Sidney Keys III, of St. Louis has always loved to read. But increasingly, the fifth grader found it tough to find books that featured African American characters at his elementary school library. That’s when his mom, Winnie Caldwell, took him to EyeSeeMe, a kids’ bookstore in University City, MO, that specializes in African American literature.
“We were both in awe,” recalls Caldwell of their first visit, over the summer. “I couldn’t help but spread the word. So I did a Facebook Live video showcasing Sidney reading at the store, and it went viral.”
After meeting with the EyeSeeMe’s owners, Sidney got the idea to form a book club for boys ages eight to 12 who were searching for positive characters they could relate to, like the entrepreneurial Danny Dollar in Ty Allan Jackson’s Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire: The Lemonade Escapade (Big Head Books, 2010). He called it Books N Bros, and targeted boys. Why? As his mom explained in an interview on St. Louis public radio, there’s a huge drop in the numbers of boys who read for fun, starting around age 10.
Besides spurring others to become book lovers, Sidney has a more personal motivation: he loves discussing stories. “If you’re reading a book and you tell your dad or mom about it, they won’t understand the story if they haven’t read it too,” he explains. During the club’s meet-ups, “we can actually understand each other” as they go over the plot’s details.
Since September, the book club has met every month and now has about 20 members (five of whom are sponsored with donations from the “Adopt a bro” section of the Books N Bros site). Membership dues are $20 a month, which includes a free book and worksheets to jump-start discussions, as well as snacks and drinks—and a 30-minute gaming session at the Books N Bros meeting site, the Microsoft store at the Galleria Mall in St. Louis.
The bros spend the hour discussing that month’s choice—past books have included Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures (Harper, 2016) and Ty Allan Jackson’s The Supadupa Kid (Big Head Books, 2012)—and then discuss what to read for the next session.
“We read the back cover and maybe the first chapter of some of the books we’ve picked and vote after that on which one we’d like to read next,” Sidney says. With business out of the way, each boy gets to play video games on a personal Xbox console at the store.
While gaming and reading may not seem like natural partners, Caldwell says that they are. “It’s important to meet people where they are in the digital age,” she explains, adding that club members are also learning to use Microsoft tools including PowerPoint and Microsoft Sway to create their own stories. Since the boys are already interested in tech, “why not help enhance both sides of the brain?” she adds. “We can tap into the left side with literacy while enhancing the right side with tech and creativity.”
Books N Bros has already hosted Jackson via Skype for their first meeting. The group wants to invite other authors, such as Patricia McKissack and Shetterly, to meet with club members as well. In fact, says Sidney, his guest speakers and big-bro mentors are what sets Books N Bros apart from his school library’s book group. He wants to branch out with book choices as well. “I love African American literature, but I’d also like some diversity in the books,” he says. “Some of the other bros like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, so that book might be in the near future.”
All the publicity surrounding Books N Bros has had a positive side effect. “Sidney has noticed that African American books are more available at his school library now and he’s grateful,” notes Caldwell. “As his mother I’d just like to say that the feeling we had at EyeSeeMe for the first time should be the feeling every child experiences at their local bookstore and library. There’s nothing better than seeing someone you can relate to in a positive story—it provides kids with endless opportunity.” Or as Sidney puts it, “What I find so enjoyable about reading is there is no limit to how many books you can read.”
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