HOULTON, Maine — A blazing sun and significant lines did not stop hundreds of people from amassing Tuesday afternoon at the Houlton Recreation Center to visit a mobile literacy outreach bus offering free books to children.
Bess the Book Bus made its first visit to Maine on Tuesday during a three-hour stop at the recreation center. The sunny yellow bus, which carries thousands of new and used children’s books, is driven by Jennifer Frances and her crew, based in Tampa, Fla. Frances, 39, of Tampa cashed in her 401(k) to establish the bus eight years ago. The bus has done national tours since 2005 and added the stop in Houlton to its itinerary this year after a donor gave $500 gas money for the bus to come to Maine.
Host for the literacy event along with Frances were Dannette Ellis with the Aid for Kids Foundation, and Adopt-A-Block, an interdenominational organization in Houlton. Organizers turned the event into a carnival atmosphere by setting up bounce houses, giving away prizes and offering popcorn and other treats to attendees. Children squealed with delight as they bounced in the blown-up houses, passing the time until their parents signaled them to come onto the bus.
In the parking lot of the recreation center, Frances opened both doors of the bus as nearly 100 adults and children stood in line to enter it at 3:30 p.m. Two adults and their children were allowed in at one time to browse through the bookcases in the mobile unit. Each child picked out a few books and got a free bag to take them away in. Many of the titles were unfamiliar to the children, as the bus receives donations of newly published books that have yet to reach bookstores.
While most of those attending the event were parents with young children, the bus carries a number of books for teens and young adult readers too.
Linda Faucher, librarian at Cary Library in Houlton, was with her staff members Tuesday to distribute information about literacy events and other activities for children offered at the facility.
“We have been here since 25 minutes before this started, and the lines were already pretty long,” she said. “We wanted to promote story times and our craft events and we’ve got packets here that children can use to make bookmarks.”
She said she was “thrilled” by what she was seeing.
“This is fantastic,” she said. “It is their first time here in Maine and I’d like to see them come here again. Just look at the crowd. I can see why they will need three hours to serve everyone. It’s amazing. And the kids walk away with a book and a bag to put it in. It’s really wonderful.”
Bess the Book Bus is open to all children and receives books from a number of organizations, including First Book, an international nonprofit that works through existing community programs to provide books for children. Before arriving in Maine, Frances picked up 4,000 brand-new books from a First Book delivery in Philadelphia.
Frances named the bus after her maternal grandmother who walked to town with her once a week to buy her a new book when she was a child.
The national tour began on April 28 and will wrap up at the end of September. So far, the book bus has traveled to 28 states, and the group expects to add seven more before the end of the 2010 tour.
Christine Ferrell of Linneus and her 1-year-old daughter, Hailey, browsed the shelves briefly before Hailey found a book that appealed to her.
“I think this is just awesome,” Christine Ferrell said. “Anything that we can do as a community and as parents to promote reading at an early age is a great idea. This is a really fantastic opportunity that I had to take advantage of, and I think everyone should take advantage of it.”
Christina Henderson of Houlton agreed. She brought her two children, Cindy and Emily Hannigan, to the bus. Both picked out two books.
“This is great for the kids to be able to come here and pick out some books and new bags,” she said. “Some of these titles are new to us, which is great.”
The bus likely will give away approximately 27,000 books during the summer tour.
Connor Mitchell, 8, of Houlton came to the bus with two of his friends and their mother. He was waiting to enter the bounce house for a third time while he waited for his chance to board the bus.
“I can’t wait to get a couple of new books,” he said Tuesday. “I’ve already seen some of the kids come out with a few titles that I want.”
He said that he reads “all of the time,” mostly in the summer.
“I love summer vacation because I get to read more,” he said. “My mom lets me get a new book every few weeks or so, and I go to the library all of the time. I think a library on wheels is really cool.”
The bus is expected to return to Maine later this month after a trip to Florida.