Barbershop Books Is Using Barbershops To Inspire Young Black Boys To Read
Sometimes a book is just a hobby, a fun way to consume a new story. But sometimes a book is a powerful tool to advance social change.
The National Book Foundation announced the winner of the 2017 Innovations In Reading Prize on Monday. The prize is an annual award that honors individuals and organizations that are using literature to make a social impact on the world and comes with a $10,000 prize. The award was founded in 2009, and since it launched, it has honored a variety of organizations including Next Chapter Book Club and Chicago Books to Women in Prison.
This year, the winner of the Innovations in Reading Prize is Barbershop Books, a community-based literacy program that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops.
The program was founded in 2013 by Alvin Irby, an author and former kindergarten and 1st grade teacher, as a way to help young black boys identify as readers.
“At Barbershop Books, we believe that by pairing books and reading with barbershops, over time an association will be formed in community members and children — that when they see a barbershop, it will trigger them to think about books and reading,” Irby explains.
The idea came to Irby when he saw one of his students walk into a barbershop without a book.
“[My student] just sat there with this bored look on his face for 15 or 20 minutes, and the whole time, I kept thinking, ‘He should be practicing his reading right now,'” he said. “So it was literally that perfect storm that brought about the idea: me being a teacher, me seeing my student, and me spending a lifetime going to the barbershop and understanding how important it is for the young boys who go there.”
Since its launch, Barbershop Books has partnered with more than 50 barbershops across 20 cities in 12 different states to provide books for young black boys, a community that Irby explains is often underserved in school.
“Many young black boys may literally never see a black man reading in school during the years when they’re learning to read because there are so few black male elementary school teachers,” Irby says.
Because of this, Irby says, many young black boys never have people who look like them encouraging them to read.
But that’s where barbershops come in.
“For many of those same young black boys, if they go to a barbershop, they actually see their barber at least once or twice a month,” he said. “Those frequent trips to the barbershop creates this opportunity to help boys identify as readers.”
But Barbershop Books is about more than just giving kids access to books — it’s about giving kids access to books they want to read.
“This is really what Barbershop books is about, getting young black boys to say three words: I’m a reader.”
“One of the things you’ll notice as I talk about Barbershop Books is that you won’t hear me talking about reading skills or vocabulary,” Irby said. “That’s not a coincidence. I think there are far too many young black boys whose first and early reading experience are almost all skills-based. And there are fewer and fewer opportunities for children just to have fun, low-stress interactions with books and reading. And that’s what Barbershop Books is trying to do. Our belief is that if we can create positive reading experiences early and often for young black boys, then they will choose to read for fun because they will identify as a reader.”
And that is the very core of Barbershop Book’s mission — not just getting students to pick up a book, but rather to self-identify as a reader.
“This is really what Barbershop books is about, getting young black boys to say three words: I’m a reader,” he said. “If we can get young black boys to say those three words, we believe they will read for fun, and if they read for fun, we believe they will reach higher levels of reading proficiency.”
It’s a mission that Irby hopes to spread to more and more places. With the $10,000 prize money, Irby plans to expand Barbershop Books to expand to Little Rock, Arkansas (Irby’s hometown), partnering with 10 new barbershops and conducting trainings for barbers to learn how to establish reading community spaces.
Barbershop Books wasn’t the only organization spotlighted by the National Book Foundation with the innovations in reading prize. The organization also announced several honorable mentions including: Books@Work, Great Reading Games, Poetry in Motion, Reach Out and Read.
You can learn more about each organization below.
Books@Work brings professor-led literature seminars to workplaces and community settings to build confidence, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity. Through shared narratives, Books@Work builds human capacity to imagine, innovate, and connect, strengthening cultures of trust, respect, and inclusion.
Image: Great Reading Games
Great Reading Games is a national audiobook reading competition from Learning Ally, a non-profit that helps students with print-disabilities. The contest is designed to motivate students to increase the frequency and duration with which they read.
Poetry in Motion is a project by the Poetry Society of America that places poetry and accompanying art in subway cars throughout New York City. Since it was a founded in 1992 (with a brief hiatus between 2008 – 2011), Poetry In Motion has brought more than 200 poems and excerpts to millions of subway riders.
Image: Reach Out and Read
Reach Out and Read is a nonprofit organization that gives young children a foundation for success by incorporating books into pediatric care and encouraging families to read aloud together.