As a kid, Kaya Thomas enjoyed reading. “No matter how old I was, what I was going through, how I felt in any moment, a book was always a means of escape” she wrote in a blog post in 2015. “A way to dive into a new world and become a new character.”
As a self-professed “nerdy black girl in high school,” Thomas’ love of books, and the escapism they afforded, only grew. She’d read three or four a week, seeking solace in their pages when she “felt very different than most of my peers.”
Something changed in those high school years, though. As a mature reader, she began to pay more attention to how the characters in her favorite books were described ― namely, how they were meant to look. “When I was a teenager I began to realize that a lot of the books I read didn’t have characters that looked like me,” she’s since admitted. “Realizing that made me feel invisible.”
So as a student at Dartmouth College, Thomas decided to do something about her sense of invisibility. Not only did she search the internet, compiling her own list of books written by authors of color that put characters of color in primary storylines, she learned to code so that she could share her database with other young readers. After taking part in a Black Girls Code hackathon, and learning the ins and outs of iOs during an internship, Thomas devised an iPhone app that functioned as a directory of 300 books showcasing characters of color.
“Young people should be able to see themselves represented in literature, so they know that their stories are important and that there are authors who […] celebrate their background and show the real lives of people like them,” Thomas wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. She cited books like Nalo Hopkinson’s The Chaos and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus as influential titles in her own life.
“When young people don’t see themselves represented positively in books, TV, movies and other forms of media, that erasure really harms self-image and how you perceive yourself as you grow up,” she added.
Thomas’ app ― We Read Too ― launched in 2014 and has since grown to include over 600 relevant books. It’s also amassed over 15,000 iPhone users, who’ve downloaded the free app and suggested 1,600 other titles be added to the database. And Thomas wants to meet their demands.
Her skills as an iOS developer have grown throughout the course of her various internships and engagement with online development communities. She recently launched an Indiegogo campaign with the hopes of updating her app, quickly surpassing her goal of raising $10,000. Now with a stretch goal of $25,000, she has a few more objectives in mind: hire someone to review the books users suggest and grow the database to include 1,000 titles, create an Android version of We Read Too and initiate a UI redesign, and create a website version of her directory.
“My goal for We Read Too is for it to be the primary directory that contains thousands of works by authors of color of various genres,” Thomas explained. “I want to celebrate these authors and for them to always have a place where their work is celebrated and showcased. “
Thomas describes the response to her app as overwhelmingly positive. She’s seen downloads from all over the world, with parents, educators and students praising the database in reviews.
“I was overwhelmed with joy,” Thomas wrote online. “I knew that if my app had even helped one person feel represented and show them that their stories are being told too, I had done the right thing. This is why technology needs a diverse set of developers making software. We all have stories to tell and we all have communities we love, let’s make technology for us and for those communities.”
As a rising developer, Thomas recognizes the essential role art and culture play in tech communities. Books and music, she says, were just as important to her experience as science and math. Because of that, she seems to favor the STEAM acronym over its shortened cousin.
“I think a lot of folks don’t realize that STEM needs the creativity and mindset that comes from the artistic community,” she concluded. “The two fields are linked and one should not get more support over the other.”