Poets and Writers - - Contents - –CHRISTINE RO

Bar­ber­shop Books cre­ates read­ing spa­ces for young black boys; po­ets unite to keep guns out of schools; the rise of In­stapo­ets on and off the page; a Q&A with lit­er­ary agent Gil­lian MacKen­zie of MacKen­zie Wolf; and more.

Grow­ing up in Lit­tle Rock, Arkansas, in the nineties, Alvin Irby wasn’t much of a reader. “Read­ing books for plea­sure wasn’t a part of my child­hood,” he says. It wasn’t un­til high school— when Irby “started to un­der­stand the po­lit­i­cal and so­ci­etal im­pli­ca­tions of read­ing,” and more specif­i­cally which groups of peo­ple tend to be ex­cluded from read­ing—that the ac­tiv­ity be­came some­thing more than a chore. To­day Irby is com­mit­ted to mak­ing books and read­ing fun for chil­dren, in par­tic­u­lar black boys—who re­port some of the low­est read­ing scores among chil­dren in the United States—through Bar­ber­shop Books, a lit­er­acy pro­gram that cre­ates child-friendly read­ing spa­ces in bar­ber­shops and also trains bar­bers and other adults to help teach early lit­er­acy.

Irby, who now lives in New York City, be­gan in­stalling shelves of chil­dren’s books in Har­lem bar­ber­shops in 2014. He chose bar­ber­shops be­cause he wanted to find black male–cen­tric spa­ces to pro­mote a love of read­ing among young black boys. The statis­tics, af­ter all, are star­tling: In 2010 the Coun­cil of the Great City Schools, a coali­tion of seventy of the na­tion’s largest ur­ban pub­lic school systems, re­ported that while 38 per­cent of white fourth-grade boys are pro­fi­cient in read­ing, the num­ber for black boys of the same age is only 12 per­cent. Through Bar­ber­shop Books, Irby hopes to reach kids be­fore the fourth grade. In the pro­gram’s early days, Irby spent his own money to buy books for all ages. “When I put the books in a bar­ber­shop, I ob­served for hours and hours that it was the young kids who were most likely to en­gage with the books,” he says. He re­al­ized that books for read­ers ages four to eight, a pe­riod crit­i­cal for read­ing de­vel­op­ment, seemed to be the most use­ful.

Un­like many early read­ing pro­grams, Bar­ber­shop Books fo­cuses not on read­ing skills but on what Irby calls “read­ing iden­tity.” This means build­ing boys’ mo­ti­va­tion to read and helping them form a self-im­age as read­ers. De­vel­op­ing a read­ing iden­tity is key to in­creas­ing lit­er­acy, Irby says, and is a dif­fer­ent ap­proach than that taken by most schools, which of­ten fo­cus on as­sess­ment, test scores, and skills de­vel­op­ment. The fun is lack­ing, Irby says, so read­ing be­comes tied up in pres­sure and judg­ment rather than plea­sure.

Bar­ber­shop Books at­tributes the low read­ing pro­fi­ciency among black boys in part to schools and ed­u­ca­tors that are not re­spon­sive to in­di­vid­ual learn­ing styles, as well as to a lack of black men in­volved in black boys’ early read­ing ex­pe­ri­ences. In 2013 the U.S. De­part­ment of Ed­u­ca­tion re­ported that less than 2 per­cent of teach­ers were black men. “There are lit­er­ally young black boys who have never seen a black man read­ing,” said Irby in a 2017 TED talk, “or never had a black man en­cour­age him to read.” By work­ing with lo­cal com­mu­nity

part­ners to or­ga­nize train­ing for both bar­bers and par­ents to teach kids how to read, Bar­ber­shop Books works to ad­dress this deficit.

Irby and his team stock the bar­ber­shops with books that ap­peal to the kids who visit. A 2013 re­port from the Co­op­er­a­tive Chil­dren’s Book Cen­ter at the Univer­sity of Wis­con­sin in Madi­son showed only 10.48 per­cent of chil­dren’s books pub­lished that year fea­tured char­ac­ters of color, and Irby also notes that a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of ti­tles about black chil­dren re­volve around the same few top­ics, such as slav­ery. Al­though such books are im­por­tant, he says, it is equally im­por­tant to sup­ple­ment those books with more light­hearted sto­ries, like Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day and Maribeth Boelts’s Those Shoes—books about kids with whom chil­dren can iden­tify. (Irby’s own chil­dren’s book, Gross Greg, which he self-pub­lished in 2016, is a hu­mor­ous story about a boy who likes to eat what he calls “de­li­cious lit­tle sug­ars”—his boogers.) While Bar­ber­shop Books ti­tles aren’t lim­ited to those about black boys, Irby asks boys what kinds of books they would like to read, al­low­ing them to help with the de­ci­sion of what to stock. The or­ga­ni­za­tion also gives books away: On July 18 it will host a give­away of three thou­sand books at the Boys’ Club of New York in East Har­lem.

Since its found­ing Bar­ber­shop Books has been adopted by more than a hun­dred bar­ber­shops in twenty-eight cities across the United States and reaches more than four thou­sand boys each month. In the next three years Irby hopes to raise $1 mil­lion to set up read­ing spa­ces in eight hun­dred more bar­ber­shops through­out the coun­try. Even­tu­ally he’d like to ex­pand to in­clude Latino bar­ber­shops and dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives as well. For now Bar­ber­shop Books has al­ready made an im­pact. Irby re­ports that be­fore he launched the pro­gram, 73 per­cent of bar­bers he spoke with never saw a boy read­ing in their shop. Now 64 per­cent say they’ve seen a boy read­ing a book in their shop al­most ev­ery day. Irby be­lieves that re­gard­less of chil­dren’s read­ing abil­i­ties, it’s a step in the right di­rec­tion. “Whether or not kids can read the books,” he says, “even if they’re just look­ing at the pic­tures, that’s a pos­i­tive read­ing experience.”

Three boys read­ing at Denny Moe’s Su­per­star Bar­ber­shop in Har­lem in New York City.

Alvin Irby

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