With her family's contributions, she published her own book with a character that looks like her and established a non-profit to help more kids read.
When Selah Thompson was five years old, she came home from her first day at kindergarten upset. She had discovered that most of her classmates did not know how to read. She knew she had to do something, so she came up with a proposal her parents simply could not turn down. Way back in 2017, she requested that they donate two million books to children in need. Her parents did some research to find out the root cause of the problem and how they could help. Now eight years old, Thompson, with her family's help, created The Empowered Readers Literacy Project, a non-profit that helps families build strong reading rituals to get young children excited about books, CNN reports.
"She said that a lot of her new friends at school didn't know their ABCs," her father, Khalil Thompson, said in an interview with the news outlet. "We used it as a teachable moment to explain that different kids come from different backgrounds." Through their research, her parents discovered the "literacy epidemic" that exists in the United States. According to the nonprofit organization Literacy Inc., they shared, 85% of juveniles in the juvenile prison system were functionally illiterate. Additionally, two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently once they complete fourth grade will actually end up in prison or on welfare.
Khalil Thompson stated, "All these crazy statistics for literacy blew our minds. 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." That was when The Empowered Readers Literacy Project was born. In 2018, over 2,400 children and parents attended the initiative's first event, a march for literacy in Atlanta. "We realized that a lot of people felt this way," the father explained. "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."
The family believes that one of the main issues is that books today lack representation—in children's books, characters of color are uncommon. Mother Nicole Thompson affirmed, "Children are not excited about reading when they do not see themselves on the pages of the book. That is when that representation component really came in for us." Her daughter noticed this too: none of the books she read had characters like her. Therefore, she began developing her own series, "Penelope the Pirate Princess." The main character looks like her and loves learning about outer space and science just like she does.
After developing the character for nearly two years and finding the resources to publish her series, Thompson became a children's book author in November 2019 when Penelope the Pirate Princess was published. The eight-year-old's book donation initiative has donated 8,000 books so far and her own series 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," her father said. "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."
Unfortunately, when the pandemic first hit, The Empowered Readers Literacy Project's distributions were deeply affected. Their school outreach had come to a complete halt. However, Khalil Thompson came across a COVID-19 children's book contest organized by Emory University, and the whole family came together to help create a sequel to Thompson's original story. Her parents managed to expedite the copyright process and on December 15, Penelope the Pirate Princess: A Bad Case of Glitter Spot Dots will be published. The inspiration behind the sequel? "Covid is like glitter," the young author explained. "It spreads everywhere, and it doesn't stop." Thomspon and her younger sister Syrai worked together to pen the new story using the concept of "glitter spot dots."
Now, The Empowered Readers Literacy Project is hosting a Diverse Holiday Book Drive. Since November, the family has already collected at least 670 books. Just in time for Christmas, they hope to donate 1,000 books to the organizations Cool Girls Inc. and Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. "People are really understanding the power of the message of diversity and how important it is for all of our kids to see," Nicole Thompson said. "We are just trying to do our little part to heal a big wound that our country has."