Ainara Alleyne loves digging into a good book with strong, relatable characters. But whenever the 11-year-old from Stoney Creek visited her school library, she'd never see anyone in a book who looked like her.
That's why she started Ainara's Bookshelf — an Instagram account that highlights books whose main characters are Black and people of colour.
"I would never be able to see a Black girl doing something really cool, being an astronaut or something like that. And the only time I would ever see Black people in books in the library would be Black History Month, and it would all be about slavery … or hurtful stereotypes," she said.
"I wanted kids to actually be able to see themselves in books and believe that they can do amazing things too."
On her Instagram account, Ainara posts reviews, recommendations, and interviews with authors in the effort to share diverse stories with people.
She was presented a "Women Who Rock Award" in October that recognizes Black women and girls for their leadership.
"This young woman is already on her way to changing the world one book review at a time," says a media release.
Anne Miller, who has known Ainara since she was a toddler and nominated her for the award, is proud of her.
"She just has an exuberance about her," Miller said, noting Ainara's bright personality, contagious smile and curious soul.
"I thought that she could be a beacon for young, Black kids in Hamilton," she said. "I thought what she was doing could highlight what the possibilities are out there just by trying to do the best you can in life."
The Grade 6 student says it makes her happy to receive messages saying someone bought a book on her good word alone, or from teachers who have added the stories to their classrooms.
She also does readings of children's books, and parents will reach out to say they watched with their kids.
"It means so much to me, and it's so important to me because it means I'm making a difference," she said. "Even though it may be a little bit, it's still a difference and it's still really important."
While picking a favourite book overall is near impossible for her, one of the latest stories she read and highly recommends is Something to Say by Lisa Moore Ramée.
Ainara says she has her differences from the character, but feels a bond with her and a common interest in "sharing a message, and doing that even if it's scary."
She's interviewed Ramée, as well as Sharifa Anozie, author of It's In You: A Big Book for Dreamers, and J. Christin Fields, author of Can You Smell My Socks?
An interview with Janae Marks, who wrote From the Desk of Zoe Washington, is next on the schedule.
Her dad Shani — who is "the best dad in the world" — contributes behind-the-scenes and helps Ainara edit videos. After posting her first video on his personal account, Ainara says her dad encouraged her to follow her heart and go forward with Ainara's bookshelf.
The father and daughter duo also have a passion for cosplay. Ainara finds inspiration in her favourite comic book character, Moon Girl, who is a super hero in Marvel comic books.
"They made her the smartest person in the universe," she said. "That's so crazy because she's a Black girl and she's my age...she's like me. And it makes me believe that I can grow up and be something great. I can grow up and be super smart like her. And I think that's what these books do for other kids too."
Miller said Ainara has always been leading from a young age and coming up with new ideas.
She is currently working on a project called Diverse Readers, Future Leaders, to help provide kids in low income households with books. Kids will fill out forms about their likes and dislikes, and Ainara will connect them with donated books in those areas.
"It's hard getting into reading if you're reading the wrong books or only get leftover or general books," she said. Her own love for reading, she said, only expanded from graphic novels after reading Percy Jackson & the Olympians.
"These books will be for them, from me."
Ainara says she will collect funds and book donations, and has a book distribution partner that will allow her to buy books at minimal cost. She hopes to reach out to publishers and community youth groups.
She's also working on writing two children's books herself.
Her main message, she said, is to show kids can grow up to do great things, "even if they don't see it."
"I just want them to know that they are not just the stereotypes that some people make them. And that you are way more than what you look. You are way more than the colour of your skin, and you are worth so much."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.