Boys book club grows fans

Chez Smith was volunteering at her son’s school when she noticed something strange. When it came time for boys to read, they treated it as punishment. When asked to read, girls happily took out their books.

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

That was the beginning of the Brilliant Brown Boys Book Club for boys aged 8 to 13. The non-profit organization, founded in Woodlawn in 2020, now has about 60 members, including some from abroad. The club’s next meeting begins in October, and Smith is busy sorting through applications.

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Smith sends club members free books—books she chose for their positive portrayal of black male characters—for the boys to see represented. Then on Saturdays the guys meet via Zoom to talk about the books.

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

Each book club meeting is chaired by black men, whether they be authors, teachers or actors.

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Though 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 stick with it.

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

To promote literacy among boys outside of the book club, Smith formed a partnership, Fades, Fros & Books, with Urban Professional Grooming, a Chatham barber shop.

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

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

“The message made me want to become a community partner,” said Steven Williams, owner of the barbershop at 9103 S Cottage Grove Ave. “Guys who read books? It’s child’s play. I get my son to read every week.”

Steven Williams, hairstylist and owner of Urban Professional Grooming, cuts Chuck Gordon's hair at Urban Professional Grooming.

Steven Williams, hairstylist and owner of Urban Professional Grooming, joined the Brilliant Brown Boys Book Club for the Fades, Fros & Books partnership. Boys coming to the barber can choose from a well-stocked bookshelf to read while they wait.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Most kids who buy a book from the store ask to join the club after they get their haircut, Williams said.

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

“We can 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 heavy reader – just not an avid one.

That has changed.

“We can talk about our weekends before we start talking about the book,” he said, adding that his previous favorite is Chocolate Me! by Taye Diggs.

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

Members’ parents see several benefits, Smith said.

“One of the parents says it’s the only time their son has been with black men,” Smith said. “Another mother didn’t think her son would like it. She signed him up, but it’s Saturdays when he wants to sleep in and watch cartoons. But now she says, he says, ‘Mom, wake up. It’s book club time.”