Netflix's 'Bookmarks' Aims to Amplify Black Voices "Through the Joy of Reading"

Bookmarks- Publicity still - H 2020
Courtesy of Netflix

Marley Dias, 15, hosts and executive produces the new Netflix series 'Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices.'

Teen activist Marley Dias is teaming up with the streamer for a new series featuring Lupita Nyong’o, Tiffany Haddish and more reading children’s books from Black authors to encourage conversations about empathy, equality, self-love and antiracism.

Marley Dias had just finished speaking at the Democratic National Convention when she had to prepare for the official trailer release of her new Netflix show Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices just hours later.

"It was super fun to go from the DNC and all these new people hearing about what I do to then the Bookmarks trailer coming out 12 hours after that. So it was a whirlwind, but definitely one of the most unforgettable," Dias tells The Hollywood Reporter. 

In her new show, Dias hosts and executive produces a live-action series similar to Reading Rainbow, which features stars and artists reading children’s books from Black authors, generating conversations about empathy, equality, self-love and antiracism. Though this is her first time working with Netflix, the 15-year-old Dias is no stranger to seeking out platforms to advocate for change and better representation.

The teen activist has become a voice for her generation over the years, first generating headlines after launching the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign when she was just 10-years-old after growing frustrated by the lack of representation in children's books. After realizing few books had Black girls or girls of color as their lead characters, Dias launched her campaign to help supply libraries, schools and community organizations with titles that showcase Black female protagonists. Dias originally sought to collect 1,000 books by February 2016 but thus far she has collected over 12,000 books and donated over 8,000. Overall, the campaign sparked a movement across the publishing industry and in schools to promote diversity in children’s literature.

Because of her activism, Dias has been recognized as the youngest person to rank on Forbes' 30 Under 30 List, selected as one of Time Magazine’s 25 Most Influential Teens of 2018, has spoken at the White House’s United State of Women alongside Michelle Obama and Oprah, released Marley Mag, a digital "mini-mag" for ELLE and even published her own novel, Marley Dias Gets It Done: And So Can You! in 2018. Now she's ready to continue leading the charge by teaming up with Netflix for Bookmarks to use the power of literature to help amplify Black voices.

"Netflix reached out and really pitched the project to me. I was immediately excited because I know that [it's] obviously an opportunity to host, but especially to host something that I cared so passionately about," Dias tells THR. "They know that I care about the books that are being told and I recommend some of these books to people all the time. So I have a deep, personal and professional connection to Bookmarks."

The show marks Dias' first time taking on an executive producer role and she credits her friend and actress Marsai Martin for helping pave the way for a younger generation to hold powerful roles behind-the-scenes. Martin pitched the idea for the 2019 film Little at just 10-years-old and eventually took on a producer credit. "I was so excited for her and I knew that was something that I wanted to do too. She definitely paved the way for me to be excited about having a role on the front and back end of projects," Dias says. "I think her confidence is something that I've definitely tried to emulate being in a space, especially with adults."

Fracaswell Hyman (Little Bill and The Famous Jett Jackson) serves as showrunner, director and executive producer on the Jesse Collins Entertainment project. Executive producers of Bookmarks include Collins, Dionne Harmon, David E. Talbert and Lyn Sisson-Talbert.

Lupita Nyong’o, Tiffany Haddish, Common, Karamo Brown, Caleb McLaughlin, Grace Byers, Jill Scott, Misty Copeland and Martin are among the stars joining the show to help read aloud an array of books written by Black authors. Dias says when brainstorming a lineup of stars, she aimed to have both younger and older stars. "I definitely did not want to be the only young person. So I was definitely pushing to add people like Caleb [McLaughlin] and Marsai [Martin] that were in the show as well," she tells THR. "I  wrote a very, very long list of people and a lot of them were included... So having people that are musicians, actors, that are working on social justice, alongside what they do in the industry is super important."

Throughout the 12 episodes, each star not only reads the story aloud but also pegs a thought-provoking question to the audience. Books to be read in the series include: I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley; Pretty Brown Face and Brown Boy Joy by Andrea Davis Pinkney and Thomishia Booker, respectively; Let’s Talk About Race by Julius Lester; I Am Enough by Grace Byers; Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, by Derrick Barnes; Sulwe, by Nyong’o; ABC’s For Girls Like Me, by Melanie Goolsby; I Am Perfectly Designed, by Brown and Firebird, by Copeland.

Professor and children's media consultant Kevin A. Clark serves as creative producer for the series and helped create the curriculum of books to be read. "We came up with four core topics that were important and guided all the narratives. So it was identity, respect, justice, and action," Dias explains, adding that the guiding points derived from her mother's leadership camp for Black girls that she runs through her GrassROOTS Community Foundation. "We have these four principles that we guide ourselves by which is truth, order, balance and reciprocity... We focused from the beginning about finding books that had those messages all throughout."

