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Sunday, Sep 23, 2018
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Five questions with … Jennifer Frances of ‘Bess the Book Bus’

We catch up with Jennifer Frances, who this week was in Detroit, handing out free books to schoolchildren. Her nonprofit also offers free eye examinations and new glasses to children. Her book tours have made stops across the country in Midwestern cities; Buffalo, N.Y; New Orleans and Miami. She also has visited the Navajo Nation in the Southwest. Bess the Book Bus is on Facebook and at www.bessthebookbus.org. Q: What is Bess the Book Bus? Answer: It is a Tampa-based mobile literacy outreach that is dedicated to generating enthusiasm for reading and building home libraries for our kids across the USA. We travel nationwide with support from our sponsors at Transitions Optical, VSP Vision Care, Mercedes-Benz USA, Townsend Press, Capstone Publishers, Publix Supermarkets Charities and the Tampa Bay Rays. We serve more than 25,000 kids in underserved schools and neighborhoods annually. This year we are on our fifth nationwide trip which will take us to 35 states where we expect to give away 100,000 books. We will be in the Tampa area about half the year. Q: What motivated you to start this program?
Answer: In 2002 I was looking for a place to volunteer in Tampa. I needed to do something that felt good; something that made me better. I started to journal. I was doodling and writing down ideas I had for what I might like to do to give back. Bess the Book Bus came into my mind. She is named after my Nana, Bess. I call the way it happened the Pull of the Moon. The idea was a jolt. Suddenly, I knew. This was it. That week I bought a book on starting my own nonprofit. I cashed in my small 401k, bought a VW bus, a wagon and started asking everyone I knew to give me books. Q: What are you doing in Detroit? Answer: This is our fourth year in Detroit as part of our Success is in Sight Tour. We are here with Eyenstein, the Transitions Mobile Vision Clinic. Kids at two of our schools will receive free eye exams and glasses this week. We also partnered with CITGO as part of their national Fueling Good/Fueling Education Program at three schools to encourage reluctant and struggling readers. Q: What brings you the most satisfaction from doing this program? Answer: I am just so grateful to be able to live my dream. We have had some rough times over the years. We came close to going under a few times. We are determined to keep rolling. Nothing beats seeing kids’ faces light up when they get to pick out their own new book. Some do a little dance. Some shriek. More often than not, they hug it – and us! Q: When you find the time, what do you like to read? Answer: I can always find the time for a good book. I am a voracious reader. I am a haunt at Inkwood Books in Tampa and independent bookstores across the USA. I read a bit of everything – YA (young adult) books, horror, graphic novels. I am currently reading The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley while eagerly anticipating the new Stephen King book, Joyland. There is a special magic in picture books, even for adults. I often go into Inkwood Books, sit on the floor and read them. It is how I find my “read alouds.” I love Pete the Cat by Eric Litwin, anything by Mo Willems, the Wonky Donky by Craig Smith, and oh so many more. I love to read in an interactive way that makes the kids a part of the story.

Kathy Steele

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