A Neighborhood Staple Becomes a Reading Resource

How two friends are helping Black boys boost their literacy

In 2019, 35% of fourth graders in the U.S. performed at or above the NAEP Proficient level in reading. At the same time, due to a variety of socioeconomic factors outside of their control, just 18% of Black fourth graders met the same standard.

Reading proficiency, particularly by the end of third grade, serves as a major academic marker for success and is critical to a child’s transition from learning to read to using reading to learn. According to a report by United Way of Buffalo and Erie County, researchers estimate that children without basic reading skills by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school

In the Buffalo Public School District, reading comprehension is a serious problem for students. It’s estimated that three-quarters of students are unable to perform at grade level. But one local teacher is trying to change that.

Not content to sit idly by, Ruqayyah Simmons came up with a creative way to tackle the literacy gap—placing bookshelves in barbershops. Called Black Boys Read Too, the initiative brings books to boys at risk of falling behind in reading skills by locating culturally relevant and inclusive titles and authors in a place that feels safe and inviting: the barbershop. Young customers can now enjoy a book while waiting for their haircut.

Simmons and her friend and co-founder, Jelicia Jimenez, felt that placing books in barbershops would eliminate barriers to accessing books and create opportunities for familial connection. To date, the organization has installed bookshelves in eight barber shops around the Buffalo area, including one location in Niagara Falls. The bookshelves are all sponsored, with the latest being endorsed by Rich Products and installed in Mighty Fine Cuts, a local West Side barbershop. Each location boasts titles and authors specifically curated to engage and inspire Black boys, helping to encourage reading. Ultimately, Black Boys Read Too leverages a place that is meaningful and relevant for socialization and community to help close the literacy gap.

“Black Boys Read Too was created to address the large disparities in literacy by putting books in the hands of young boys (and girls) by any means necessary. Bringing books to the boys is our mission but Barbershop Bookshelves is just the beginning! In the past seven months since our launch, we have realized that Black Boys Read Too is not just about bringing books into barbershops, we’re also bringing joy. Seeing the smiles on the faces of so many children when they pick up a book with a character that looks like them or that is written by an author who understands where they come from has been the inspiration to keep our project going.”

—Ruqayyah Simmons, Founder of Black Boys Read Too