Bess the Book Bus will bring free books to Maine families this month. The bus, which carries thousands of new and used children’s books, is driven by Jennifer Frances and her crew, a group that is based in Tampa, Fla., and has conducted national tours since 2005.
“I’ve never been to Maine,” said Frances during a phone interview. “I’ve always wanted to take the book bus to Maine. It’s always a question of our resources, which are very tight. Thanks to the partnerships we have, we will be able to do it this year, and we are thrilled.”
The book bus will be in Maine Aug. 16-20 and Aug. 23-26, but the big event will be from 3 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 17, at the Houlton Recreation Center. Everyone is welcome to receive books from Bess the Book Bus.
One of the organizations that provides books to the bus is First Book, which is an international nonprofit that works through existing community programs to provide books for children. Frances plans to pick up 4,000 brand-new books from a First Book delivery in Philadelphia to distribute in Maine.
“I’m pretty excited because I travel to a lot of big cities,” said Frances. “I’m excited about the rural part of this trip.”
Frances said the bus is named after her maternal grandmother who walked to town with her granddaughter once a week to buy her a new book when she was a child.
The tour began April 28 and will end the third week of September. So far, they’ve visited 28 states, and they expect to add seven more before the end of the 2010 tour.
“I would love nothing more than to be able to include Maine in our tour every year,” said Frances, but it depends on funding.
This year, a number of factors allowed them to travel this far north. The bus crew doesn’t have to pay for lodging. Hosting the literacy event along with Frances are Dannette Ellis with the Aid for Kids Foundation, and Adopt-A-Block, an interdenominational organization from Houlton.
“Our goal is to raise awareness of how important reading is,” said Ellis.
“I’m a former schoolteacher, so I really like the idea of putting books back in the hands of kids,” said Adopt-A-Block event coordinator Lisa Surran. “It’s a groundbreaking event for Houlton. It’s neat that they’re coming to our little burg.”
CNN aired a television news piece on Bess the Book Bus when it visited New York. From that publicity, a man donated $500 — gas money to get to Maine.
“It’s just going to be a fun event,” said Frances. “We’ll have an incredibly stocked book bus, full of brand-new books that kids can choose from. We’re hoping that each family can pick out three-plus books.”
The book bus usually carries new books, but they accept used books. And they’ve started to offer more difficult reads to teenagers and young adults.
“We provide books that nobody else has yet,” said Frances, who receives donations of newly published books that have yet to reach bookstores. “A lot of my kids don’t usually get new things, so to have something that no one else has is wonderful for them.”
Frances suggests that children read “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” by Mo Willems, “The Book That Eats People” by John Perry and “Grumpy Bird” by Jeremy Tankard. For young adult girls, she suggests Elizabeth Scott books. The Bluford Series, a 15-book series by Anne Schraff, Paul Langan and John Langan, is another set of young adult books that Pierce has seen children and parents enjoy.
Their goal is to give away 50,000 books this year, and Frances is confident they will reach that goal. If things continue as planned, they should give away approximately 27,000 books during the summer tour.
“We will definitely be over 50,000 books,” said Frances. “We will probably approach 20,000 families served.”
This summer, the book bus has teamed up with Transitions Optical, an organization that conducts vision tests on children and gives them free glasses. Transitions Optical cannot make it to Maine because it will be in Tampa, Fla., for a mobile vision clinic, according to Frances.
“It’s a partnerships that we’ve developed with them this year, so it’s still in progress,” said Frances, who has worked with them in five states during her recent tour. “We’re hoping to travel the whole nation with them.”
The Maine outreach is broken into two visits because Transitions Optical is flying the book bus crew to Tampa on Aug. 20 to participate in Backpacks of Hope, an annual event that Frances usually participates in but planned to miss this year because of her scheduled stop in Maine. Then the crew will fly back to Maine to complete their outreach and continue the tour.
“It’s looking like we’ll have more time and reach more people now thanks to that,” said Frances.