Michelle Obama honors Kaya Thomas '17

by Hannah Hye Min Chung | 4/5/15 7:10pm

When she was young, Kaya Thomas ’17, creator of the iPhone application “We Read Too,” said she was thrilled when she first discovered a book with another black girl on its cover. When she began to read the book, however, she said that she was heartbroken to discover the story was about a girl who got pregnant, became a stripper and dropped out of school.

Thomas said the difficulty in finding books with characters with whom she connected led her to develop the iPhone application “We Read Too” last summer, which currently has over 2,000 users. The application features literary works written by authors of color with characters of color that do not conform to racial stereotypes, she said. First Lady Michelle Obama honored Thomas for her work during the “Black Girls Rock Award Show,” which aired on the BET Network last night.

Thomas said that she struggled to find books with characters who were both similar to her in appearance and did not fall into racialized tropes. The books that she did find had young black characters as juvenile delinquents, high school drop-outs or drug abusers.

“I just could not relate to that because I was thinking, ‘I’m a nerd’ and that was not my life story,” Thomas said. “So I was wondering why there aren’t books with characters like young black girls who love to read.”

Thomas said she began reading when she was two years old and has been an ardent reader ever since. She noted that her parents, emphasizing the importance of education, constantly bought books for her.

Her difficulty to find books with relatable protagonists persisted until her teenage years. When Thomas was in high school, with better access to the internet and mastery of electronic devices, she said she was able to find books online that featured people of color.

“It was uplifting to know that they are there, but then I thought ‘OK, how do I give people access to them?’” she said.

When she arrived at Dartmouth, she said that she discovered documentaries and blogs about technology and computer coding and how people of color were using these skill sets to enact social change. Thomas said that she realized then that she could make her idea of creating an accessible book list featuring people of color a reality through coding.

Thomas began work on an application that would allow the public to access information on literary works by and for people of color while working as an intern at Time, Inc. last summer.

“I would go to work then would come home and work on my app and couldn’t sleep — that’s what I would do,” she said. “I just wanted this app to be out there. I had parents who bought all those books for me, but not everyone does.”

After two months of consulting online resources and using skills she acquired from introductory computer science classes, she was able to finish creating the app.

“We Read Too” provides two lists of books, one for children and one for young adults. The lists are organized in alphabetical order with information about each book, brief descriptions and a link to the Amazon page where one can purchase the book. Users can also search by title or author.

Amarachi Ihionu ’17 said this application could be a game-changer for children of color. She noted that currently, children and young adults find it difficult to discover books with characters that they look up to and who look like them. She said that her favorite part of the application is the ability for users to add their own books to the lists.

Brendan Murphy ’14 Th’15 said that the “We Read Too” app was helpful in selecting books to buy as a gift for his girlfriend’s younger sibling. He added that the app has a great idea behind it that was well-implemented.

During the development process, Thomas said an obstacle was realizing that she could not include all the features she envisioned for the initial version and needed to scale down for her first release.

“All those great ideas you have, you can build upon later,” she said.

Thomas said that she wants to develop an Android version and add more genres such as adult fiction and poetry. She also hopes to further expand the existing application by potentially adding features such as a wish list, a user space and access to library catalogs, as well as make content available inside the app.

Thomas added that computer science and technology are more accessible than they are often perceived to be and said she encourages those with great ideas to take initiative.

“Even if you take two intro courses, you can still bring ideas to life,” Thomas said.