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New from Netflix: Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices

In what felt like a very different, and very inspiring kind of binge-watching, I just experienced all 12 episodes of the new Netflix series, Bookmarks: Celebrating Black Voices.

It was indeed a celebration.

The series features prominent Black authors, artists and celebrities reading children’s books that highlight the Black experience. Books were carefully selected around a social justice framework highlighting identity, respect, justice and action. Readers were carefully paired with books with consideration of their special talents, personality and performance styles, and, of course, authorship.

Hosted and co-produced by Marley Dias, the 15-year-old author, activist and founder of the #1000BlackGirlBooks campaign, the story series is perfect for families to share at home and I hope many of us recommend the series as well as its the book selections and resources for the families we serve.

Because of their availability on Netflix Jr’s YouTube Channel, videos are also accessible to non-Netflix subscribers.

Episodes are introduced by Marley. Most readers sit in the midst of a beautifully booky backdrop with appropriately selected props on nearby tables. A large copy of the title flip its pages on the top of the screen as the camera focuses on those pages. Each reader ends the episode with a provocative question to extend the power of the story.

Titles of books, authors, and readers in what Netflix is calling the debut lineup, include:

  • Tiffany Haddish reads I Love My Hair, written by Natasha Anastasia Tarpley, illustrated by E.B. Lewis 
  • Grace Byers reads I Am Enough, written by: Grace Byers, illustrated by Keturah A. Bobo 
  • Caleb McLaughlin reads Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, written by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James 
  • Lupita Nyong’o reads Sulwe, written by Lupita Nyong’o, illustrated by Vashti Harrison
  • Marsai Martin reads ABC’s For Girls Like Me, written by Melanie Goolsby, illustrated by Princess Kay 
  • Karamo Brown reads I Am Perfectly Designed, written by Karamo Brown, illustrated byAnoosha Syed 
  • Jill Scott reads Pretty Brown Face written by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney; and Brown Boy Joy, written and illustrated by: Thomishia Booker
  • Misty Copeland reads Firebird , written by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers
  • Common reads Let’s Talk About Race, written by Julius Lester, illustrated by Karen Barbour
  • Jacqueline Woodson reads The Day You Begin, written by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by Rafael Lopez 
  • Kendrick Sampson reads Anti-Racist Baby, written by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, illustrated by Ashley Lukashevsky 
  • Marley Dias reads We March. written by: Shane W. Evans, illustrated by Shane W. Evans 

In a Netflix Media Center August 18 blog post, the team shared its vision:

Our hope is that Bookmarks will serve as a new kind of virtual book corner where families can watch together, learn together, and talk with one another.

The companion sites offers additional book recommendations, videos and resource guides to assist parents and educators in extending their powerful conversations.

Resources and reading lists are organized by age bands:

Professor Kevin Clark, founding director of the Center for Digital Media Innovation and Diversity at George Mason University, served as creative producer for the series. In this video, Dr. Clark describes the series’ social justice framework and his hope for how extension questions and resources will be used.

In addition to Dr. Clark, the project engaged the support of the following three partners:

  • The non-profit First Book project plans to donate and distribute copies of each of the books featured in the collection to educators serving kids in need across the country, and in select international countries.
  • The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) provided Netflix with a comprehensive list of books related to social justice along with resources for serving diverse communities.
  • The Black Caucus of the American Library Association partnered with Netflix to provide age-appropriate book suggestions, topics for discussion, video resources and activities to further conversations among families.

I discovered the project through K.C. Boyd @Boss_Librarian, school librarian at Jefferson Academy (District of Columbia Public Schools)who tweeted:

Tamela Chambers, Karen Lemmons and K.C. Boyd represented ALA’s Black Caucus as Librarian Consultants for the project. I emailed with these three colleagues about the experience.

In her email, K.C. shared:

We selected the books, and created questions and conversation starters for each episode. I enjoyed selecting books for this project and thankful for the experience. 

Overall, the selection of books was an extension of my work as a middle school librarian and aunt to my four-year-old niece and eight-year-old nephew. Identifying culturally relevant books is a responsibility that I take seriously because I want the books read to be an enjoyable experience while teaching valuable lessons. 

My hope is that the books selected and thought provoking questions provided for each grade band will celebrate each story read and challenge students to reflect and connect with each story on a deeper level

Tamela Chambers, the Children’s Department Manager at Carter G. Woodson Regional Library (Chicago Public Library) shared:

I am honored to have been given the opportunity to choose books and create questions to guide the conversation around the themes in the books (as part of a very important and timely project). I chose titles that  promoted self love, cultural pride and  highlighted the resiliency and accomplishments of African Americans; all aligned with the social justice framework that guided this project. I’m hoping that teachers, librarians and children and parents will use these lists and discussion questions to spark the kinds of conversations that allow for the dismantling of ideologies that serve to divide. 

Karen Lemmons, Library Media Specialist at the Detroit School of Arts, shared:

I was honored and humbled to be asked to work on this project.  I drew upon my previous experience as an elementary school librarian to select books appropriate forthe age groups.  Although these books have different messages and themes, at the heart of each book is identity.  I believe it is so important for African American children to have a strong sense of identity and to know who they are. 

When children have that strong identity, know who they are, they can define themselves and refuse to have others define them.  They can make informed and appropriate decisions and behave in ethical, cultural, and moral ways that can positively impact their community and the world.

When we developed our questions, we started with basic and foundational level to check their level of understanding and knowledge.  We then scaffolded higher level questions that challenge students to think deeply about their identity, social justice, and other issues that impact them.

Here are just a few of Bookmarks’ read aloud gems available on the Netflix Jr. Channel:

In an interview for Publishers Weekly, Dr. Clark addressed his hopes for Bookmarks in the context of our current national conversations around race and social justice:

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.

Joyce Valenza About Joyce Valenza

Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza

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