WINTERPORT — Children visited the Winterport Memorial Library Aug. 31 to pick out a free book from Bess the Book Bus, a nationwide program that tours the country giving one free book to children in areas where there are a lot of low-income families.

Several children visited the library that day looking through a few stacks of books. They could be seen sitting on the library steps or in front of the book stacks thumbing through pages and deciding which book they wanted most.

A little boy chooses a free book from Bess the Book Bus at the Winterport Memorial Library Aug. 31. Photo by Kendra Caruso

The program targets children who might not have access, financially or otherwise, to books, according to Jennifer Frances. “The most important part is when the kids come out here and find their favorite book,” she said.

Frances started touring the country with a van full of books in 2002, she said. After 20 years, she is expecting to give away her millionth free book later this year on a stop in Texas.

Jennifer Frances poses for a photo at the Bess the Book Bus event at Winterport Memorial Library Aug. 31. Photo by Kendra Caruso

She started her five-week nationwide tour Aug. 25 in Tampa, Florida, and is expected to end the tour Oct. 2, she said. She will visit 21 towns across the country during this tour; 10 of those days will be spent in Maine traveling to seven libraries, four schools and three community events.

Before she came to Maine, she was unaware that there were areas in the state with high rates of children living in poverty, she said.

In 2020, the national rate of minors living in poverty was 16.1%, according to the United States Census website. The rate of children living in poverty in Maine for that same year was 12.8%, according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s website. However, six of Maine’s counties, mostly situated in the northern and western parts of the state, had child poverty rates above the national average that year.

Piscataquis County had the highest 2020 child poverty rate in the state at 21.2%, while the number of children in Waldo County living in poverty was just below the national average that year at 15.6%, according to the Department of Agriculture’s website.

Frances has found that libraries still seem to the center of culture in communities and that seems to more evident in Maine, she said. “Libraries are the hub communities all over but I think in Maine, it is more so,” she said.

All of the fuel she uses while touring is provided by Citgo and the books are either donated or purchased at a reduced rate from publishing companies like First Book, she said. Supply chain issues crated a shortage of books this year, but she has still been able to get books through Scholastic and Capstone Publishing and will fill the bus back up with books at the end of her trip.

Winterport Librarian Reba Stewart first met Frances while the Book Bus was making a stop in Jonesport several years ago, Stewart said. They kept in contact until last year when the Book Bus was finally able to make its first stop at the Winterport Library.

Susan Atwood, another Winterport librarian, thinks more people attended the event this year compared to last year, she said. She thinks word-of-mouth helped publicize the event this year.

The event was also a chance to show off a mural the library just had installed. It features woodland creatures in different scenes calling to various stories. Local artist Lucky Platt, of Burnham, created the mural and said it is a celebration of librarians and community.

The painting was made possible by donations from late library patron Marilyn Worcester, Atwood said. She was an art teacher who enjoyed art and loved the library, according to her daughter, Meridee Worcester.

Atwood is pleased with the resulting mural, she said. “It’s over the top, it’s beyond what we had ever envisioned it could be,” she said.