Community Connection

Barbershop Books: Growing Boys Who Read

by Terri Barnes

A boy takes a number and then a seat. Waiting for his turn in the barber’s chair, he bounces his feet, looks out the window, then turns to his mom to ask, “How much longer?” The background noises—the buzz of electric clippers and a conversation about local politics—provide little distraction to a young mind that would much rather be occupied somewhere else.

When Alvin Irby was a teacher in the Bronx, New York, he witnessed a situation much like this one in a barbershop across the street from the grade school where he taught. One of his first grade students came in and was waiting impatiently for his haircut. Knowing the boy could use some reading practice, Alvin wished he could give him a good book to pass the time.

Unfortunately for young customers, reading material in a barbershop is often limited to a few out of date magazines, but Alvin’s experience that day gave him an idea: Put children’s books in barbershops, specifically barbershops serving black communities.

Alvin Irby, founder of Barbershop Books, believes in leveraging the power of male influences in the black community to help turn young boys into readers.

Alvin Irby, founder of Barbershop Books, believes in leveraging the power of male influences in the black community to encourage young boys to become readers.

Several years and many fundraising efforts later, the idea became Barbershop Books, the debut program of a nonprofit called the Reading Holiday Project. The program first put children’s books in a handful of barbershops in New York City and has grown to scores of participating shops in fifteen US states.

The mission of Barbershop Books, focused primarily on black boys ages four to eight, is to help boys “identify as readers by connecting books and reading to a male-centered space and by involving men in boys’ early reading experiences.”

Alvin says, “Many boys have negative early experiences with reading, sometimes traumatic experiences.” As a result, “More boys than girls don’t identify as readers. According to the United States Department of Education, more than 85 percent of America’s black male fourth grade students are not proficient in reading.”

Schools, community centers, churches, and libraries are often associated with reading programs but Alvin sees unique value in having books in a barbershop.

He believes in leveraging the power of male influences in the black community and says barbershops are a good place to reach boys, to help them overcome their statistical disadvantages in reading skills.

Black community role models from local male business owners to NFL player Jordan Jenkins have stepped forward to sponsor events and unveil new program locations.

In June, the National Book Foundation awarded its 2017 Innovations in Reading Prize to Barbershop Books. The award celebrates individuals and organizations who find new ways to use literature to empower communities, recognizing Barbershop Books for creating child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops.

Alvin says the award brought visibility and extended the reach of the project. The accompanying $10,000 prize has allowed the project to offer books to more locations, including one in his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas.

As a former Harlem kindergarten teacher and Bronx first grade teacher, Alvin recognizes the unique reading struggles of boys, especially in the black community. He says about 50 percent of black boys are being raised by single mothers and are taught mostly by female teachers. Teaching methods and book selections, he says, are often more geared toward girls than boys.

Gross Greg by Alvin Irby

Teacher, comedian, and Barbershop Books founder Alvin Irby wrote a children’s book about one young boy’s love of boogers.

Alvin’s organization identifies several factors that contribute to low reading skills among young black boys, one of which is the lack of black men in their early reading experiences. Other factors are related to the types of reading material available to them.

To fulfill its purposes, Barbershop Books provides barbershops with a carefully chosen selection of children’s books aimed at boys in preschool and early grade school. Alvin, who has also won awards for his stand-up comedy, especially champions books that engage boys through humor. His own self-published book, Gross Greg, is about a young boy who loves eating his boogers despite the protests of everyone around him.

In addition to employing universal emotions and humor, Alvin says diversity of characters in children’s literature is a key to developing cultural understanding for all young readers.

“Children’s books represent one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the fight against racism,” he says.

Primarily, Barbershop Books hopes to introduce a new generation of men to the power of books.

“At the end of the day, we want them to say three words: I’m a reader,” he says.

Barbershop Books
Facebook: /BarbershopBooks
Instagram: @BarbershopBooks

Photos courtesy of Barbershop Books.

Terri Barnes is a journalist, mom of three, and regular contributor to Books Make a Difference

This article was first published September 2017.

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