It’s the summer of 2002. Wendy Perron, a University of New Hampshire student on work study, drives a bookmobile around the city in an effort to convince kids that summer, while a time for play and relaxation, is also the time to read.
Sixteen years later, Perron is about to relive those glory days.
One business has donated a used van, another business will put decals on it next week. The Manchester City Library has donated 750 new books. Southern New Hampshire Services will provide snacks. Superintendent Dr. Bolgen Vargas has pledged to pay for ice cream at a couple of stops.
And Perron has lined up a host of volunteers — including Mayor Joyce Craig, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and New Hampshire first lady Valerie Sununu — as celebrity readers at bookmobile stops.
It will be the first time in 16 years that a bookmobile has rolled into the parks, school yards and neighborhoods of Manchester.
“That work resonated with me. The kids were very excited that summer. It was so simple, so powerful,” said Perron, who eventually earned education degrees and now oversees the English Language Learner program in city schools.
Perron used the data from her 2002 work study to select the spots the bookmobile will visit.
There are all sorts of good reasons for bringing books to kids in the summer. Every kid loses a little learning over the summer, but research by Johns Hopkins University found that poor kids — who lack easy access to books — slide further behind over the summer months. Research has also found value in letting a kid keep a book and — of course — having adults, especially parents, read to their kids.
But will it work? Bookmobile or batmobile, will kids open a book (perhaps even a newspaper?) when the sun is high and a pickup baseball game or the city is calling?
To find out, I queried a panel of experts — fourth- and fifth-graders at McDonough School, who spoke to me on Thursday (the second to last day of school).
“It’s reasonable,” said fourth-grader Marley Walker about a bookmobile. “A lot of people like reading. Certain people aren’t fond of reading.”
Walker and four other students weren’t aware of the bookmobile.
“Some kids will say it’s crazy because they like video games and stuff,” said fifth-grader Katherine Laflamme. “When you think about summer, you don’t think about reading a book, you think about going out, going to the beach.”
All had their favorite books — the Harry Potter series, Warrior Cats, Kitten in the Cold. All had their favorite reading spots — a porch, a swing, a bed, the air-conditioned living room. And all expressed a love for reading.
But with summer vacation just a days away, they didn’t have a lot of plans to read extensively.
One to five minutes, Walker said. Ten to 20 minutes, said Laflamme and fellow fifth-grader Amelia Dzelilovic. Ten minutes to six hours, said Lily Boudreau.
“If it’s a busy day, zero to five minutes, but if it’s not a busy day, probably thirty minutes,” said fifth-grader Asher Estep.
“Kids love (summer reading),” said Kelly Jobel, a media specialist at Parker-Varney School who oversees the Booked for Summer efforts. They include getting organizations such as the O’Neil Center and the Amoskeag Fishways to reserve time for reading. And the city libraries, the Mall of New Hampshire, the Currier Museum of Art, Families in Transition and other organizations have shoehorned reading programs into their summer events.
Jobel said the effort involves bringing books to kids. “Every parent I talked to last year loved it,” she said.
In 2002, that involved a box truck. The side was painted with characters from popular children’s books and “Readin’ on the Run” was painted on the side.
“It was clunky. It wasn’t anything fancy, but it did the job,” Perron said.
Despite all efforts, she couldn’t find the old truck. So Granite State Plumbing and Heating donated a retired Ford Econoline van, and Sousa Signs plans to clear up a few rust spots and wrap it in a decal.
Thom Sousa, founder of the sign company, said he remembers the Manchester bookmobile when he was a kid.
“It was a big vehicle. If I remember it right, it was the size of a school bus, but it was remade into a bookmobile,” said Sousa. He said the bookmobile had shelves, and kids could walk right into it.
That won’t happen this summer. Perron said she’ll have to put the books in crates and take them out at every stop.
All indications are this is going to be more than a one-year deal. On Friday, Perron learned that the U.S. Education Department approved a $40,000 grant to stock the bookmobile.
With enough books and activities, a bookmobile might end up changing the summer plans for a few Manchester kids.
“It sounds awesome,” fifth-grader Boudreau said. “Some kids don’t have the opportunity to go to the bookstore or the library.”