More than eight in 10 African-American boys in fourth grade struggle with reading, national statistics show.
A project that began five years ago in New York City aims to change that bleak reality by exposing young boys to reading in a place they are likely to visit and where men congregate: the barbershop.
The initiative, known as Barbershop Books, has become a fixture at 20 barbershops in the Wilmington area since April.
Each shop has a wooden bookshelf with a curated list of books targeted to four- to eight-year-olds boys, such as “Way of the Ninja,” “The Adventures of Captain Underpants,” and “The Gingerbread Man.”
One is the African Barbershop on Wilmington’s North Market Street, located close to blocks known for gun violence — not promoting literacy.
One of the barbers, Kai Butler, welcomes the books.
“We know that education for the children is key, like paramount in elevation,’’ he said.
“Wherever you need to be, you got to learn how to read,” Butler said. “And we just integrated it in here because kids come in here and they like to see books and colors and pictures. It’s really awesome.”
Third-grader Christian Howell was one of five kids with books in their hands at the shop on a recent Saturday morning. He was fixated on “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom,” the story of letters climbing a coconut tree.
“When you’re reading a book, it gives you more knowledge and your brain gets better at doing math at school,’’ Howell said.
Howell’s little sister, Karima, also joined in the fun. While the effort is aimed at boys, national statistics show that nearly eight in 10 black girls in fourth grade are also not proficient in reading.
“I’m reading ‘Captain Underpants’ and I’m in kindergarten,’’ she gushed. “I’m good at reading and I love math. I like vegetables, too.”
Then, there was the 3-year old who everybody calls “Noodle.” The boy’s enthusiasm was contagious as he showed off his book: “Not Norman, A Goldfish Story.”
“I reading a book!” he exclaimed. “A fish! Booowwww! It’s a fish!!”
Lisa Camper, who was at the barbershop with her children and works at a child care center, applauds the effort.
“It helps them out on the weekends, too,’’ Camper said. “They need to read all the time. Reading is very fundamental. And I read to my kids every night for an hour and a half. All parents should push their kids to read.”
This is the kind of reaction — and action — the Wilmington Library envisioned when it brought the program to Delaware. Barbershop Books operates in 16 other states. Philadelphia has a similar program called Books to Barbers.
“Literacy is such a key part of life and success,’’ said Carl Shaw, the library’s community engagement manager. “But yet people don’t see it as cool. People don’t see it as necessary.
“But if you put it in a place like a barbershop where a lot of cool guys hang out — and you have to get your hair cut, you have to stay groomed — it allows you to see the barbers actually put an emphasis on reading, which makes the child react with that enthusiasm as well.”
Prior to the launch in April, Shaw said the Bellefonte Lions Club held a shelf-building party to kickstart the initiative.
Another participating shop is Dude’s, located in downtown Wilmington.
Barber Darnell Wootson said the goal is “to give the children another avenue.”
“The only way you are going to get them guns off those streets is to raise the quality of life for the individuals and the only way to raise the quality of life for the individuals is to give them higher education,” he said. “They ain’t going to put that gun down if they don’t have nothing to replace that gun with.”
Shaw said the library doesn’t even mind if some of the books grow legs.
“We’re even going to start providing books to give away,’’ he said, “because when the books sort of walk away, we’re not going to frown upon that because that means somebody is enthusiastic enough about reading to say, you know, I want this book to come with me and we encourage that.”