Iowa City Reading Tree creating community for readers

The story starts more than a year ago with the August 2020 derecho.
Published: Jan. 3, 2022 at 10:37 PM CST
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IOWA CITY, Iowa (KCRG) - The story of the Iowa City Reading tree goes back a year and a half ago, to the August 2020 derecho.

Joseph Hennager is the creator of the Reading Tree. “The tree was an 87 foot white pine that was leaning at a 12 degree pitch toward by house. And so when the derecho came it was rather dangerous,” says Hennager. Neighbors agreed to take the tree down as a precaution.

Hennager, who has a background in art, saw an opportunity to create magic in his community.

A 16 foot stump was left behind for the project, and Hennager got to work. “The project became sort of a mystical development in the neighborhood and everyone began donating books. A year, it’s taken a year and a half to get to this point but the scaffolding was up and people were donating books already,” says Hennager. Now, he has stacks of books stored in his home, waiting to take their place in the tree.

Now open for readers for all ages, the tree has a built-in lending library with dozens of books to offer anyone who stops by. It’s officially a chapter of the Little Free Library organization, located at 312 Ronalds St. in Iowa City.

Hennager wants the tree to start conversations and fuel a love of reading in the community. To help with that mission are the elves who live in the Reading Tree, waiting to help children pick out a book. Families can set up an appointment, and ring the doorbell on the tree when they arrive. An “elf” will be there to answer, and talk with the children about what kind of books they like to read. Intricate wooden carvings of animals line the roof of the tree to help conversation along- the “elves” can ask what kind of animal a child likes best, and then help them find a book about that animal.

The animals themselves have stories behind them. Hennager says they come from his travels and experiences, picking animals that hold a personal meaning or that interested him as a child. “I have a black lab that represents a dog I had for 20 years, and he’s still guarding the house,” says Hennager.

When warm weather comes, the Reading Tree hopes to be a space for hosting events and for book lovers to gather, listening to public readings and performances.

And though its been a year and a half of planning and building, Hennager isn’t done yet. “There’s a few years of work I still want to do on this thing,” says Hennager. “I have benches to put up, I’m going to put a large book in the lap of the tree up here. There’s going to be a book, the sacred elf history book we’ll put up for people to write their messages to the elves.”

You can find more information on the Iowa City Reading Tree here.

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