Streaming entertainment service Netflix has announced the September 1 launch of Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices, a collection of 12 five-minute episodes featuring Black celebrities and artists reading aloud children’s books by Black authors that highlight the Black experience. Performers in the debut lineup include Academy Award-winning actor and author Lupita Nyong’o reading her book Sulwe, illustrated by Vashti Harrison; actor and comedian Tiffany Haddish reading I Love My Hair by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, illustrated by E.B. Lewis ; author Grace Byers reading her title I Am Enough, illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo; and Newbery Medalist Jacqueline Woodson reading her picture book, The Day You Begin, illustrated by Rafael López .
Bookmarks is hosted by author and activist Marley Dias, who first captured headlines back in 2016 when, at age 11, she founded the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign to highlight works starring Black female protagonists. Dias is also an executive producer for the program.
Behind the scenes, professor Kevin Clark, children’s media consultant and founding director of the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity at George Mason University, serves as creative producer for the series. He was the primary driver of the Bookmarks book selections. Clark had done some previous children’s media consulting work for Netflix around issues of diversity and inclusion and the company called on him to help develop this new project. “The team at Netflix reached out to me, describing their overall concept,” he told PW, “and I used that concept to create a framework to identify and select the books, and then things just went from there.”
The original idea for the series was generated within Netflix, Clark said, with the goal of “energizing children and their families around books, bringing books to life, and using books to generate conversations about identity and social justice.” Clark based his book selection framework on a social justice curriculum, and it consists of four components: identity, respect, justice, and action, which build on each other. “When we were evaluating books, we would try to find books that fell into one of those four categories,” he said, noting that the majority of considered titles landed in the identity group “because we want young people to develop a sense of who they are and to see themselves.” According to Clark, “if young people have a strong sense of who they are, then respect enters in, meaning that they respect other people and they respect different perspectives and points of view. And when you have identity and respect, children are better able to identify instances of injustice, thereby wanting to see justice.” And lastly, “action,” the fourth element of the framework, Clark said, “gives young people suggestions or examples of things that they can do to take action when they see injustice.”
Another key component that went into the series’ book selection was that “we wanted to make sure that first and foremost we had a good story,” Clark said. “This show is for all kids, and not just domestically, but globally. We understand that good storytelling is good storytelling. We wanted to create and present stories that would connect with people around the world. And we think we’ve done that.”
The range of books was a consideration as well. “We have created a selection of stories that go from very straightforward, basic issues like loving yourself and loving how you look to complex issues about how to be anti-racist and how to protest,” said Clark. “I think we’ve done a good job of covering a variety of content, if you will, and it’s appropriate for a variety of audiences. It gives you a good span so you can sit down with your youngest children and with your eight-year-old and still have something to talk about.” In the end, Clark said, “we had a robust number of books and we were able to whittle it down to the 12 episodes we have now.”
Matching books with prominent readers was another part of the development process. “The ones where the author is the reader were easy,” Clark said. For the other selections, Clark added, “Of course, Netflix has access to a great pool of talent.” The creative team approached various talent based on a number of factors including an artist’s performance style. As an example, Clark said, “If there was a book that was more lyrical, then we would lean toward a person who we thought could deliver that.”
Clark credits the team in the Netlix business affairs office with “doing an amazing job through this process. We not only had to negotiate contracts with talent, but with publishers, regarding copyright, permissions, and a whole bunch of other things. I would make suggestions and they would do the hard work of trying to secure the books and the talent.”
Bookmarks arrives just as “we’re beginning not only as a nation but as a people to address and tackle serious issues around race and social justice,” Clark said. “The Black Lives Matter movement itself is so much larger than this series we’re doing, but I do think Bookmarks presents an opportunity for young people and families and educators to begin to have these challenging conversations. We’re using books that people know about, that have already been published, and that are in the voice of Black authors who are conveying a Black experience. The goal is for young people and their families to have a dialogue about the book and about broader issues, and that they can do so in a nonthreatening, non-stressful way.”
There are no announced plans to expand Bookmarks beyond the initial 12 episodes, but Clark said, “We hope to do more. We are pleased with how things have come out, so we hope it will be well received.”