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How Barbershop Books is Bridging the Literary Gap, One Trim at a Time

Only 17% of Black fourth-graders read at the recommended level. Alvin Irby is on a mission to change that.

Think about a favorite book you read over and over again as a child. How did it impact your life? Did it make you more curious and inspired? Allow your imagination to run wild? Did it shape your personality in some way? A childhood love of reading has numerous neurological and psychological benefits, such as faster brain development, greater general knowledge, expanded vocabulary, and improved linguistic skills. In other words, the books we read as children can literally change our lives.

But some children aren’t getting these opportunities. According to the Department of Education, only 17% of Black fourth graders read at or above the proficiency level determined by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). This is significantly lower than white children of the same age, of which 42% are NAEP proficient. Historically, Black boys have struggled with literacy even more than their female counterparts.

There are a number of economic and social factors contributing to this outcome, but one thing is clear: Because of this racial literary gap, Black children are missing out on a foundational part of their early development. Enter Barbershop Books, a nonprofit organization on a mission “to inspire Black boys and other vulnerable children to read for fun through child-centered, culturally responsive, and community-based programming and content.” By partnering with barbershops throughout the United States, this literacy program is getting books into children’s hands in order to spark a love of reading and set early readers up for future success.

How one teacher started a movement

The first page of Barbershop Books’ story was inked in 2008. First-grade teacher Alvin Irby was getting a trim at a local Brooklyn barbershop when one of his students came in. The student was bored and antsy, and Irby realized that the time children spent in barbershop chairs was an opportunity to work on improving those dire child literacy statistics. “I’m looking at this student (thinking), ‘He should be practicing his reading.’ But I didn’t have a book,” he told CNN.

The idea stayed with Irby, and in 2013, he founded Barbershop Books. His goal was to make reading more fun and interesting for young Black children and other vulnerable groups by curating “culturally relevant content,” or stories relevant to their interests.

“So many kids associate reading with something you do in or for school… Our program is about getting kids to say three words: ‘I’m a reader.’”

To accomplish this goal, Irby’s fledging literacy program partnered with barbershops to bring colorful, kid-sized bookshelves to each location. The books are carefully chosen based on recommendations from his target audience, and many of them feature people of color. Irby and his team also work with barbers to help them inspire a love of reading in their young clients.

The setting isn’t random; barbershops have long been community hubs among Black Americans, and Irby finds that Black boys visit their local shops once or twice a month. “We are putting books in a male-centered space,” Irby said. “Less than 2% of teachers are Black males and many Black boys are raised by single moms. Black boys don’t see Black men reading.”

Going beyond the barbershop 

Fast forward ten years, and Barbershop Books has distributed over 50,000 books throughout the United States, engaging more than 10,000 children every year. The organization has also expanded its offerings with two additional programs. Reading So Lit is a web-based “reading identity exploration and assessment platform” that helps students in grades preK-5 better understand their own reading preferences. In turn, the data gathered helps educators curate their school reading selections, personalize their lessons, and increase overall literacy. Barbershop Books also offers a comprehensive E-Library with additional resources, including “diverse, independently published e-books” and “storytime videos” in which educators read children’s books out loud.

Barbershop Books’ contributions to children’s literacy haven’t gone unnoticed. The organization has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, The Daily Show, Today with Hoda and Jenna, and more. It’s been awarded the Innovations in Reading Prize by the National Book Foundation, and The New York Times praised the organization for “creating literary spaces in places where children find themselves with time on their hands.”

Despite setbacks in literacy rates — the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in millions more children falling behind — Irby and his team remain devoted to their mission. In fact, the creation of Barbershop Books’ E-Library was a direct response to pandemic lockdowns, which left schools, libraries, and barbershops out of reach for millions of vulnerable children. What was once a one-man operation has grown into a six-person executive team with a Board of Directors. And what started at a single Brooklyn barbershop has expanded to over a dozen states and counting.

How to get involved

Like many nonprofits, Barbershop Books relies heavily on donations from the public. Making a donation is one great way to support a fellow member of the self-care community, but you could also share information about Barbershop Books on your website or in your next email blast.  However, that’s not the only way you can support the organization. Barbershop Books is always looking for community partnerships that will help them bring the program to more cities and works with educators to bring Reading So Lit to classrooms. You can also recommend a barbershop: your own, a colleague’s, or even just one in your neighborhood.

In an October 2022 blog post, Barbershop Books stressed the need for more diverse reading materials: “Data from Scholastic shows that reading diverse stories at a young age is essential to early childhood education. By reading diverse books, children can see themselves and their communities from a larger lens, lending compassion, empathy, and understanding to their cultural experiences and history.” By bringing these stories to barbershops, classrooms, and homes throughout the United States, Barbershop Books is doing its part to bridge the literary gap and inspire a love of reading in thousands of vulnerable children.

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