If it weren’t for the rainbow-colored pinwheel and the sign out front that read “Free Books,” the bus parked outside Tye River Elementary School on a frigid morning Jan. 30 could have been mistaken for just about any other school bus.
One by one, children from different grades and classes filed outside, braving the brief walk to the entrance of bus, waiting for their chance to climb aboard.
Karen Wade’s third-grade art class was up next and after waiting for only a moment, Sharon Stone pulled a lever throwing open the doors to The Free Book Bus and the students stepped inside.
There were no seats on the bus, except for where the driver sits. Instead, books on shelves lined the walls and colorful drapes and decorations hung above.
“It’s a novel experience for them to get onto a bus and they expect it to look like a school bus and it doesn’t,” said Stone, who manages The Free Book Bus with her husband, Derrick Stone.
Although her husband couldn’t be there to help the students of Tye River that day, she was joined by her friend and first-time volunteer Evie Angevine to make sure everything ran smoothly.
Each class had 15 minutes to walk up and down the aisle, perusing the collection of children’s books Stone had brought with her during the all-day event. Once their time was up, each child stepped off the bus — some opting to hop over the last step — carrying two books they had just picked out. Some teachers even decided to take a book to keep for the classroom.
Stone said she expected to give away about 850 books that day, which would shatter her previous record of about 560. In an interview afterward, she said The Free Book Bus, which began in November 2018, gave away 894 books Jan. 30.
She added the book bus has two missions. The first is to offer books to children who can’t afford or don’t easily have access to books. The second is to foster reading encouragement, which was the reason for her visit to Tye River.
But other than breaking that record, Stone hoped each student would be able to find a book or two they liked. That was a sentiment echoed by Tye River Elementary School Principal Marti Bradt, who said this is the first time the book bus has visited the school. She also added she is grateful to give her students the chance to get excited about reading.
“Any time you can put books into children’s hands, it’s amazing and the children love it. The fact that they are allowed to choose makes it even more worthwhile,” Bradt said.
Wade agreed that for her students and all other students at Tye River, having books the children are enthusiastic about is great for their success in school.
“I think it’s really great to encourage them to be lifelong readers and to really encourage them to pick something they’re interested [in],” Wade said.
Stone and Bradt said the visit by the book bus was made possible through the efforts of Bright Start pre-K teacher Caroline Parr. Last year, Stone was working on places to visit with her bus when Parr reached out to her to come to a family picnic event for her class. It was that collaboration that led to the eventual visit by the bus to Tye River, according to Parr.
Stone wanted to come to Tye River to make sure all the children in Nelson had the same opportunities as children elsewhere.
“Nelson doesn’t have a bookmobile and a lot of the other organizations that do stuff like this are pretty much just operating in Charlottesville, so Nelson kind of gets left out of a lot of those programs,” Stone said.
Bradt said students having the opportunity to choose free books and being excited about those books will have a direct effect on their school work. She said each student has a 90-minute reading block every day in which they are responsible for reading books of their choice and applying what they’ve learned in the classroom to what they are reading. She said the more excited students are about their books, the better students will learn.
“Not only does it help them understand those skills and reading, but it expands reading altogether, it expands their vocabulary, it helps their fluency, all of those things.”
According to Stone, she didn’t always have her iconic yellow school bus.
“For [the first] event it was the book table, which was less fun,” she said with a laugh.
A month later, she purchased the bus at auction and The Free Book Bus made its debut in December that same year.
Stone said she gets most of her books through either donations or she hunts for them herself at thrift shops. Most everything she receives or buys is either gently-used or in new condition.
She added most of the funding to operate the bookmobile is provided through either individual donations or through grants.
As for Bradt, she hopes Stone and The Free Book Bus will visit the students of Tye River again next year, but she also hopes the children can learn a valuable lesson beyond just the importance of reading.
“I hope that Sharon will work with us and do this every year,” she said. “The main goal is just to excite our kids about reading, but also to let them know that out in the community there are people out there that are willing to help and support them and they don’t even know it.”