One of the books featured in the series is Sulwe by Nyong'o, which was inspired by the actress' personal childhood struggles with colorism. Meanwhile, I Love My Hair, Dias notes, "is a staple of a book" that "a lot of Black parents have in their homes." "It really spreads an important message because confidence comes from hair in the Black community a lot, and it's really important to have that," she says.

"There were a lot of books that I was definitely pushing for, a couple of them that are my personal favorites, because we want to have books that some adults may recognize, that kids may recognize and then some new books people haven't heard of before," Dias says, citing I Love My Hair and The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson as personal favorites she was hoping to include in the show.

Netflix will partner with First Book to donate and distribute copies of each of the books featured in the collection to educators serving kids in need in the U.S. and internationally.

The streamer's new show arrives as conversations surrounding race, inclusion and representation continue to be at an all-time high amid the ongoing movement for racial justice, in particular with the book world as both authors and readers have taken to social media to call for a #BlackoutBestseller List movement and recent best-sellers in the U.S. book market have been related to the current conversations about race. Pushing for diverse stories by diverse authors is something Dias continues to be passionate about. Though juggling school and the launch of Bookmarks, Dias is continuing her work with #1000BlackGirlBooks to promote diversity, inclusion and representation but also hopes to motivate and give kids and parents the tools and resources need to make change, whether it be outlining her story in her own book or offering an online resource guide to find books that she's collected.

"I think I have definitely made an impact in telling kids that it's important to call out your teachers if you think that they're doing something wrong, respectfully of course, but [also] to really be socially critical and aware of what's going on and the knowledge that's going to be passed on to you. I also think I've encouraged teachers to push for diversity more and to think about how their libraries can really impact the lives of their students. So I've seen improvement in that." However Dias notes there still aren't any "specific rules that are dialing down to promote diversity in schools," whether it be in the books students are assigned to read or the documentaries shown in class. "I would love to see actual requirements and rules about the ways in which you teach students, because the books that you read will change the way that you see the world and it will change the way that you think, act and treat others," she says.

With Bookmarks, Dias hopes "people will be buying more diverse books," and push teachers to incorporate representative works into their lessons. "I may not be able to directly donate books, [but] I can at least provide titles and resources," Dias says. Prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic, Dias says she intended on donating books to Jamaica and Ghana in April, but given the circumstances of COVID-19, she's continuing to collect books and has received a good amount of donations.

"I want people to buy the books that are on the show and support the work that I do with #1000BlackGirlBooks so we can get more titles like this out there and support these authors," Dias says. Bookmarks will be available on Netflix and the Netflix Jr. YouTube channel on Sept. 1, with additional book recommendations, resource guides and videos at NetflixBookmarks.com to give educators an opportunity to reference it for lesson plans. "I'm looking forward to see what teachers just decide to do and how parents, caregivers and even people that don't have any kids, are using Bookmarks as a way to help them become better people or to learn more about these stories."

After already having accomplished a myriad of things at such a young age, Dias notes over time she's learned to "not be ashamed" or "so concerned" about the ways in which her campaign can be perceived by others. "I think people forget that I go to school at the same time that I do all this stuff," she explains. "It can be difficult sometimes because other students just see that, 'Oh, you get to meet Kim Kardashian 'and 'you got on the cover of this'... people see those types of things, [but] they don't necessarily understand the work that comes with it. But the reason why Bookmarks is important to me is the reason why all these things are important to me, it supports the messages and the values that I care about... I always have to show who I am fully and try my best to do that because I don't want people to perceive me a certain way. And I don't want to feel like I have to hide what I do or what I'm proud of."

Dias hopes through her efforts she can teach her generation and generations to come that change is possible but it's worth noting that "changing the world is not fun to do alone." "I could not do it without my mom. I can not do it without the people that donated books. I cannot do it without the guy that founded Instagram or Twitter," she explains. "All of these things exist together, whether we think about them directly or not. You cannot think singularly about the ways in which to affect change." She also encourages those hoping to make change to "think globally and act locally." "If you actually take more effective change, especially at a young age or with limited resources, think about how that affects your town, your county, your school, and start super small, even if it's literally just people on your block... You want to start small so we can grow, be motivated, be proud of ourselves, no matter how far we come and continue to work from that."

With Bookmarks officially premiering Tuesday, Dias already has visions for what future seasons could look like. "I would love to work on future iterations. Have more and more stories being told and having versions that are in different languages and things of that sort. There's so much possibility that can be spread through the joy of reading and I would love to see the project expand so that we can include and have more and more stories being told."