“I really, really believe in the power of books and storytelling.”
Jennifer Frances, Founder of Bess the Book Bus
I’m in love. In love with a bus. That’s right, a bus. But not just any bus. I’m in love with Bess the Book Bus — and with the beautiful spirit behind it, Jennifer Frances. Back in 2002, Jennifer quit an unfulfilling job, cashed in her 401K, and bought an old VW bus. Inspired by a note she wrote in her journal about her grandmother Bess O’Keefe, who taught her “the joy of reading,” Jennifer decided to launch her own book mobile for kids.
Jennifer began modestly, driving to hospitals and clinics in her hometown of Tampa where she began handing out books to kids. Over time, she logged more and more miles — and gave away more and more books. In 2010, she took a 14,500 mile cross country tour, donating tens of thousands of books to underprivileged, inner city kids, who each get to pick two or three books to keep for their very own. In 2012, she hit all 50 states.
In the past 10 years, Jennifer has given away close to 200,000 books to everyone from tots to teens. She’s driven through a number buses and attracted a number of sponsors, from Citgo and Mercedes Benz to Ford and Target — who’ve happily supported her nonprofit literacy program. When donations are thin and sponsors are scarce, Jennifer keeps her buses going by waitressing. “It’s a constant struggle. The grassroots and nonprofit world is not for the weak of heart,” she confesses. “But I couldn’t be happier or more grateful to be doing this.”
Along the way, Jennifer has learned a lot. “In rural Maine there’s no bookstore within an hour’s drive. In places we’ve visited in the Navajo Nation, there’s no library. The kids don’t get that magical experience of picking a book.” She’s been to schools that have no libraries, no art programs, and virtually no resources. But she’s also seen tremendous dedication and the joy that books can bring:
“Those of us that overcame poverty did so because people invested in us. If not financially, emotionally. Someone believed in us–inspired us. For some of us it was our parents or grandparents. For many of us, it was our teachers. They are constant champions in my world. In these last 10 years, I have met a lot of incredible teachers. Working in failing schools with minimal resources, the best teachers still manage to foster a sense of wonder in our kids. They lead by example, showing that circumstance is a thing that can be overcome. These teachers find a way to get our kids what they need; often purchasing the items themselves. They defy the belief that some kids are not able to learn; not worth the time. They refuse to accept that it is already too late for some of our kids. Instead, they rally them. They set the standards high, and make sure our kids believe they are capable of anything. Now it is our turn. That is why I started Bess the Book Bus in 2002.”
To learn more about Jennifer’s wonderful work to create new readers — and future writers! — visit: bessthebookbus.org. Bravo, Jennifer! Ride on!