When Sidney Keys III was 10, he wanted to read books about boys who looked like him.
Unfortunately, he could not find any in the library, so his mother took him to an African American bookstore near their home in St. Louis.
“It felt like a whole new world opened up to me,” said Sidney, now 17 and living in metro Atlanta with his family. “Being able to open a book and relate to the character was something I hadn’t had a great experience doing before.”
He asked the owners of the EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore if there was a boy’s book club he could join. No. Only clubs for girls.
“Ten-year-old Sidney at the time said, ‘I’ll just start one for me and my friends then,’” he remembered.
His mom, Winnie Thompson, took a video of Sidney announcing his new club and posted it to Facebook. It got 65,000 views. Sidney knew then that his idea would have an impact, but he could not have imagined what it would become.
He hosted his first club at the bookstore in the summer of 2016. Seven boys showed up. Sidney sold little bags of chips that they all ate while discussing their book.
“We’ve been growing exponentially ever since,” said Sidney.
In the past decade, more than 750 boys from the U.S. and Canada have participated Books N Bros, the only youth-led book club where Black boys ages 7-13 can explore African American stories and literature.
He and his mom curate boxes of books representing diverse perspectives and ship them across the country. Then Sidney hosts virtual and in-person meetups monthly to discuss the current selection.
The mother-and-son team turned the book club into a subscription-based nonprofit to keep the club sustainable. “Books are not cheap, and this gives us the ability to give back to most we can to our members,” said Sidney.
Club members, called “Cool Bros,” pay a monthly fee of $33 for a specially curated book club box with the featured book, snacks and other book swag.
Every first Sunday from 4-6 p.m., members and adult male mentors meet to discuss the book. These meetups had been virtual through the pandemic, but are now restarting to include in-person.
Locations will vary, but club meetings in metro Atlanta are always at the Books N Bros headquarters on Atlanta’s upper west side, at 1314 Chattahoochee Ave.
Samantha Lurie, an educator with Teach for America in Atlanta, said she loves the group’s motto, “Cool Bros Read,” and its emphasis on African American stories and literature. Before coming to Atlanta, Lurie was a school teacher in St. Louis and became familiar with Books N Bros there.
“I just love how (Sidney) is dedicating his young life to really making sure that there is a representation in literature as well as creating a place to show that reading is cool and we can come together,” she said.
In the club’s early years, Sidney selected books he thought were best, always trying to mix genres to keep the boys reading a variety of titles. Now, recommendations also come from authors, bookstores and members.
When he was younger, Sidney enjoyed reading graphic historical novels and other historical fiction. He especially liked books where the main character is a teenager who returns to the past. These types of books make history interesting, he said.
He said schools should be more flexible with their curriculum and include books representing different cultures.
“What students were reading 25 to 30 years ago may not apply to what students need to be reading today, and they need to be flexible to change their curriculum to fit modern necessities,” he said.
A student at Pace Academy, Sidney was president of the Black Student Alliance and played football. The rising junior hopes to attend an historically Black college or university and has his eye on Howard University.
In the meantime, he’s focused on his newly released book, “Books N Bros: 44 Inspiring Books for Black Boys,” and expanding the club to other states. He will attend the Prudential Emerging Summit in New Jersey this summer.
Sidney was one of 25 young people selected nationwide by Prudential Financial for creating innovative, bold solutions to challenges in their communities. Each received $5,000 to advance their projects.
“It’s very inspirational for him to be so young and see this problem and create a solution,” Lurie said.
She says the mother-son team shows how families can collaborate with the community to create solutions for gaps and inequities.
Interested families can sign up at booksnbros.com/shop to seek membership options for boys ages 7-13 starting at $33 per month. Sponsors are also needed.
Members receive a specially curated book club box that includes a featured African American book (to keep), snacks, book swag and access to male mentors who also join in the book discussions.