Life with Gracie: Reading 1,000 books is just a start for this 5-year-old Georgia girl

You’ve heard of Daliyah Arana. Last week, I got the chance to meet her, her mom and dad and two siblings at the Southeast Atlanta Library.

And if you’ve heard of the 5-year-old, that last bit of information will come as little surprise.

Libraries are Daliyah’s favorite place to be in the world. The kid loves books and, most especially, reading them.

It was a love affair born, according to her mother, soon after Daliyah parted the womb and Haleema Arana began reading to her because that’s what you did in the Aranas’ Gainesville home. Read. At least 15 minutes a day. Daliyah’s siblings, 12-year-old Diego and 10-year-old Dalilah, are both avid readers.

We moms cheer when our children utter their first words, take their first steps. We go slap crazy when they score a touchdown or home run. I flipped the way I imagine Haleema did when I realized my daughters could read.

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Even at age 4, Daliyah understood how books opened not just your heart but this great big world we live in.

We can thank her parents Haleema and Miguel Arana for that.

Daliyah was just 18 months old when her mother realized she could actually read. “Ann’s Big Muffin.” “Fat Cat.” “Daddy and Me.” You name it. Daliyah could read it.

When she first took a book from her mother’s hands and proclaimed she could read it on her own, Haleema Arana said, “I thought she’d memorized the words.”

Haleema decided to download a sight word app on her iPad and discovered her little girl actually knew the words. A lot of words.

“I got so excited,” Arana said. “The more words she learned, the more she wanted to learn. She went from two- and three-letter words to four and five letters and on and on it went.”

Until finally, in June 2016, little Daliyah had read 1,000 books.

That wasn’t enough, though, for Daliyah.

She was visiting the library near her home in Gainesville one day when she sashayed up to the librarian.

“Excuse me, ma’am, can I be a librarian for a day?” Daliyah asked.

The librarian informed her that she needed a library card. Of course, Daliyah had a library card. That answer didn’t suffice. Every visit, Daliyah posed the same question. Could she be librarian for the day?

Seeing she wasn’t going to drop her request, Haleema reached out to Joia Ellis-Dinkins, the branch manager here, last December.

Could Daliyah shadow her for a few hours one day?

Ellis-Dinkins had never gotten such a request before, but she thought it was a great idea.

A couple of weeks later, Daliyah arrived ready to work. She checked out books. She put books on the shelves. She managed the front counter.

“It was very exciting because we actually had a lot of children in the branch that day,” Ellis-Dinkins said. “She did a wonderful job.”

The experience got Haleema to thinking.

“If she had that much fun at this little branch, what would it be like if she had the chance to go to the Library of Congress, the largest in the world?” Haleema asked. 

She emailed Carla Hayden, noting Daliyah’s accomplishments and including links to YouTube videos of the then-4-year-old reading. Hayden, the 14th Librarian of Congress, responded immediately and invited Daliyah to Washington, D.C.

On Jan. 6, the family boarded a plane to the U.S. capital and after touring the city met Hayden on Jan. 10, her first day at work.

For three hours, Daliyah shadowed Hayden. She toured the Jefferson building, inspected the children’s library section and met the librarians. When one of them asked what she would do to make the section more child-friendly, Daliyah had a ready answer.

Install dry erase boards in the hallways leading to the children’s library, she told her.

What was her impression of the Library of Congress?

“I give it 350 thumbs up,” Daliyah said, still sporting the Library of Congress pen she chose from the gift shop. “It’s funner than jumping into the pool.”

Daliyah’s visit made national news. By the time she returned home two days later, her parents’ email overflowed with media and other requests.

When I met her early this month, she’d spent the morning as junior librarian of the day at the state Capitol, where she helped give out awards for best librarians in the state and best new author. By then, she’d already filmed a Lifetime television documentary titled “Fempire Diaries” about strong women making a positive impact on the world. She’s been featured on ABC, NBC, “CBS Morning News” and all four of the Hispanic news channels, including Univision and Fusion.

Next month, she’s scheduled to appear on the “Steve Harvey” talk show on Fox.

All this for reading 1,000 books before kindergarten, but rest assured Daliyah is nowhere near finished. She surpassed the 1,000-book mark months ago.

“I read maybe two books a day, sometimes more,” she said. “It helps me learn new words and I get to see a lot of adventures. I can even read 10 books a day. I never get tired of reading.”

And I never heard sweeter words from a little girl’s lips.

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