by Alvin Irby November 16, 2016
How would you feel if ever time you grabbed a book someone slapped it out your hand?
Unfortunately, many boys find themselves in classrooms, schools, and homes that ignore or are hostile to their reading interests. Research shows that boys’ reading preferences often do not align with the interests of their teachers, schools, or parents. As a new author of a gross humor children’s book called Gross Greg, I’ve seen first hand how adults respond to topics they don’t like. Here’s what I’ve heard from adults about the idea of reading a funny children’s book about boogers.
“Does it have to be about boogers?”
“Can’t you choose another topic?”
“I’m sure some boys would like it, but I could never read that.”
My years as an education director at the Boys’ Club of New York and as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher in New York City taught me that black boys, like all boys, enjoy reading and being read to when the topic is fun, funny, or interesting. However, many adults are more concerned about what they like or don’t like than what will inspire children. Like the Oscars, many children’s books are so white and the few books published with black protagonists often deal with a few limited topics: slavery, segregation, overcoming adversity, I love my black skin, I love my nappy hair.
These topics are important but do they inspire black boys to fall in love with reading. Probably not. This is especially important for boys whose primary reading experiences happen at school. If black boys’ teachers discourage them from reading gross silly books and they don’t have parents who take them to a library or bookstore to get these books, what are black boys to conclude? Maybe that the types of books they like don’t count as reading or that they aren’t readers because they don’t read the types of things that their teachers and parents want them to read.
Have you read a gross or silly book with a black main character? Have you even seen a children’s book fitting this description? Most people will answer no to these questions because as a society we have decided that young black boys don’t get to be children. Black boys don’t get to laugh or be silly, they get suspended. Just as life demands seriousness of young black boys, so does the reading. Why are urban elementary schools filled with programs teaching young black boys how to be men? Is it because when police officers and teachers see black boys they often perceive black boys to be significantly older that they actually are? Maybe?
I have some idea of why black communities and many of our schools tell black boys to “man up,” but keeping our brilliant little black boys safe shouldn’t require us to sacrifice black boys’ childhoods. Educators and parents may be saying to themselves, “I would never tell a black boy to man up,” but a careful examination of the messages we’re sending black boys would tell a different story. These exact words may not pass adults’ lips, but when we discourage black boys from reading gross silly humor books or we refuse to buy these books for black boys, what we’re really saying is:
Alvin Irby is the Founder and Chief Reading Inspirer at Barbershop Books, a community based literacy program that creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops. He is also the author of a hilarious new children’s book series called Gross Greg.
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