Interview with Kiarra Sylvester, Director of Black Girl Book Collective

Constance Gibbs  //  Feb 28, 2022

Interview with Kiarra Sylvester, Director of Black Girl Book Collective

This February, Scholastic is donating 5,000 books to Black Girl Book Collective, a non-profit that hosts a bi-weekly book club for Black girls. The Collective serves as a safe space for Black girls to share their grievances and joys by pinpointing similarities between themselves and the characters. Additionally, the organization has partnered with Habitat for Humanity Detroit to build lending libraries throughout the city of Detroit in order to reach the same objectives, including increasing literacy rates among Black children.

You can learn more about the Black Girl Book Collective on their website and follow them on Instagram here

Below is our interview with Black Girl Book Collective Director Kiarra Sylvester.

What does Black Girl Book Collective do? What is your mission?
Black Girl Collective's mission is to minimize the adultification of Black girls through bibliotherapy. This is a fancy way of just saying “hosting a book club,” where [members] are able to find qualities in the characters in books that they can relate to. It doesn't necessarily need to be the protagonist. They can then identify solutions from those characters to address their everyday problems. So with Black Girl Book Collective in particular, I've made it my mission to focus on books that are by Black authors. I want to be very intentional about Black, because it's not the same. Black authors do not get enough love, and so our focus is Black, queer, women authors.

What is the age range of the girls you work with?
We're currently working with high school-aged girls. I started this [program] back in March, and this is the one part of the initiative that has taken the longest to launch. I've partnered with Habitat for Humanity. I've partnered with the Detroit Pistons, and the actual group of girls is just now coming together. I'm kind of figuring it out as I go, but what we have planned for this first group of girls that I'll be working with is to start with them as freshmen in high school and be able to follow them throughout their high school careers. I really like that, because I see this growing into something where I can offer scholarships for these girls.

Tell us more about the book club. Where do you meet these girls? What books are you reading?
Currently, because of COVID, we are meeting virtually. I am currently partnered with a school, but we don't go into the school. They pick up their books from the school, and that'll be the one and only time that we meet [in person]. I am hoping and anticipating that when the summer months come in, we’ll be able to host things outdoors and make it a safe environment.

Right now, we’re reading Fly Girls by Sherry Smith, Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, and Full Disclosure by Camryn Garrett. The goal for me, every time that we read a series of books, is to make sure no one book, or no one set of books, is too traumatic. I want them to all address things that we as Black girls and women may go through in our lives; a diverse set of things that maybe you do experience. I find that each book that I've selected is each important to the mission. And I think each author brings something to these girls, or will bring something to these girls.

How did Black Girl Book Collective get started?
I just completed my Master's in Human Sexuality, Education and Social Work. A large part of my drive to go into that degree was always with Black women in mind. How do we view our sexuality? We've been hyper sexualized. Now how do you tackle that? Who do you start with? They always say you start with the children. So what is an age appropriate way to deal with the hyper sexualization of Black women? You start with Black girls. And so that is how I came across this idea. Then, towards the end of grad school, I asked myself a very cliche question: what are you passionate about? Reading is a passion. Sex education is a passion. How can I combine those things? So I put those things together, and it became this vision.

You mentioned you worked with Habitat for Humanity. Tell me a little bit about that.
The premise of my partnership with Habitat for Humanity is that we are building these little libraries for books across the city of Detroit. I see them very often in neighborhoods that have been gentrified or the suburbs, but I don't see them in the areas that actually need them. Our mission has been to get these lending libraries in places where access to books is necessary, especially during the pandemic. We have found that Internet access and transportation are actually things that children are not getting access to on a day-to-day basis. So I reached out to Habitat for Humanity, because I was like, if they build big houses, maybe they’ll want to build little houses, too. So far, we've built eight houses, little libraries, and we're in the process of getting them in the ground now, so that they will be up by Spring and accessible. And so that has been that part of the partnership with them.

How did you get connected with Scholastic?

Every partnership that I've gotten so far, I've just been shooting my shot like nobody's business. And I'm always shocked when people respond and take meetings. But I’m very passionate about my mission, and I think that passion came through my email. Ava (Vitali, Manager, The Scholastic Possible Fund) said we can give you 5,000 books. I said, “don’t worry, I’ll figure out where to store 5,000 books.” My mom would have been very upset when she received all of those packages at her house, so Habitat for Humanity is gonna let me store them there temporarily. 

What does this book donation mean for girls in your community?
Number one, it means easy access to books. Because we are receiving such a large shipment of books, I'm thinking of giving some of these books to different communities. I think that it will highlight that there are people who care about these communities that are often overlooked, that the school system overlooks.

This collective is not necessarily just for girls who are at the intersection of poverty per se. As someone who went to school in the suburbs, I never read books that had characters that I could identify with. It was always To Kill a Mockingbird. And so I think that this donation and my careful selection of the books that are coming in the donation really show that not only do we care about the community, but we see the community that we're serving. And we want them to also feel safe. I think that's important and probably the biggest message that this donation will deliver to these communities.