Boys book club grows fans

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

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

That was the start of Brilliant Brown Boys Book Club, for boys ages 8 to 13. The nonprofit, founded in Woodlawn in 2020 now has about 60 members, including some from out of state. The club’s next session launches in October, and Smith is busy weeding through applications.

Smith sends free books to club members — books she has picked for their positive portrayal of Black male characters, so the boys can see themselves represented. Then, the boys gather over Zoom on Saturdays to talk about the books.

A 2014 study by The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading found just 14% of Black boys read proficiently by 4th grade, compared to 42% of white boys. Some studies attribute that gap to teachers not connecting with students, books lacking diverse, relatable characters and a lack of resources in some schools.

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

Although boys typically don’t participate after age 13, Smith said she made special arrangements for some members who loved it so much, they wanted to stay involved.

“We had two big boys who started with us in the first cycle, and one went to high school this year and one went to 8th grade,” she said. “So I made them both junior facilitators.”

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

A well-stocked bookshelf in the shop includes Lebron James’ “I Promise,” among other works. The idea is for boys to read the books while waiting for a trim. If they do, then during the haircut, the barber can ask the boys some questions about the books they read.

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

“The message is what made me agree to be a community partner,” said Steven Williams owner of the barbershop at 9103 S Cottage Grove Ave. “Boys reading books? It’s a no-brainer. I get my son to read every week.”

Steven Williams, barber and owner of Urban Professional Grooming, joined the Brilliant Brown Boys Book Club for the “Fades, Fros & Books” partnership. Boys who come in for a haircut can choose from a well-stocked bookshelf if they want something to read while they wait.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Most of the kids who pick up a book in the shop ask to join the club after their haircut, Williams said.

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

“We get to read together and just have a good time,” Chace said. “Reading is for everyone.”

Before he joined the book club, 8-year-old Trenton Sledge was a strong reader — just not an enthusiastic one.

That’s changed.

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

“It’s not just being able to read that’s important,” said Trenton’s mom, Takeisa Sledge. “Being able to understand is so important, so the discussion part is crucial. Programs like this are crucial for our Black boys.”

Parents of the members see multiple benefits, Smith said.

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

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