FORT KENT, Maine — If you spot a little bus with Florida license plates and colorful images of children and puppies reading books painted on the sides rolling along Interstate 95 or up and down the streets of your Maine town, it is certain you have encountered Bess the Book Bus.
The Tampa-based bus has been delivering free books to children, schools and libraries in towns and cities throughout the country for 20 years and in Maine since 2010. The bus’ theme this year is “On the Road to a Million” because it is expected to deliver its one millionth book in Texas later this month.
The aim of the non-profit is to promote literacy and narrow the academic achievement gap, according to Book Bus founder Jennifer Frances. At a time when the costs of necessities such as food and fuel are straining budgets — especially in rural areas — books are a luxury many families cannot afford to purchase. Free books such as these allow all children access to book ownership.
“I’m like the cousin from away — I come every summer to hang out,” Frances said. “The nice thing about Maine is we get a lot of emails and letters from people, especially Houlton.”
Bess the Book Bus is funded through several philanthropic organizations, especially in the Tampa Bay, Florida, area, and include giants such as Citgo, Townsend Press and Mercedes-Benz USA, which provided the current vehicle and retrofitted it for the book project — a 2011 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter 3500. Several smaller organizations and individual people also donate to the project.
Bess visited the Fort Kent Public Library Wednesday to the delight of dozens of youngsters who stopped by to pick out a free book.
Sporting a St. Francis T-shirt and Dead Eye Trucking cap, 6 ½-year-old Alex McBreairty smiled from ear to ear while he checked out an assortment of National Geographic books, from which he selected one about vikings.
The youngster plans to be a truck driver when he grows up, just like his dad, Lance McBreairty.
“He’s a great little reader,” said his grandmother, Vicki McBreairty, who accompanied him to the book bus.
Bess also donated a boxful of books to the library, much to the appreciation of library director Andrew Birden.
“It’s exciting to me that we have so many enthusiastic readers in our community and that Bess the Book Bus will come up and nurture that,” Birden said. “We don’t have a book budget really.”
Frances drives the little bus and brings along a hammock and tent so she can take advantage of camping outside along her cross-country journey whenever possible.
“Maine is absolutely beautiful. There’s no place like it,” Frances said.
The bus has yet to visit Milbridge, Jonesport and Skowhegan before rounding out its Maine tour in Houlton.