Book bus helps students keep reading

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — With students stuck at home, unable to go to school, access to new books can be a challenge. There is a woman in the Tampa Bay area with a bus load of books, that’s making sure students keep reading no matter what.

When Bess The Book Bus comes rolling into a school parking lot, students know they are about to receive a well-needed escape from reality.

“First thing they often do is hug the book or sometimes smell the book and you can just see that there is a relationship there forming between that child and that book. That’s when you know you have a reader,” said Jennifer Frances, creator of Bess The Book Bus.

Frances named the bus after her grandmother, who inspired her to read as a child, and now Frances is inspiring others.

“We are trying to build home libraries in areas where kids may not have access to books in their home,” said Frances. “A lot of our kids that come on the bus will tell us that this is the first book they have ever owned, which is really gratifying in one way but it’s really heartbreaking.”

Jennifer often teams up with Debra Canning of 21st Century Learning Center, who conducts after school programs across Pinellas County.

“I can’t say enough about her. She is an angel on wheels, no doubt,” said Canning.

Frances receives all her books byway of donations, often direct from publishers. Due to the pandemic her bus schedule had to be altered. She now coordinates her school visits with the free lunch program.

“Thank you all so much, because I’ll be arguing with them, ‘Get off the phones. Get off the laptops, open up a book,’” said mother Nicole Niblack, describing a typical day with her daughters.

Parents say for many families, going out and buying a brand new book is not an option.

“You got a lot of parents losing their jobs, so you know it’s a lot harder to get out and get what your children need to get through this,” said parent George Dixon.

Frances believes every book she hands out is a gateway to better world. There is no quarantining your mind.

“I thought maybe if they have books in their homes to share with themselves and their brothers and sisters then they have a place that they can quietly go and be in a different place for a little while,” said Frances.

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