A nonprofit’s free book distribution took a hit during the pandemic. It hopes to change that with a mobile library

Six-year-old Melvin chose two books from Treehouse Books’ mobile library

Six-year-old Melvin chose two books from Treehouse Books’ mobile library, parked at a community event at Urban Creators on North 11th Street in Philadelphia on April 7, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Tree House Books is bringing books right to Philadelphia kids with a mobile library.

Tree House Books’ philosophy is straightforward: Books in children’s homes is a measure of future success. Since 2005, the nonprofit has made it its mission to support a new generation of readers and writers in North Philadelphia through literacy programs and book giveaways. They distributed more than 80,000 books in 2019.

“If you have the agency and the autonomy to be able to choose the book that you’re going to be able to read, you’re just more likely to read that book and to engage with that book,” said Tree House Books Executive Director Michael Brix.

But like other people-facing endeavors, Tree House Books had to rethink all its programming during the pandemic. The center adopted virtual read-alongs and craft time, while in-person activities were limited to their equity pods designed to offer safe space and support during virtual learning.

Tree House Books on West Susquehanna Street in North Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Still, its giving library had to close under the commonwealth’s orders, as did the partner recreation centers which Tree House stocks with books. The work of distributing children’s books became harder. By the end of the year, the organization had given away a total of 50,000 books, representing a dip of 30,000 books from the previous year.

“We started almost immediately trying to think about what were ways that we could continue to fulfill that mission, and maybe even create a program that would outlast the quarantine,” Brix said.

Free books are available from Tree House Books’ mobile library, parked at a community event at Urban Creators on North 11th Street in Philadelphia on April 7, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Like the nonprofit’s North Philly headquarters, the van is stocked with books by Black authors, as well as books that feature Black characters and other characters of color.

“We think that it’s really important, that especially the kids in the neighborhood that we serve can see themselves in the books that we’re distributing,” said Brix, adding the organization is partnered with Black-owned businesses like Harriet’s Bookshop.

Free books are available from Tree House Books’ mobile library, parked at a community event at Urban Creators on North 11th Street in Philadelphia on April 7, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Traveling Tree House — a gutted van, transformed into a portable library on wheels — made its inaugural trip in March thanks to donations from sponsors. On Wednesday, the van parked in front of an urban farm at 11th and Dauphin streets in North Philly.

As residents scoped out Urban Creators’ free seed, free food, and free diaper stations, or stopped to play a bit of ping-pong, children like 6-year-old Melvin could pick out some free books.

“I like to read any book,” said Melvin showing off a book about LEGOs and another about nature and science.

Melvin’s grandmother, Diana Wilson, said it was tough to satiate the boy’s appetite for books during the pandemic.

“Because I know the library shut down, you had to get them from the store, and the school give them books to learn with,” said Wilson, who stocked Melvin’s shelf with buys from the dollar store. “I think [the bookmobile] is nice. Because he can come get a book every week.”

The Traveling Tree House will primarily focus on giving out books in North Philly, with a handful of dates picked out for giveaways in Oxford Circle, Fairhill, and Smith Playground in Fairmount Park. Brix said the nonprofit’s goal is to give away 10,000 books this year through the van and there are plans to eventually distribute books in other parts of the city.

Eleven-month-old Sev-yn Brown got a pop-up book from Tree House Books’ mobile library, parked at a community event at Urban Creators on North 11th Street in Philadelphia on April 7, 2021. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

But for now, new mom Chanella Brown and her son Sev-yn, who is about to celebrate his first birthday, might make it a weekly habit to pick up a book from the van.

Brown is trying to spark Sev-yn’s interest in reading early in life. A volunteer helped the duo pick out a pop-up book.

“As soon as she passed him the book, he straight grabbed it and didn’t let it go, so I already know he liked the book,” she said as her son posed for a picture.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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