Barbershop Books: Helping Black Boys Identify As Readers

Check out the amazing work Barbershop Books does to encourage of love of reading in Black boys.

Barbershop Books is an innovative organization helps nurture a love of reading and reader identity.

You may have heard that boys are less likely to read than girls, which is sadly an all-too-true statistic. Things are even worse for Black boys; in the United States, more than 82 percent of Black males in the fourth grade struggle with reading. A lack of reading proficiency in childhood can have long-term effects, making children ill-prepared for their futures. But there is an organization working hard to combat this problem.

Barbershop Books is a nonprofit literary organization with award-winning programs designed to build “a future where all children identify as readers and enjoy learning.” A recent partnership with the Urban Libraries Council, funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, supported four library systems—Columbus Metropolitan Library, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Library, Cleveland Public Library, and Shreve Memorial Library — in successfully launching the program in forty total barbershops across their respective cities.

 Barbershop Books’ mission is “to inspire Black boys and other vulnerable children to read for fun through child-centered, culturally responsive, and community-based programming and content.” The organization was founded by Alvin Irby, an early childhood educator passionate about helping all children develop a lifelong love of reading.


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Programs to Develop Reading Identity

Barbershop Books

Barbershop Books is the namesake program of the organization. It has developed a nationwide network of barbershops that supports child-friendly spaces, which inspires boys to read while waiting or getting a haircut. The participating barbershops receive a collection of carefully curated books on early childhood literacy training.

In a segment featured on Today with Hoda and Jenna, Irby explained how he was inspired by a moment when he was getting his own haircut at a barbershop and noticed one of his first-grade students enter the shop. As the boy waited with nothing to do, Irby realized this would have been a perfect opportunity for his student to practice reading.

Barbershops offer not only free time where boys can read outside of school but also a healthy, male-centered space for Black boys. According to the Barbershop Books website, the majority of public school teachers are White, and many Black boys are raised by single mothers, contributing to a lack of Black male reading role models in school and at home.

Without relatable reading role models to encourage them to read, many boys don’t develop a strong motivation to do so. Barbershop Books leverages the cultural significance of barbershops to expand reading opportunities for Black boys and other vulnerable children and create positive, impactful reading experiences that help inspire them to become readers.

Reading So Lit

To become strong readers, it’s important for children to identify as readers. According to Barbershop Books, reading identity refers to children’s attitudes about reading and their perceptions of their own reading ability or preferences. Without a well-developed reading identity, children don’t understand their reading preferences and spend little, if any, time reading for fun.

Systematic educational inequities and deficit-based learning frameworks make Black boys especially vulnerable to negative self-stereotypes like “I’m not a reader, or I’m not good at reading. Barbershop Books’ new web-based reading tool, Reading So Lit, supports the reading identity development of pre-K–5 students through multimedia-based self-assessments, teaching modules, and interactive reading explorations. This award-winning digital platform helps children better understand their reading identity and empowers them to advocate for personally meaningful and engaging reading experiences.

This innovative tool offers data that shows what makes reading relevant and engaging for students, allowing teachers to make informed decisions that help personalize learning. The program helps improve academic skills like vocabulary and also non-academic elements of reading like identity, confidence, engagement, and motivation. 


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Barbershop Books E-Library

One of the biggest problems for developing a reading identity among underserved and marginalized students is limited access to books and reading experiences that reflect their interests, preferences, and culture. There have been many heated arguments in recent years about what children should be reading but rarely does anyone ever ask children themselves what books interest them.

Irby wrote an op-ed about the rise of book bans and how many bans target supposedly “inappropriate” topics like toilet humor. Having taught young kids, Irby knows how much children love gross things like boogers, and he believes removing books that include those subjects harms children far more than anything contained in them.

This is why Barbershop Books prides itself in selecting books that Black boys actually want to read, not just books that adults think they should be reading. In addition to the physical books available at participating barbershops, they also have a free online E-Library of diverse, independently published e-books.

The library has storytime videos where popular children’s books are read aloud, much like storytime events at public libraries. This e-library allows kids everywhere access to fun books to read at any time.


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Helping Kids Identify as “Readers” across the Country

Barbershop Books’ goal is to inspire kids to read for fun, and the organization has already had a significant impact. They have distributed over fifty thousand books to barbershops across the United States and engage with more than fifteen thousand children annually at various locations nationwide.

Their amazing work has attracted the notice of numerous news sources, including the New York TimesNPRBlack EnterpriseGoverningMSNBC, and BuzzFeed. Founder Alvin Irby was chosen as a CNN Hero for his work with Barbershop Books. His TED Talk about how to inspire children to become lifelong readers has been viewed over a million times.

Barbershop Books was also granted the Innovations in Reading Prize by the National Book Foundation. And they continue to forge new partnerships with companies, such as Ad Astra Media and the National Football League, to increase awareness and access for children around the country. Anyone can donate or recommend a barbershop that may want to participate, so get involved today to help Black boys discover the joy of reading!



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