A lack of Black male reading models and a scarcity of culturally relevant children’s books negatively impact reading outcomes for Black boys, one of America’s chronically underserved and lowest-performing student populations. Today, more than 80% of Black male 4th graders in the U.S. are not proficient in reading. Poorly resourced schools and book deserts disproportionately affect African Americans children. However, Black communities contain an untapped network of nontraditional reading advocates - barbers.
Barbershop Books is the debut program of Reading Holiday Project, Inc., a national literacy nonprofit organization based in New York City. Barbershop Books creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops for boys ages 4-8 and provides early literacy training to barbers across America. By leveraging the cultural significance of barbershops and the important role barbers play in the lives of Black boys, Barbershop Books improves book access and significantly increases out-of-school time reading among Black boys. Before Barbershop Books, over 90% of barbers report "never" or "rarely" seeing boys reading in their shops. After participating in the Barbershop Books program for six months, 86% of barbers report seeing boys reading "daily" or "almost every day."
Our unique program model helps Black boys identify as readers by connecting reading to a male-centered space and by involving Black men in boys' early reading experiences. Barbershop Books’ explicit focus on cultivating the reading identity of Black boys and its innovative early literacy barber training distinguish Barbershop Books from other national literacy programs. When children identify as readers, they are more likely to read for fun and pleasure reading is a strong predictor of reading proficiency. Longitudinal data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that students who read for fun, just once or twice a month, have significantly higher reading scores than students who “never or hardly ever” read for fun. Black boys' monthly or bi-weekly trips to the barbershop can make a real difference in their lives.
Receiving the National Book Foundation’s 2017 Innovations In Reading Prize, recognition from The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, and coverage from national media outlets (e.g., NPR, MSNBC, BuzzFeed, CNN, BBC) have established Barbershop Books as a thought-leader in the field of early literacy and Black Male Achievement. Library systems, school districts, city governments, local organizations, and individuals have demonstrated their confidence in Barbershop Books’ ability to tackle low-literacy among Black boys by collectively funding child-friendly reading spaces in over 180 barbershops across more than 50 U.S. cities and 20 states. This radical social-justice oriented literacy program empowers individuals and communities to have a direct, immediate, and ongoing positive impact on Black boys' book access and reading habits.