, where Marley first began noticing a lack in diverse children’s literature.
Marley, who aspires to be a lifestyle magazine editor when she grows up, says she hopes her initiative will encourage other kids to take action in their own communities.
“I want this book drive to teach other kids that they can do whatever they want to do,” she says enthusiastically. “Anyone can change the world however they want for the better! This book drive is supposed to inspire bigger change.”
Marley’s mother says her daughter inspires her “every single day.”
“The world we live in is being changed by young people coming together,” Johnson Dias tells PEOPLE. “Marley is a change agent in her community, and that’s truly humbled me as a parent.”
The proud mom says her daughter’s mission touches on a subject that many people recognize as a problem, but one that has not been talked about enough.
“This movement is obviously very personal to Marley, but it also highlights the need for diversity in literature,” she says. “As a nation, we want to improve that because diversity will allow students to feel connected and allow positive impact on their communities.”
For any young women looking to read a book with an inspiring black female main character, Marley recommends Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson – “I absolutely love this story!”
The author has expressed her appreciation and approval for Marley’s mission.
“So many people don’t realize what it’s like to spend year after year not seeing reflections of yourself in literature and how damaging it is to one’s self-esteem,” Woodson tells PEOPLE. “#1000BlackGirlBooks shows the world that these books exist and that readers are hungry for them.”
So far, #1000BlackGirlBooks has collected 900 books – for more information on how to donate visit www.grassrootscommunityfoundation.org. Marley will be collecting books until Feb. 11.