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by Alvin Irby, Founder and Chief Reading Inspirer, Barbershop Books –

Alvin Irby

IBPA member Barbershop Books, a program that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops, won the National Book Foundation’s 2017 Innovations in Reading Prize.

America’s prevailing beliefs about early literacy development have inextricably linked the activity of reading to a seemingly inexhaustible list of skills, standards, and assessments. This upcoming school year, countless African American boys will walk into first-grade classrooms bursting with excitement and inquisitiveness. But instead of daily read-alouds of fun picture books or interesting project-based explorations, a disproportionate amount of black boys will be labeled “struggling readers” and sent out of class to receive special reading interventions. These boys will soon find themselves at small wooden tables staring at random letters and words—void of any meaningful contexts. “What letter is this?” “What sound does it make?” “When I point to the word, read what you see.” For far too many young black boys, this is what reading is and will forever be: a test.

Barbershop Books, winner of the National Book Foundation’s 2017 Innovations in Reading Prize, creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops and trains barbers to help black boys ages 4-8 identify as readers. This community-based program cultivates black boys’ reading identities by connecting reading to a male-centered space and by involving men in boys’ early reading experiences. Barbershop Books focuses on identity, book access, and out-of-school time reading, because skills-based reading interventions alone have failed black boys. In 2016, the California Department of Education found that 75 percent of African American boys in California did not meet reading state standards. This was the highest of any student population and, unfortunately, California’s findings mirror reading outcomes for African American boys in most states.

“My work with Barbershop Books has revealed a chasm between what children want to read and what adults want or think children should read.” –ALVIN ARBY

Authors, publishers, educators, and parents all try to make sense of American society’s systematic failure to help black boys read proficiently. Conversations about this topic usually produce questions that double as calls to action:

  • What can we do to help black boys read better?
  • What can we do increase black boys’ reading skills?
  • How can we increase black boys’ access to quality books?
  • What can we do to help boys develop a love of reading?

Barbershop Books has generated fundamentally different questions:

  • Why should black boys read?
  • What cultural factors or social cues are present that would lead young black boys to conclude reading is something they should do?
  • What would happen if schools, policymakers, and parents believed that black boys already possess everything they need to read well?
  • Is summer learning loss caused by an absence of reading instruction during summer months or by reading experiences during the school year that fail to cultivate children’s intrinsic motivation to read?

Reading efforts that focus on pinpointing and remediating perceived deficits treat symptoms while neglecting the underlying causes. The grand irony of early literacy in many American schools is that the children who identify the least with books and reading often receive the fewest opportunities to cultivate a positive reading identity and self-concept. For boys whose parents do not read to them, buy them books, or take them to the library, school ends up being the only place where they read, learn about books, and discover what it means to be a reader. In today’s educational landscape, reading success resides in a child’s movement from one reading level to another. How might the early reading experiences of young black boys differ if schools and the communities they serve embraced a mandate to help black boys identify as readers?

“What would happen if schools, policymakers, and parents believed that black boys already possess everything they need to read well?” –ALVIN IRBY

For starters, children who are fortunate enough to have positive early reading experiences and frequent access to fun books outside of school view reading as much more than a task to be completed, a skill to be developed, or a test to be passed—for these children, reading is a way of being. To improve reading outcomes significantly for black boys, we need to shift power, expertise, and social capital from adults to children. The status quo provides few opportunities for black boys to feel successful or highly engaged while reading. I once heard someone articulate the main difference between special education and gifted/talented classes: “In special ed, students work on things they don’t know and can’t do, and in gifted/talented classes, students work on things they know and can do.” As publishers consider ways to help black boys identify as readers, proposed strategies shouldn’t be a race to match the skin tone of book characters to those of young readers; they should aim to publish books that portray the disparate personality traits, activities, topics, and cultural elements with which individual black boys choose to identify. Barbershop Books connects reading to a community space with which black boys strongly identify: the black barbershops and the black male culture it embodies.

My work with Barbershop Books has revealed a chasm between what children want to read and what adults want or think children should read. This is especially true for boys, whose reading interests often include graphic novels, sports, and silly or gross topics, all of which rarely find their way into the reading experiences designed to support struggling young readers. All over the US, I have asked educators and parents what they think most children look for when choosing a book. The most common response is, “Children want a book with characters that look like them,” or, “A book that allows them to see themselves.” I’m convinced some of these diversity-themed answers stem from people’s unconscious desire to want to give me the answer that they think I want to hear. Bringing up inclusiveness definitely sounds good, but Scholastic’s 2016 survey of nearly 3,000 parents and children suggests that the number one thing children look for when choosing a book is a book that will make them laugh.

Barbershop Books focuses on identity, book access, and out-of-school time reading.

Publishers understand the role that humor plays in engaging young children, especially boys, but laugh-out-loud children’s books rarely feature non-white protagonists. Can you think of five hilarious picture books with black main characters? Less than 10 percent of the children’s books published each year feature black main characters, and the bulk of these titles tend to be biographies or fiction stories that deal with slavery, segregation, or other serious topics. If most young black boys want to laugh, and adults keep reading them “culturally relevant” and “diverse” picture books about serious topics, should anyone be surprised if young black boys decide not to read for fun? Independent publishers are uniquely positioned to bring to life the characters and stories that will inspire young black boys to fall in love with reading.

Alvin Irby, founder and chief reading inspirer at Barbershop Books, is an award-winning educator, comedian, entrepreneur, and author of the hilarious new book Gross Greg, currently available at alvinirby.com.

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