Boys book club grows fans

Shee Smith was volunteering at her son’s school when she noticed something strange. When it came time for the boys to read, they treated it as a punishment. When the girls were asked to read, they were more than happy to pull out their books.

So I was like, ‘What can we do to make reading fun?’ Smith asked her about her 11-year-old son, Chase. “It’s like, we should have a club!”

That was the beginning Brilliant Brown Boys Book ClubFor boys between the ages of 8 and 13. The nonprofit, founded in Woodlawn in 2020, has about 60 members, including some from out of state. The next club session kicks off in October, and Smith is busy weeding with applications.

Smith sends out free books to club members – books she has chosen for her positive portrayal of black male characters, so that boys can see themselves represented. Then, the boys gather on Zoom on Saturdays to talk about books.

2014 study by Class Level Reading Campaign It found that only 14% of black boys read proficiently by fourth grade, compared to 42% of white boys. some studies attribute this gap To teachers who do not communicate with students, books that lack diverse and communicative personalities and a lack of resources in some schools.

Each book club meeting is led by black men, including authors, teachers, or actors.

Although boys don’t usually participate after the age of 13, Smith said she made special arrangements for some of the members who liked it so much that they wanted to keep getting involved.

“We had two older boys who started out with us in the first course, one of them went to high school this year and the other went to eighth grade,” she said. “So I made them junior facilitators.”

To promote literacy in boys outside the book club, Smith established a “Fades, Fros & Books” partnership with Urban Professional Grooming, a barbershop in Chatham.

A well-stocked bookshelf in the store includes LeBron James’ “I Promise,” among other works. The idea is for the boys to read the books while they wait for a trim. If they did, the barber could ask the boys a few questions about the books they read while cutting the hair.

The first batch of books was donated by Smith. Some Chicago Public Library branches were later added to the collection.

“The message is what made me agree to be a Community Partner,” said Stephen Williams, owner of the barbershop at 9103 S Cottage Grove Ave. “Boys read books? It’s no thinking. I ask my son to read every week.”

Stephen Williams, barber and owner of Urban Professional Grooming, cut Chuck Gordon's hair, 30, at Urban Professional Grooming.

Stephen Williams, barber and owner of Urban Professional Grooming, has joined the Brilliant Brown Boys Book Club in the Fades, Fros & Books partnership. Boys who come to get their hair cut can choose from a well-stocked bookshelf if they want to read something while they wait.

Tyler Pasquik LaRiver / The Sun Times

Williams said most kids who pick up a book from the store ask to join the club after they have their hair cut.

Meanwhile, Smith said reading is now her son’s favorite class.

“We read together and have a good time,” Chase said. “Reading for All.”

Prior to joining the book club, 8-year-old Trenton Sledge was a keen reader – not an avid reader.

This has changed.

“We talk about weekends before we start talking about the book,” he said, adding that his favorite book so far is “Chocolate Me!” by Ty Diggs.

“It’s not just being able to read that is important,” said Takisa Sledge, Trenton’s mother. “The ability to understand is very important, so the discussion part is crucial. Programs like this are crucial for black boys.”

Smith said the members’ parents see multiple benefits.

“One parent says it’s the only time her son is around black men,” Smith said. “Another mom didn’t think her son would want it. She taped it, but it’s on Saturdays, when he wants to sleep and watch cartoons. But now she says he’s like, ‘Mom, wake up.’ It’s time for book club.”

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