Barbershop Books Reading Program Coming to LR

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (News release) - Barbershop Books, a community-based reading program founded by Little Rock native Alvin Irby, recently received the 2017 Innovations in Reading Prize from the National Book Foundation.

With support from the Levenger Foundation, the National Book Foundation annually awards the Innovations in Reading Prize to an individual or organization discovering new ways to empower communities through literature. Barbershop Books will receive the $10,000 award and be recognized at the second annual Why Reading Matters conference on June 15 in New York City.

A 2007 graduate of Grinnell College in Iowa, Irby is chief reading inspirer of Barbershop Books. He says he will use the $10,000 prize to expand Barbershop Books to Little Rock.

Irby will collaborate with Charles Blake, a 2001 graduate of Little Rock Central High School who represents District 36 in the Arkansas House of Representatives. Blake graduated from Grinnell College in 2005 with a bachelor's degree in political science.

With Irby's support, Blake plans to organize a local coalition to implement the program in 10 barbershops in Little Rock by the end of the summer. Barbershop Books will provide the books and bookshelves, as well as training for local barbers.

Barbershop Books, which creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops, helps black boys ages 4-8 identify as readers by involving men in boys' early reading experiences. This is an important endeavor because 85 percent of America's black male fourth-grade students are not proficient in reading.

Over the past 2 years, Barbershop Books, based in Harlem, New York, has transformed 50 barbershops into community spaces that support positive early reading experiences for black boys in 20 cities across 12 states.

By offering year-round access to culturally relevant, age-appropriate, gender-responsive children’s books in a traditionally male space, Irby and Blake say they hope to expand book access for and increase out-of-school reading among young black boys.

"Winning the National Book Foundation’s Innovations in Reading Prize is a tremendous honor for Barbershop Books and for everyone who has supported our work," says Irby, who now lives in New York City. "I'm excited to use the prize to expand Barbershop Books into my hometown, and to collaborate with fellow Grinnell graduate Charles Blake."

Irby credits his mother, Jacqueline Irby, with inspiring his decision to pursue a career in education. She retired after teaching in the Little Rock School District for more than 30 years.

Irby's promotion of reading dates back to his senior year (2002-03) at Hall High School, where his science project began with a survey of fellow students to gauge how much reading they did. "I found that many didn't read at all if they weren't required to do so for class," he recalls.

To encourage students to spend more time reading, Irby asked Barnes and Noble to donate gift cards, which provided an incentive for students to read books outside of class. Each student who read such a book was required to write two paragraphs — one summarizing the book and another explaining why other students should read it or describing how the book impacted his or her life.

Irby enlisted the help of English teachers at the school to rank the students' writing, select the winners and present them with the gift cards. "I found that I enjoyed encouraging other students to read," Irby says. "I know the program went on for another year or two after I graduated."

In 2015 Irby received a $25,000 Wall Award from Grinnell College. "This Alumni Service Award," he says, "greatly enhanced my ability to expand Barbershop Books. Without Grinnell's early and generous financial contribution in the form of the $25,000 award, I may have had to take a full-time job and work on Barbershop Books in my spare time."

Irby graduated from Grinnell College with a bachelor's degree in sociology. He also holds a master's degree in education from Bank Street College of Education and a master's degree in public administration from the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University.

Click here for more information about Barbershop Books.

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