AILSA CHANG, HOST:
And now, how do you get kids excited about books if they don't have access to them outside of school and the books they see in school don't speak to them? One answer may be in the number 15. NPR's Cory Turner brings us the latest story in Take A Number, our series about people trying to solve all kinds of problems through the lens of a single number.
ALVIN IRBY: Hey, what's up, man?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's up, man?
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Levels Barbershop in Harlem is humming when Alvin Irby walks in, a man on a mission. He needs a cut from his barber Kenny, and he wants to check in on his books.
IRBY: So the bookshelf is back underneath the coat stuff. It's like...
TURNER: Irby points to a little bookcase made of wood and red canvas, full of children's books. There's supposed to be 15 different titles. A few have disappeared though, so Irby's here to replace them. Before he gets there, he freezes and smiles, eyeballing a black bench in the middle of the shop.
IRBY: This is evidence that it's being used.
TURNER: On the bench sit two books for beginning readers, including...
IRBY: We have "Ninjago", which is one of the books that often gets permanently borrowed, about little Lego characters who are ninjas.
TURNER: Irby takes it back to the bookcase and adds another favorite from his backpack, "Diary Of A Wimpy Kid." And then this man on a mission drops his mission statement.
IRBY: Now this is the thing. Would these be used for instructional purposes in the classroom?
TURNER: The answer often is no.
IRBY: But they should be.
TURNER: Alvin Irby is a stand-up comedian, a children's book author, a former kindergarten teacher and the founder of Barbershop Books. The nonprofit has put a curated list of 15 books - all picked by kids - in dozens of barbershops in predominantly black neighborhoods across the country. Irby says he wants children of color to identify as readers. That means, first and foremost, having fun reading. It also means seeing their lives and their interests reflected in the stories they read. But Irby says the publishing industry has a long way to go. When he went to a big book convention recently, many of the kids' books he saw there with black characters were about...
IRBY: Slavery, civil rights, slavery, civil rights, oh, a biography, slavery, civil rights, old dead black person.
TURNER: Irby's not just complaining. He's written a very different kind of children's book called "Gross Greg."
IRBY: It's about a little black boy who loves to eat his boogers. You call them boogers. Greg calls them delicious little sugars.
TURNER: For Irby, laughter is key to learning and a great way to connect with young readers. Too many schools, he says, fail to translate what they want kids to know or do into reading experiences that kids find relevant or engaging. In a recent TED talk, Irby explained this with an analogy from stand-up.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
IRBY: Before going on stage, I assess an audience. Are they white? Are they Latino? Are they old, young, professional, conservative?
TURNER: Teachers, schools and book publishers, he says, need to think of kids the same way because right now...
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
IRBY: We're creating reading experiences for children that are the equivalent of telling bar jokes in a church. And then we wonder why so many children don't read.
TURNER: Irby says schools need to focus less on leveled, out-of-touch books and reading tests that leave kids feeling defeated. And they need to listen more - to ask kids about their strengths and their experiences, what they like.
IRBY: Once you figure out how they identify, then you can begin to craft experiences that are customized to who they are and what's most important to them.
TURNER: Back in Levels Barbershop, what's most important to Vincent, a sixth-grader and the son of a barber, is "Diary Of A Wimpy Kid" because the hero's story feels kind of familiar and because it's really funny.
VINCENT: Everything goes wrong when he thinks that it's going to go right. Like when something good is about to happen, it just like gets ruined by his brother Rodrick.
TURNER: Vincent's enthusiasm - he's read every one of the shop's 15 books - is all the motivation Alvin Irby needs to keep growing Barbershop Books. Next month, he's hosting a New York City fundraiser in a comedy club. Cory Turner, NPR News, New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF GREGS TAGEBUCH'S "GIBT'S PROBLEME? - TITEL 01")
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