Celebrating Black literature

The Black Book Exchange Box project encourages reading.
Black Book Exchange Boxes are stocked with all types of literature, from books for kids to adults. Photos by Kelly Sweet

You’ve probably seen them before — little wooden boxes, often resembling houses, mounted on posts in parks or neighborhoods. If you peer inside the little window, you’re sure to find an assortment of books. Cookbooks, fairy tales and paperback romance novels are just a few of the many literary odds and ends you’ll discover. One woman in Grand Rapids is making sure African American literature is on that list.

Aarie Wade is passionate about sharing Black people’s experiences through books.

Aarie Wade, director of the Child Development Center at Baxter Community Center, launched the Black Book Exchange Box project in 2019 to celebrate Black authors and their stories.

“I wanted a book house, and there was a book house around the corner from my house — I live in the Garfield Park neighborhood — and my daughters would visit it often,” Wade said. “Somebody donated a book house to the Baxter Community Center, and we were not really interested in having one of our own.”

So, Wade happily adopted the book box. It was only when her brother was installing it in front of her house that she got an idea.

“I decided that the books that go into my book house would represent people that look like me — represent our stories, Black authors and Black characters — so that when my daughters go to this book house, they don’t have to be let down because none of the books are interesting or represent them,” she said. “Our books matter, our language matters, our stories matter and it’s important that we are represented.”

Soon, Wade’s book box wouldn’t be the only one representing African American stories. With a little help from the city, she was able to expand the project to include more neighborhoods.

“Our books matter, our language matters, our stories matter and it’s important that we are represented.”
Aarie Wade

“This is a Grand Rapids Neighborhood Match Fund project, so it was funded through the city of Grand Rapids,” Wade said. “We apply for the grant through the city, and however much money they give you, you have to match it. Some of our donations came from the people who did the art and built the houses,” she continued. “We were also part of some fundraisers that gave us cash donations, and we had some volunteers come out and help sort books. There was a lot of support from the city with this project.”

Wade enlisted a local artist to paint the boxes. Each one tells its own story through its colorful, unique design.

“E’lla Luster Webber was the artist,” Wade said. “She asked what I wanted them to look like, and I said, ‘I want them to look Black, I want them to represent Black authors and be unapologetic,’ and that’s what she came up with.”

The six Black Book Exchange Boxes can be found in Garfield Park, Eastown and Madison Square, and on Francis Avenue, Noble Street and Plymouth Avenue. While the boxes are intended to serve the communities in which they’re located, folks from different neighborhoods are permitted to borrow books.

“Anybody who pulls up to the book house and wants to get a book is welcome to do so,” Wade said. “You can return it to any of the other book houses. It doesn’t have to be that same house, but we just ask that you read, return and repeat.”

The boxes are stocked with kid-friendly literature, but there are all kinds of books for adults, too.

“We have biographies, novels, children’s books, poetry books — so many different types of genres and age groups and reading levels,” Wade said. “There’s a good book in there by Omise’eke Tinsley, called ‘Beyoncé in Formation.’ We have ‘The Hate U Give,’ ‘Bud not Buddy’ — that’s one of my favorites — and we also have some real old-school Omar Tyree books.”

The Black Book Exchange Box project provides opportunities for people in the neighborhood to engage and explore through reading, and Wade is excited to be part of it. She always has been passionate about helping people in her community.

“I grew up — all my life — blocks away from Baxter Community Center in the Baxter neighborhood,” she said. “I really am passionate about early childhood education. I’ve worked in early childhood education since I was a teenager. It’s really rewarding to come back to my neighborhood and work in the community that I grew up in and in a field that I love.”

And since the project launched, Wade has noticed a change in that community.

“One of the positives from the project has been a sense of pride that we have something out here in the community that represents us, and it’s done in excellence, and it is a very positive representation of Black people and their stories,” Wade said. “It’s also promoting literacy in the Black community that is so needed.”

You can find Black Book Exchange Boxes at multiple locations around town.

Wade hopes the Black Book Exchange Box project will continue to grow and even spread to other neighborhoods.

“We have been awarded another city of Grand Rapids grant to purchase more houses,” she said. “I’m hoping to do at least four more houses in the city.” She added, “I want to encourage my Latino community to get some book houses and get some Spanish books out there in the community. My children are bilingual and it’s hard to find Spanish books that they enjoy reading. It would be really cool if they do the same in their neighborhood.”

Wade encourages people from different walks of life to explore the boxes. All are welcome.

“We want people to know more about our culture and our people and what stories we have to tell — our experiences,” she said. “I don’t want people to think that this is a book house for Black people, but it is a space for our people to share our stories and share our culture. The book houses are for all people to use. Black people are dope, and we want to share that with the world. All cultures can come to these boxes and really learn something from the many stories that are there to be told.”

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Ever since Pasha Shipp could talk, she's been dreaming up colorful stories. Fantasy creatures, mysterious kingdoms, enchanted forests, you name it. As she reached adulthood, she decided to take the magic out of her head and put it down on paper. Pasha has been writing for Grand Rapids Magazine since November 2015, and has loved every minute of it. She has a master's degree in Communication and a bachelor's degree in Film Studies from Grand Valley State University and Western Michigan University respectively. When she isn't daydreaming and writing stories for the magazine, she's exploring the many hidden treasures of Grand Rapids with her fiancé.