Young, Black & Lit aims to empower young readers with books featuring Black characters

CHICAGO -- A local non-profit organization is working to encourage kids to read more through their free "LIT" programs that provide books highlighting Black characters.

The idea behind Young, Black & Lit came from one of the co-chairs, Krenice Ramsey's, desire to see her niece represented in books she was reading.

"I always buy my niece books for her birthday. A couple of years ago I walked into a bookstore and I couldn't find anything with little black girl characters and I left feeling really frustrated, so I decided to do something about it, " Ramsey said.

Krenice, her husband Derrick, and a small board comprised of friends and family decided to take it a step further and create a book service highlighting stories featuring black characters and give those books away to kids for free.

"What really drives us is the passion that we have as an organization and the excitement that we see from the kids when they get a book from us," Derrick said.

The group started with community events and have since partnered with schools across Cook County through their LIT YEAR program, which provides free books each month to kids in grades K-3rd, with an additional five books for the summer.

At the end of the program, each student will have 60 books in their own personal library.

"We use their services in two different ways, we use the LIT program what we have with the story store," Principal of Oakton Elementary School, Dr. Michael Allen said. "The store is a unique opportunity that students can take advantage of during recess where they are able come up to the story store and grab at least a book a week, free of charge to all students."

The group has given away nearly 17,000 books through their programs since launching in May of 2018.

"Students are able to build their home library with those books they get to pick as opposed to the school giving them something that we've decided for them," Dr. Allen said.

Parents and school administrators said they have already seen the benefits from students being able to access a wider variety of books.

"I think accessibility is always a critical piece," parent Yoli Joseph said. "So to have to have a provider, these folks that are passionate about what they're passionate about, they come into the school space, and they read [to them] and they ignite that passion in the students."

"One of the things I think that's powerful about Young, Black & Lit is that not only are marginalized and vulnerable groups like Black and Latinx students able to see themselves in ordinary everyday lives experiences and stories but it also gives other students of other racial backgrounds, the opportunity to see us in our purest humanity," Dr. Allen said.

Studies have also shown the critical importance of representation in children's literature. Many education scholars agree that when books serve as mirrors, allowing children to see themselves, their families, and their communities reflected, children feel valued.

"We've seen in the educational studies and research and why we focus on the kindergarten through third grade is that up until third grade children are learning to read phonics, but after that learning to read changes to reading to comprehend," Derrick said. "So what we're trying to do is make sure that at least in those critical years, Black children in particular, have all the access they can get to the book that will help them learn to read."

Students currently enrolled in the program also agreed.

"When I read about characters who look like me, it makes me think I have a place in this world, like I can make a difference, like make peace or something," Third grader, Rhodes Joseph said.

Krenice and Derrick said their goal is to partner with more schools around the country and eventually create a physical space where kids can gather to read and find books. The non-profit also offers an online bookstore where parents can browse and purchase books from their selection.

"We really want to be a resource so another parent can come to our website and look through our vast array of stories," Krenice said. "Not just about [Black children] during slavery or Civil Rights but regular stories about a little girl that likes bugs and likes to play in dirt. We deserve to see those stories shared about our children too."

To find more information about donating books, becoming a volunteer or visit YoungBlackandLit.org