Wesley Bell, the first African American to serve as St. Louis County prosecutor, vividly remembered two books that transformed his relationship with reading when delivering the keynote address at Books N Bros’ sold-out inaugural Black Excellence in Literacy Gala Sunday night at Innovation Hall.
The first was the Wilson Rawlings novel “Where The Red Fern Grows.” Bell still hadn’t developed a passion for reading when he was assigned the book in third or fourth grade, but he still thought, “This is a good book.”
But as a 13-year-old student at Kirby Junior High School, he stumbled upon “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” when his teacher took him to the school library for an assignment that changed his relationship with books forever. He knew the name, but had no idea there was a book about him – let alone in his school library.
“It was like I discovered a lost treasure,” Bell said. “I was like, ‘They have a book on Malcolm X!’ If we want to reach our young people, we have to find what interests them. Often times its someone or something that they can identify with.”
At 13, Books N Bros founder Sidney Keys III is the same age as Bell was when he found the book that sparked his interest in reading. Through his book club, Keys has been promoting literacy among young black boys. Keys’ journey with Books N Bros also began when he found a common bond within the pages of a book.
His mother, Winnie Caldwell, took Keys to Eye See Me Books – a specialty store that focuses on African-American children’s literature.
He picked up a copy of Ty Allan Jackson’s “Danny Dollar Millionaire Extraordinaire” and couldn’t put it down. Caldwell posted a video clip of Keys reading that went viral. Keys wanted other young black boys to experience the same euphoria that came over him when he was connected with a young black boy character. He started Books N Bros. Nearly three years later, Keys has received international acclaim for Books N Bros. And on Sunday, the people who connected the dots were in the building celebrating together.
Jeffrey Blair, owner of Eye See Me Books, sat at the same table with Jackson. Each table was named in honor of a legend in black literature. The names included James Baldwin and longtime St. Louis resident Patricia McKissack.
“It’s really quite overwhelming to see the progression in such a short period of time,” Jackson said. “To see where this has come from to where it is, it is really quite spectacular.”
Jackson spoke of courage and purpose during his brief time at the podium.
“It took the courage to open Eye See Me, for Winnie to take her son to the bookstore,” Jackson said. “It took the courage for us black authors to create this literature so that these young people can find and see themselves reflected. It’s not enough to just have courage, you need the action after the courage.”
Books N Bros was pointed to as courage in action.
“I believe that we must lead by example,” said mistress of ceremonies Marty K. Casey. “Look at what Sidney has done. He has taken his love of reading and changed lives.”
Books N Bros took time to honor the mentors of the club – endearingly referred to as “big bros.”
“I’m a big bro to Winnie literally and a big bro to these kids figuratively,” said Ishmael Sistrunk, who spoke on behalf of the big bros receiving their certificates.
“All of these guys, we are at the meetings every month. We see all of the kids. We talk to them. We read with them,” Sistrunk said. “I think it’s so important for them to see young black men reading with them. They are changing the narrative by reading, and I think that we are also changing the narrative by being mentors by trying to guide them, help them and show them that positive influence.”
Books N Bros also has an “adopt a bro” program established in honor of Sistrunk and Winnie’s late brother Anthony Caldwell.
“I’m just grateful to see an organization in his name being able to help children and fund literacy,” Sistrunk said. “I want to tell the bros to keep dreaming big. And parents, continue to encourage them. Even if you don’t see their dream, even if you don’t understand it – help them get resources to put behind it.
“I don’t think Sidney thought that Books N Bros would grow and take him around the country and around the world. Your kids’ ideas and dreams can do the same.”
Winnie was overwhelmed by the support and response to Books N Bros and the organization’s inaugural gala.
“Tonight has exceeded my wildest dreams – just like the summer of 2016 did,” Winnie said. “Through your support, you are currently a part of a faith walk. You joined our journey of unwavering faith. It’s been almost three years, and we’ve never stopped.”
Bell told the audience that the work of Books N Bros has the power to change lives.
“In my new job, I believe in what we call research-driven, data-based policies,” Bell said. “We look at what works. And the facts are if you give young people an education, they are less likely to commit crimes. If you give them opportunity, they are less likely to commit crimes. If you give young people jobs, they are less likely to commit crimes.
All of these things start with giving them a book. If you want to change the world, do it book by book.”
For more information on Books N Bros, visit www.booksnbros.com.