This is an edited version of the speech Bailey Harris gave at FFRF’s 41st annual convention in San Francisco on Nov. 2. She was introduced by FFRF Program Manager Monica Schwartz.
Bailey Harris is a 12-year-old author on a mission to inspire a love of science and a sense of wonder about the universe with her Stardust series of books for young readers, which she has co-written with her father, Douglas. The first book in the series, My Name Is Stardust, was released in 2017 and has sold thousands of copies worldwide.
Bailey and Douglas developed a story to teach children this concept, along with other areas of science such as evolution and astronomy. The second book in the series, Stardust Explores the Solar System, is hot off the press.
Because of her extraordinary initiative and accomplishment, FFRF is delighted to give Bailey Harris its Beverly and Richard Hermsen Student Activist Award of $5,000. Come on up, Bailey!
By Bailey Harris
Hello, everyone. It is such an honor to be here with you today. Thank you very much to the Freedom From Religion Foundation for having me here to speak. And a special thank you to Beverly and Richard Hermsen for this amazing student activist award.
First, a little bit about me. I am the third child in my family and I have two older brothers and a little sister (and my dog, Lady). I love to play soccer and I am the striker for the club team Impact United. I am in seventh grade and I love my school and friends there. My parents are secular and they teach our family humanist values.
And while Utah is highly religious, there is a great secular community in Salt Lake City, where we live now. We even have a female, openly gay, liberal mayor! But we didn’t always live in Salt Lake.
I was born and raised in Utah, which is known for quite a few things, including the worldwide headquarters of the Mormon church — I mean, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, as it likes to be called now.
On my first day of third grade at Eastlake Elementary School in South Jordan, Utah — yes, the city was named after a river in the bible — I was so excited!
What I didn’t know then was that the children were all scheming about how to turn me into a Mormon. Over 90 percent of the children at this school were Mormon. Unfortunately, that year in school ended up being very hard for me and that excited little 8-year-old girl went through some very difficult times. I don’t tell you this part of the story because I want you to feel sorry for me at all. I tell it because it will help you understand why I wrote My Name is Stardust.
One thing that began to happen that year is that my classmates wanted me to read a book that was very special to them. Everyone wanted me to read the Book of Mormon. They told me that this book made them happy and that it would make me happy if I read it.
Because of this, my parents presented a family lesson about world religions and, as part of this, taught us about Mormonism and the Book of Mormon.
I learned that the book was made — supposedly translated — by a man who put his face in a hat and saw the words magically appear on a rock. I learned that the book came from golden plates that were delivered by an angel and that nobody except for the Mormon prophet ever saw them.
I tried to be nice about it, but I simply let them know that I wasn’t interested in their book. But then these classmates started asking me if I believed in Jesus. I told them that I didn’t. And this is where things REALLY started to change for me. Not believing in the Book of Mormon was one thing, but not believing in Jesus was simply crazy!
One girl in particular started following me around at recess and lunch and always wanted to talk to me about religion. She told me that I would go to a place called hell. I ran away and hid from her. This classmate went to the yard duty official and told her that I was refusing to play with her, so I was taken to the assistant principal. I was crying. The assistant principal told me that I couldn’t refuse to play with someone.
I told her that the girl wouldn’t stop talking about religion and telling me that I was going to be sent to hell. The assistant principal told me that I was being a bully by refusing to play with her. This went on for a few weeks and I cried almost every day.
The assistant principal punished me and told me that I had to go to the library at lunch to read anti-bullying books. She made me watch videos about bullying and I had to sit in the corner to eat my lunch by myself.
After my mom learned about this, she went in to the school to talk with the assistant principal. My mom told her that I shouldn’t be required to play with a girl who is harassing me about religion. The assistant principal said to my mom, “You moved here from California. What do you expect?”
She told my mom that if I was going to be out at recess and lunch with the other children, I couldn’t refuse to play with this girl or anyone else. My mom called my dad and he immediately left work and went to the school. He tried to talk to the assistant principal and she stood up in the office and told him to get out.
My mom and dad then spoke with the principal the next morning. He apologized and said that I could refuse to play with people and that I was welcome to go in to his office at recess or lunch if I ever needed to. He also said that he would be discussing this with the assistant principal, and we assume that this is why she lost her job a few weeks later.
My parents ended up pulling me out of this school and put me in a charter school.
But even at the new school, the Book of Mormon and Jesus were frequent topics and the fact that I didn’t go to church was a topic almost every day. I also continued to be told that I was going to be sent to hell.
This is when my parents decided to move out of the holy land of South Jordan up to Salt Lake City, where we could be somewhere with more diversity. This has been very good for our family!
Now on to the happy part of the story!
My family loves science, so when “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey” came out, we watched it every Sunday evening.
In one episode, host Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The planets, the stars, the galaxies, we ourselves and all of life — are the same star stuff.” I was so excited! I couldn’t believe that everything on Earth was made of stardust, including our bodies. I ran upstairs to the family computer and started typing a book.
My dad came up after the episode was over and asked what I was doing. I told him that I was writing a book about how we are made of stardust because I wanted all children to know how amazing this is.
My original title was The Book of Truth. I knew that the kids at my school thought that the Book of Mormon made them happy. The things that I was writing about in this book made me happy, so I made my book title sound a lot like their book title.
My dad and I worked on the book together for the next two years and it was a lot of fun. We found a very talented illustrator and realized that it would cost a lot of money to have the illustrations done the way that we wanted them. So, we launched a Kickstarter to raise some money, and the campaign did much better than we expected! We were also approached by a couple of publishers and ended up signing a publishing deal for a book series based on Stardust. This was a dream come true for me!
We then started writing a second book called Stardust Explores the Solar System, which was just released. We are currently working on a third book called Stardust Explores Earth’s Wonders, which will be released in May.
We are excited to be able to continue to use the books to support our mission to inspire a love of science while teaching the scientific method to children and families as they navigate our world to find truth.