It was a heavy question to ask the group.
“Imagine you are ‘the man’ in your hometown, and you get kidnapped and taken to become a slave. How would you feel?” Shawn Filer, 18, asked.
“I’d be angry,” one of the boys said.
A moment later, another boy jumped up and broke into smooth dance moves in the middle of the circle that was talking about “The Kidnapped Prince: The Life of Olaudah Equiano.”
Filer smiled at Corion Henderson, 12, who had popped up a few times to show off his moves. This is how the discussion flows in this book club for tween boys that meets monthly in a converted fire station in Ferguson, Missouri.
The club’s founder, 11-year-old Sidney Keys III, is a wiry kid in glasses whose voice cracks occasionally while leading the meet-ups with the help of a “big bro” volunteer who keeps the group in check. On this Sunday in September, they are all wearing gray T-shirts that say “Cool Bros Read.”
More than a year ago, Sidney went viral in a Facebook Live video that his mom posted. It showed him engrossed in a book at EyeSeeMe, a St. Louis bookstore that focuses on books featuring African-American characters, culture and figures. Winnie Caldwell, Sidney’s mom, had planned a surprise trip for her son to the store as soon as she heard about it.
“I just wanted him to be able to see books with characters who look like him,” she said. Caldwell, 28, an entrepreneur and social media maven, had recently come back from a blogging conference where she attended a session on Facebook Live strategies. She was so impressed by the bookstore, she figured it was worth sharing and decided to try out the technology. She live-streamed a six-minute video of Sidney reading on the floor and gave a tour of the store. The video ended up being viewed 65,000 times.
“If I had known it was going to go viral, I would have put on some makeup,” Caldwell laughs.
She talked to store owner Pamela Blair about how to build on the momentum to encourage literacy among children. She and Sidney talked about a book club for boys his age.
“I said something corny, like ‘book club for boys,’ and he was like, ‘no,’” she said.
“I came up with Books and Bros,” Sidney said. Caldwell created a website within a few weeks and started promoting the idea on her Facebook, Instagram and blog.
When they launched, any boy between the ages of 8 and 12 could sign up for $20 a month to receive the monthly book selection with a curriculum she designed, a snack and small prize, along with an invitation to a meet-up. They’ve got nearly 60 boys signed up so far, and about 10 live outside the St. Louis area. (Now, the membership is $25). Blair typically suggests a few titles for Sidney to consider, and he goes to the store to peruse each book before deciding.
He looks for action-packed books that hook him from the start.
“I don’t like books that take a long time to figure out,” he said. Once, he stayed in the bookstore until he got to chapter five of a possible pick, while his mother waited.
“I can’t leave yet,” he said. “I have to figure out if I like this book.”
Sidney’s book club idea and his mom’s video attracted national attention, and even got a shout-out in O, The Oprah Magazine. Sidney said the visit to EyeSeeMe made him realize how few books in his school library featured African-American characters.
That’s exactly why Filer, a St. Louis-area high school graduate headed to Stanford University, decided to get involved.
“They are not going to read about kidnapped African princes in school,” he said. Boys read at lower rates than girls, and one way to counteract that is by keeping them engaged and connected to the content. The 2016 Kids and Family Reading Report by Scholastic found that boys trail girls in reading outside of school assignments. A larger percentage of boys (45 percent) say they struggle to find books they like.
The book club has done more than just bring together boys who like to read.
It’s given them a different way to imagine their own stories.