A lot can happen in two years time, but when you are Marley Dias — founder and author of the social media campaign #1000BlackGirlBooks — somehow that’s on a whole different scale.
The last time we talked to Dias, the West Orange, New Jersey, resident was promoting her book, “Marley Dias Gets It Done (And So Can You!).” In the book, she wrote about youth activism, social justice and using social media to make positive changes in communities. Today, the 15-year-old is talking about her new Netflix project, “Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices,” a collection of 12 five-minute episodes featuring Black celebrities and artists reading children’s books by Black authors that highlight the Black experience.
Dias serves as host and executive producer of the series, whose books and conversations center on themes of identity, respect, justice and action. Guests include: Chicago native, rapper, actor and writer Common; actor and author Lupita Nyong’o; comedian, actor and author Tiffany Haddish; actor and “Little” executive producer Marsai Martin; singer, actor and poet Jill Scott; actor and activist Kendrick Sampson; actor and author Grace Byers; actor Caleb McLaughlin; TV personality Karamo Brown; ballerina and author Misty Copeland and author Jacqueline Woodson.
The books that will be read are: “ABCs for Girls Like Me” by Melanie Goolsby, “Antiracist Baby” by Ibram X. Kendi, “Brown Boy Joy” by Thomishia Booker, “Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut” by Derrick Barnes, “Firebird” by Copeland, “I Am Enough” by Byers, “I Am Perfectly Designed” by Brown, “I Love My Hair!” by Chicagoan Natasha Tarpley, “Let’s Talk About Race” by Julius Lester, “Pretty Brown Face” by Andrea and Brian Pinkney, “Sulwe” by Nyong’o, “The Day You Begin” by Woodson and “We March” by Shane Evans.
According to Dias, the project will provide families a tool set to start meaningful conversations with kids about difficult topics through short-form, book-based content. Dias said “Bookmarks” can help parents who have children who don’t find reading enjoyable. She hopes that, in this medium, young nonreaders are encouraged to care more about such stories.
“The series came about, not as a direct comeback to the attack on Black people, but really to spark conversation and offer ways for kids and families to talk about their identity,” Dias said. “It’s super important for #1000BlackGirlBooks and now for ‘Bookmarks’ to really provide access through children’s books to encourage families to watch together, to read together, to learn together and to hopefully create movements and create campaigns that can change the world and really shift conversations about Black identities, Black lives and Black people.”
In the five years since the #1000blackgirlbooks campaign began, Dias’ advocacy work to diversify kids’ reading lists has garnered her numerous awards and accolades, including Forbes’ 2018 30 Under 30 list, a 2017 Smithsonian Magazine’s American Ingenuity Award and Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential Teens of 2018. We talked to Dias days after her appearance on the virtual Democratic National Convention stage to talk about “Bookmarks,” hope, and mental health during a pandemic. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: There’s a wide range of celebrity readers for Bookmarks. How did you get the big names?
First, we had a brainstorming session to come up with ideas about books we want to tell and the messages we want to cover. And the four core things that these books cover are identity, respect, justice and action. So we thought about what authors have already published books that really cover and tell these messages, and then who are the people who care right now and have been super outspoken about Black Lives Matter and telling stories. We had lists, and Netflix has very high, powerful people that can join all these groups together.
I think a lot of the people on the show, you can tell through their readings that they’re extremely passionate and they want kids to love these stories just as much as they do.
Q: With all the books out there, was it hard to select this dozen?
It was definitely a difficult process. I think it’s super important that the books have captivating visuals, really important stories and those four core components that we were focused on. A lot of stories don’t hit that note right away. I think the books that have been selected really, really represent Black girls’ experience, Black boys’ experience and Black families’ experience. I think we really hit the nail on the head, and I’m super proud of the collection that has been chosen.
Q: Your message from your own book is about being a force for change, and last week you were a part of the DNC. How was that experience?
I was excited and definitely apprehensive because I wasn’t necessarily sure where I wanted to stand on a political point of view. But me and my parents had an in-depth conversation, and I decided to do it. It’s important to me to show that I stand with and want to see change, and by making this decision, I express my interest in changing the world, and I express my interest in making sure politicians care about the voices of Black girls and girls like me.
I was definitely a bit nervous at first, but people have received it so well, and I felt so much kindness. I got tweeted out by Sen. Cory Booker and my mayor and governor. Seeing people who have been amazed and taken aback at what kids can do has made every decision that I have had to think about doing the DNC and doing this project definitely worth it.
Q: How is the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign going?
We were planning on donating books to Jamaica and Ghana on April 1 this year, but given everything that is happening with COVID-19, we’re still collecting books. We have a lot of people donating, which is super exciting. I think some people forgot that we’re still collecting books, and it makes me super happy that people always remember that the message is still there. And that’s how I started, so I want to make sure we always come back to #1000BlackGirlBooks and the campaign itself.
Q: What was it like to be an executive producer on this new “Bookmarks” project?
I got to see my friend Marsai Martin be an executive producer on the film “Little,” and I saw the world’s reaction to that, so I was super excited. As a kid, we don’t understand how big a field that may be. So to actually be a part of the conception of a project that you’re working on, it was something I pushed for. It’s so awesome to show that we’re really trailblazing as young people and our involvement in moving projects and ideas in media, and to show that we can be involved not only as an actor, but as someone that helps the message and storytelling.
Q: Previous articles have you saying that there’s a lot of negativity out there these days, and not a lot of optimism. Do you feel a bit more hope on the horizon with more young people a part of the conversation these days?
I think there’s a lot more hope on the horizon. I think watching people that look like me be attacked and have a lot of hatred going on can definitely be dogmatic for a lot of people. But I think seeing “Bookmarks” happening and being grateful for places like Netflix for trying to create space for girls like me and authors who are sending me copies of their books and continuing to write stories even when it’s difficult has given people a lot of hope. I think it can be super sad sometimes, definitely scary — you’re not being listened to, you’re not being heard. But I hope we can always look at it from an optimistic point of view and not forget that things can be hard sometimes, but also remember the joy and beauty that come from overcoming by focusing on something else.
Q: Have you received a lot of calls from educators who want to use your books in their curriculum, given more remote learning these days?
I’ve gotten a lot of positive messages from educators. They’re definitely looking for more titles to include in their libraries and to try to take the new school year as an opportunity to be better on social justice matters and making sure that they are intentionally including the stories of Black girls. I have a resource guide, a list of 1,000 books I collected — titles, authors, reading level. I’ve been recommending that to people, and I keep it on all my links on Instagram, Twitter, as a resource to better their library. For “Bookmarks,” we will also have a resource guide. We have a question that we ask in each episode for teachers that watch and the parents that watch with their kids, for those who want to do their best to continue the conversation after every episode.
I want to host an online summit — activists that know about science and technology, politics and representation and art — all of us coming together in one space, which would be so powerful and so exciting. I made all these friends through social media, and I’m always making sure I’m out there to support my peers. And I would love to have teenagers look up to us, who’ve never heard of us, are excited to do something and don’t know where to start — all be together, to work together, to help develop ideas, support one another, to learn from one another about something.
The next thing is a campaign that I do every year on the second week of September called Green Ribbon Week, a week to promote mental health awareness. It’s a way to make sure kids are able to stop and breathe and parents are able to stop talking for a second and listen. It’s really important for me to talk about. There’s a lot of pressures, mental health issues, and as a teenager, things are very complicated and going back to school is a very stressful time for everybody, especially right now. I’d love to push for more mental health awareness because it’s something that affects all of us, no matter who we are.
All “Bookmarks” episodes will be available Sept. 1 on Netflix.
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