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‘Books shouldn’t be a luxury’ — reading program brings free books to South and West sides

Chance & Bri’s Books & Breakfast brings story time, crafts and free books to children across the South and West sides.

Chance the Rapper and educator Briana McLean read “The Boy with the Big, Big Feelings” at Chance & Bri’s Books & Breakfast event at Boxville one day before world mental health day.
Chance the Rapper and educator Briana McLean read “The Boy with the Big, Big Feelings” at Chance & Bri’s Books & Breakfast event at Boxville one day before world mental health day.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

On a sweltering October Saturday in Boxville, 6-year-old Josiah Wilcher sits on his grandmother’s lap, flipping through a book.

Pointing to each word, Josiah reads, “School Picture Day.” It’s one of his favorites.

As some two dozen other children rush about laughing, eating and doing arts and crafts, Josiah hops off his grandma’s lap to slip the book into a basket near two wicker chairs.

Soon, Briana McLean and Grammy-award winning artist Chance the Rapper will be in those chairs, reading to the crowd gathered for Chance & Bri’s Books & Breakfast.

McLean and Chance started Books & Breakfast in late July. McLean, a former kindergarten teacher at Marquette Elementary School, created the program after she “became very aware very quickly (that) what was happening inside of my classroom and the culturally responsive teaching that I was doing was not happening outside of the walls of my classroom.”

She created a non-profit — Boundless Early Education — that would focus on three things: digital resources filled with things like lesson plans; early learning literacy resources; and Books & Breakfast.

“It’s very, very good to get the kids excited about reading,” said Josiah’s grandmother, Vickie Long. “Joe ... now reads like a storyteller. It excites me! He doesn’t just read to read, he leads you to the page, and he really picked up reading very well.”

Josiah Wilcher raises his hand while Chance the Rapper reads a book during Chance and Bri’s Books and Breakfast event at Boxville in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Oct. 9.
Josiah Wilcher had a front-row seat to listen to Chance the Rapper read a book during Chance & Bri’s Books & Breakfast event at Boxville in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Oct. 9.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

On this particular Saturday, Oct. 9, McLean and Chance planned to discuss with students how to express and understand their emotions. So they partnered with Pinterest for World Mental Health Day on Oct. 10.

While the program brings families with students ages 3 to 8 together for breakfast, story time and early literacy crafts, Saturday’s event included sculptures promoting Pinterest’s “Invest in Rest” campaign.

For artist Dwight White, whose work was featured at the event, the reading, crafts and art were a great way to discuss hard topics like mental health.

“We have we have a lot of issues in our communities, and this is one of many,” said White, 28. “But there’s ways to bring people to a common place to start having the conversation to sit down, listen, engage and learn from the local community organizers.”

Following the World Mental Health day theme, Chance and McLean read and discussed “The Boy with the Big, Big Feelings.”

“Even though we might not be feeling the same thing, at any given time we have feelings,” Chance, whose full name is Chancelor Bennett, explained to the students. “Sometimes, they’re hard to express, and sometimes they’re hard to figure out exactly what we’re feeling.”

The students listened with rapt attention; some nodded eagerly in understanding.

When story time finished, students were allowed to “buy” three free books from McLean’s “bookstore,” which is open at all Books & Breakfast events.

“One of the things that Chance and I talked about remembering was the Scholastic Book Fair and how sad it was when you wanted to go and didn’t have money,” McLean said. “Books shouldn’t be something that are like a luxury. They should be something that are accessible for all students to take home and have forever.”

Over the past few months, McLean and Chance have delivered that message in several neighborhoods.

Besides Bronzeville, they’ve also been to West Chatham, where Chance grew up, as well as Garfield Park, Englewood and North Lawndale.

Those areas were chosen because McLean said they wanted to focus on Black and Brown communities.

Grammy-award winning artist Chance the Rapper raises his fist and calls out, “Power to the people!” The students, 3 to 8, yell back, “Right on!” It’s a signature move of his at many of the Chance & Bri’s Books & Breakfast events.
A signature move by Chance the Rapper at many Books & Breakfast events involves Chance calling out “Power to the people!” to which the students yell right back: “Right on!” Here, the Grammy-award-winning artist leads the children at Boxville in Bronzeville on Oct. 9.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

At their first event, McLean said about 35 families showed up. Since then, more and more families have started to attend, with the last event bringing in nearly 170 people.

For McLean, culturally responsive teaching doesn’t always mean focusing on race — in fact, she says that’s a common misconception.

“Throwing a Black or Brown face” into a book doesn’t mean the students who share a similar identity will relate to that character, McLean explained, “especially if you’re thinking about students who live in rural areas versus cities. Culturally relevant means you are pulling out specific things that are relevant to them so you can deepen their understanding of whatever they’re learning.”

As part of the partnership, Pinterest also created online boards for the arts and crafts — or “Make and Take” — that many of the students made throughout the day so families can continue the work at home.

Chance the Rapper and Bri McLean help Josiah Wilcher put glitter inside his “Be Still Bottle,” one of the crafts that coincide with the “Invest in Rest” Pinterest campaign.
Chance the Rapper and Bri McLean help Josiah Wilcher put glitter inside his “Be Still Bottle,” one of the crafts that coincide with the “Invest in Rest” Pinterest campaign.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

McLean hopes to continue spreading culturally responsive learning techniques to families and other teachers.

She’s not sure what that will look like just yet, but families around Chicago can register for the next Books & Breakfast at www.socialworkschi.org/news/chance-bris-books-breakfast/. Another event is planned for Oct. 30, though the location is still being worked out.

Cheyanne M. Daniels is a staff reporter for the Sun-Times via Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.