By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Bess the Book Bus visits Dayton

“Wow,” Brianna said as she boarded Bess, a colorful Mercedes van that rolls across the country bringing books to kids.

Bess came to Dayton Elementary School this week at the invitation of reading and math teacher Connie Levenhagen, who always wants to build enthusiasm for books.

At every stop, each student gets to pick a book to keep. Looking at Bess’s groaning shelves, Brianna said, “I want to find a book about animals.”

“Animals? Sure. What kind of animals?” asked Jennifer Frances, who dreamed up the literacy program 10 years ago. Known as “Jen,” she now splits her time between giving away books and leveraging funding so she can give away more books.

Soon she and Brianna were combing the shelves for horse books and chatting about their riding experiences.

Brianna rides mini ponies and attends horse camp. Frances once had her own pony, which was as friendly as a dog.

“How do you do this?” Brianna asked Frances as she watched her classmates clamber into the bus and climb back out hugging books.

Frances said she has help from sponsors like Townsend Press, Capstone and First Book. They provide all sorts of reading material, from picture books for preschoolers to chapter and young adult books. And Citgo Petroleum Corporation helps with fuel so Bess the Book Bus can travel across the country from its home in Florida. 

“I get support mostly by saying, ‘Thank you,’” she said.

Frances told Brianna how, as a college graduate with an unfulfilling job, she dreamed of doing something that would really help people. She ultimately decided to create her own opportunity.

An avid reader since childhood, she knew just what she wanted to do — make sure kids had access to books. She named her program Bess the Book Bus in honor of her grandmother, Bess O’Keefe.

The program has put thousands upon thousands of books into children’s hands, Frances said. On this cross-country trip alone, it will distribute about 7,000 books; during the year, about 100,000.

That’s a great away of fulfilling her dream, she said.

“I have a dream, too,” Brianna told her. “I want to donate to my horse camp and start a horse camp.”

Frances handed the fourth-grader a business card listing her e-mail address.

“E-mail me,” she said. “We can talk about how you can do that.”

Later, clutching “Charlotte’s Web,” as she didn’t find any horse books she hadn’t read, Brianna said she’s definitely going to e-mail her new friend.

“I think this is really great,” she said, watching more students leave Bess the Book Bus. “I like it!”

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