by Jenny Roberts
At age 13, Nyseem Smith walked into Tree House Books for the first time. His mother wanted him to get more involved in their community in North Philadelphia, so she sent him there.
Smith says he saw the former executive director of Tree House Books, Michael Roberson Reid, playing chess with a five-year-old child. Inspired by the environment, Smith knew this was the place for him.
“I got exposed to more creativity, more creative thoughts, which has only helped me in life,” Smith, now 22 and the program manager at Tree House Books, says. “That’s what we want our kids to get out of this experience.”
Tree House Books is a literacy center in North Philadelphia at 1430 West Susquehanna Avenue, dedicated to encouraging children to read, write and think.
“Literacy is the foundation of a happy life, a successful life and also the foundation of an economically strong and growing community,” says Interim Executive Director June Bretz, 45, who joined Tree House Books in September 2016.
Tree House Books also functions as a giving library, a pay as you wish book store. Community members can donate books to the library.
“If they can give a donation great, but otherwise it’s free books for anyone in the community,” Bretz says.
Tree House Books goes out into the community to distribute books to daycares and community centers, as well as in local homes through its “Words on Wheels” program.
Bretz says Tree House Books wants every child in Philadelphia who wants books to have access to them, so they can be empowered “to see beyond their immediate surroundings” and “to live the fullest life that they possibly can.”
Since its founding in 2005, Tree House Books has distributed 80,000 books to Philadelphia homes.
The nonprofit also offers literacy activities for children four to 16 years old through its Book Camp, an after-school program that includes group reading and creative activities.
Volunteers, mainly community members and students from nearby Temple University, lead these programs.
Ajza Shields,15, is a student at George Washington Carver High School of Engineering and Science and a volunteer at Tree House Books. She participated in Book Camp when she was in sixth grade.
“Before I wasn’t that big on reading, but now I just love to read,” Shields says. “I have bookcases full of books, and that’s really all I do all day.”
Shields says she enjoys helping children at Tree House Books with reading, spelling and drawing.
“They get happy when they finally do something by themselves,” Shields says. “And they say, ‘Thank you because you helped me so much.’”
At Book Camp, students reflect on texts through group discussions and creative activities, like painting, drawing and spoken word poetry.
Last fall, illustrator Julia Owens was brought in during Book Camp to help students create their own illustrations to accompany the book, A Chair for My Mother, by Vera B. Williams.
“We have found that students are able to comprehend better if they’re able to get their ideas about a text out on paper,” says Program Director Jessica Beaver, 23.
Because Tree House Books is located in a prominently Black community, Beaver says the organization works to highlight African American texts and bring in African American special guests, like teaching artists, authors and business leaders to engage with the students.
“They’re prominent members of the community that are successful,” Beaver says. “And they come in to talk about how literacy, how books, how reading and writing have been able to help them in their career and overall life.”
In 2017, Tree House hopes to collect and distribute over 50,000 books to Philadelphia households. And their goal is to increase that number every year until 2020, when the organization hopes to be distributing 200,000 books per year into homes throughout the city.