July 14, 2017

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Educator, author, and comedian Alvin Irby (WAG ’15) is empowering young black boys to read more through his project Barbershop Books.

Alvin Irby

Barbershop Books is a community-based literacy program that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops across the country. The program helps children connect the idea of reading with their cultural identity by providing reading opportunities in male-centered spaces.  

Importantly, the program gives children access to the books they want to read. Think books that are age-appropriate, action-packed, and feature a male protagonist: Captain Underpants and Diary of a Wimpy Kid are mainstays on the bookshelves.

And while increased reading skills are important, Irby says this isn’t the primary focus of the program.

“Our goal is to create fun reading experiences that make boys want to read for fun outside of school.”

"Today kids take more tests than ever before, kids receive more reading interventions than ever before, yet, more than 85 percent of black, male fourth graders are not proficient in reading.”

Irby says many boys’ early reading experiences are almost exclusively skill-based.

“There has been a systematic failure to educate young black boys and teach them to read.”

“Skill-based reading experiences may improve boys’ reading ability during the school year but these reading experiences do very little to cultivate boys’ intrinsic motivation to read when it’s not required. And that’s really what Barbershop Books is about.”

The idea for Barbershop Books was sparked when Irby went for a haircut and saw one of his students at the barbershop, staring out the window. Irby knew the student needed to practice his reading and thus, the connection between barbershops and reading was formed.

Irby enrolled in a Masters of Public Administration at NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service to bring his idea to life.

“I just wrote the idea down in my email. It was years later that I decided I was ready to make the idea real.

“My sole purpose for going back to grad school was to create this program. A lot of my coursework I used to work on Barbershop Books.”


There are now 60 barbershops in 24 cities that participate in the program—and the goal is to expand into 800 barbershops in 20 target cities over the next three years.

The results speak for themselves. An evaluation of the program in Columbus, Ohio, showed that before the Barbershop Books program, 73% of participating barbershops never saw boys reading and 27% rarely saw boys reading. Just eight months later, 64% of barbers saw boys reading almost every day in their barbershop. Another 27% percent observed boys reading every day, and just 9% saw boys reading a few times a week.

“What that says to me is that many barbershops across the country have no reading happening among boys before Barbershop Books and then after our child-friendly reading spaces are made available children are reading almost every single day in those barbershops.

“It’s inspiring and encouraging to be a part of something like this.”

Irby says when kids identify as readers and read for fun, their proficiency levels will naturally improve.

“People talk about pleasure reading all the time, but nobody is talking about identity. You can have one-off enjoyable reading experiences and still not identify as a reader.

“At the end of the day, it’s about young black boys saying three words: ‘I'm a reader.’ If we can do that, then I believe we are truly successful.”

To donate to or volunteer with Barbershop Books, please visit barbershopbooks.org.

You can also purchase a copy of Alvin Irby’s hilarious debut children’s book Gross Greg—a beautiful rhyming story about a boy who likes to eat his boogers—at grossgreg.com.