I fell in love, in the midst of the 2020 coronavirus lockdown, with Netflix’s “Bookmarks.”
The series, aimed at “celebrating Black voices,” was hosted by a young girl, whose aim was to tell Black stories and promote reading in the iAge.
At the time, host Marley Dias was 15 — and already a veteran of book advocacy.
When she was 10, the West Orange, N.J., native launched #1000BlackGirlBooks, with a goal of collecting and donating 1,000 titles where Black girls are the protagonists. (She accomplished that goal by age 11.) Today, she tells me, she’s collected some 14,000 copies of more than 1,000 titles.
Dias landed a Scholastic book deal at 12 with “Marley Dias Gets It Done and So Can You!,” became the youngest person on the 2018 Forbes 30 under 30 (she was 12), spoke at the White House alongside Michelle Obama, was recognized by Time as one of the 25 most influential teens in 2018 alongside Greta Thunberg and the Parkland students, and spoke at the 2020 Democratic National Convention.
Now she’s a Harvard freshman and still advocating for diverse books in US classrooms as national ambassador of the National Educational Association’s Read Across America, and she still runs #1000BlackGirlBooks.
Dias also has local roots. Her mom, Janice Johnson Dias, president of the wellness GrassROOTS Community Foundation, immigrated from Jamaica to Dorchester. Her dad, Scott Dias, is a Hyannis native. While Marley (named after Bob Marley) was raised in New Jersey, her family is scattered around Massachusetts, she says.
At 17, Dias says she’s a “future concentrator” in sociology and social studies at Harvard — but she hasn’t settled on a career path yet. (“I’m interested in law. I’m interested in academia. But I’m really not sure.”)
She spoke to the Globe by phone recently to talk about the power of books and the impact of representation.
Q. You wrote in your book that you started #1000BlackGirlBooks because your school assigned a lot of books about “white boys and their dogs.”
A. I noticed that even in my middle-class town, in a very well-resourced academic space, we did not have diverse books. This raised a lot of questions for me: Do my stories not matter? Why am I not seeing myself? These books are out there. That frustration started #1000BlackGirlBooks.
Not only is this work a mission for diversity and inclusion in children’s literature, but a movement towards having other young kids understand their potential to make change. And trying to push authors, educators, and administrators to reconsider the messages they’re sending to children.
Q. I know Jacqueline Woodson’s “Brown Girl Dreaming” is a favorite of yours.
A. When I read it, I was like, “Wow, this needs to be everywhere.” We cannot afford to have stories that only portray one type of experience, one era, one community. There’s so much harm in giving kids a single-minded understanding of what community looks like, what love looks like, what competence looks like, experiences and understandings of race. The education I received from that book is so valuable to who I am as a person.
There are so many books for different types of kids — Latinx kids, Native kids, LGBTQ kids, disabled kids. All learning spaces should consider the identities of the students— and the identities of people not even in that school — in making sure we have diverse stories and present kids with the opportunities to learn about experiences they’re not exposed to, or aren’t given the words to talk about.
Q. When you started #1000BlackGirlsBooks, what was your original goal?
A. To collect books with Black girls as the main character, and donate them — we donated 1,000 books to the school my mom attended in Saint Mary, Jamaica.
We most recently worked on the Read Across Jamaica campaign. I ended up donating over $10,000 and 2,000 books in Jamaica, with the help of the Book Industry Association of Jamaica (BIAJ) and the US Embassy in Jamaica. Oftentimes we think this issue only applies to experiences in America, but I’ve noticed even in homogeneously Black spaces, we’re still experiencing and witnessing white supremacy within education as an institution, where even though every person in the classroom may be Black, they’re still not seeing themselves in books. And what kind of message does that send about who can be an astronaut? Who can be a model? We’ve [donated not only to] American communities, but in Jamaica, Haiti, and Ghana.
Q. How did “Bookmarks” come about?
A. I was reached out to by Netflix to give my thoughts on some titles that could be made into a show. As ideas went back and forth, it felt right for me to host the show and have an executive producer role, given my involvement in its conception, and the work that I’ve done to represent, to advocate for diversity in children’s literature and celebrating Black voices.
Q. Why do you believe in books?
A. I believe in books not only for their recognition of truth, but of emotional truth. Emotional truth is valuable. Often kids are pushed to think in concrete, right-or-wrong ways. They experience penalties in schools for saying the wrong thing. Books create an opportunity for imagination, exploration, discovery. Those are the most valuable elements to access in childhood in order to become the kind of person that moves about the world with joy, with consideration of other people and their existence.
Q. I love that. So aside from the Woodson book, what’s another book that’s left a deep impression on you?
A. “The Bluest Eye,” by Toni Morrison. I’m sure so many people — Black women and girls especially — could cite that as transformative. That book changed me so much — from reading it [in high school] and from observing how my upper-middle-class to wealthy, white and Asian, and even Black peers confronted and understood race.
Q. How did your own book deal come about?
A. I’d been challenging publishing houses; I felt they had failures in supporting Black authors and working-class authors. I had meetings with publishing houses, and they were taking [me] seriously. At Scholastic, we talked about their involvement in schools and ability to reach children. Slowly that developed into: what messages would I want to send to kids? I began writing about #1000BlackGirlBooks’ origin, and creating a guide of what I think educators and caregivers need to know about how to support kids in their efforts to change the world — or at least letting them know it’s a possibility.
Learn more at marleydias.com