Barbershop Books Receives 2017 Innovations in Reading Prize

May 02, 2017

Alvin Irby at the front of a barbershop

Barbershop Books, a community-based reading program founded by 2007 Alvin Irby ’07, has been awarded the 2017 Innovations in Reading Prize.

Barbershop Books, which creates child-friendly reading spaces in barbershops, helps black boys ages 4-8 identify as readers by involving men in boys' early reading experiences. By providing year-round access to culturally relevant, age-appropriate, gender-responsive children’s books in a traditionally male space, Irby hopes to expand book access for and increase out-of-school time reading among young black boys.

The National Book Foundation, with support from the Levenger Foundation, awards the prize annually to an individual or organization discovering new ways to empower communities through literature.

Barbershop Books will receive a $10,000 prize and will be recognized at the second annual Why Reading Matters conference on June 15 in New York City.

Over the past 2 years, Barbershop Books, based in Harlem, New York, has transformed 50 barbershops into community spaces that support positive early reading experiences for boys in 20 cities across 12 states.

"Winning the National Book Foundation’s Innovations in Reading Prize is a tremendous honor for Barbershop Books and for everyone who has supported our work," says Irby, a resident of New York City.

The National Book Foundation has given out the Innovations in Reading Prize since 2009. The foundation works to identify individuals and organizations that have made major local, national, and international contributions to readers. Irby is one of more than a dozen winners since the award’s inception.

Irby says he will use the $10,000 that comes with the prize to expand Barbershop Books to 10 barbershops in his hometown of Little Rock, the state capital of Arkansas. Irby plans to work on the expansion with Charles Blake ’05 who represents district 36 in the Arkansas House of Representatives. The district encompasses a portion of Pulaski County, which includes Little Rock. 

In collaboration with Irby, Blake will organize a local coalition to implement the program in 10 barbershops in Little Rock by the end of the summer. Barbershop Books will provide the books and bookshelves, as well as training for local barbers.

Irby, who will celebrate his 10-year reunion this June, has been invited to speak as part of a panel discussion during Alumni Weekend. The discussion is titled "Starting from Scratch: How Grinnellians Turned Their Passions into Businesses and Non-Profit Organizations."

In 2015 Irby received a $25,000 Wall Award from Grinnell College. This award, he says, greatly enhanced his ability to expand Barbershop Books. "Without Grinnell's early and generous financial contribution in the form of the $25,000 Alumni Service Award, I may have had to take a full-time job and work on Barbershop Books in my spare time."

Irby recently published his debut children’s book, Gross Greg, a humorous tale about a kid who likes to eat his buggers. Gross Greg is available from Irby’s website.

Irby graduated from Grinnell College with a bachelor's in sociology. He also holds a master's degree in education from Bank Street College of Education and a master's degree in public administration from the Wagner School of Public Service at New York University.

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