Words on Wheels
Curiosity Cruiser gives gift of reading
Decades ago, as kids, Trish Morille and Stephanie Tsuru would always run to meet the mobile library when it rolled into town. They were eager to choose a new book, meet new characters and get lost in a story. Libraries became a refuge for Morille, whose father’s position in the U.S. Army Special Forces took her family from small-town America to posts overseas. “Books were so important in my life,” she said. “They were my friends growing up.” Tsuru, who grew up in Missouri, was also surrounded by stories. She relished reading Heidi and Little House on the Prairie with the encouragement of her English-teacher mother.
Years later in Houston, Morille and Tsuru were dismayed to learn that research has shown that in low-income areas, only one book is available for every 300 children. Lately, across the U.S., funding has been cut for school libraries. Morille and Tsuru couldn’t imagine a childhood without books, without someone to help foster excitement about reading.
Through their work as co-vice presidents of community projects with the Ladies for Literacy Guild – an initiative of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation – Morille and Tsuru recently helped unveil the Curiosity Cruiser.
Driven by a Harris County Public Library librarian, the unique mobile library will make its way into Houston’s low-income neighborhoods and bring books to children. While some school districts in the Houston area have summer mobile libraries, none have a year-round program or include education programming.
“So many children have nothing in their home to read and love,” said Tsuru, a former journalist, who, along with Morille, presented the idea for the cruiser to her fellow Guild members. “We want to create value in books, to make reading and books meaningful, and to get children to fall in love with storytelling. If kids couldn’t access a library, we’d bring the library to them.”
Historically, popularity for mobile libraries waned during the World War I and II and the Great Depression, but surged again in the 1950s. In the 1970s and 1980s, rising gas costs and budget cuts once again took a toll. But now, they’re coming back.
On a recent Thursday morning at the cruiser’s public debut, one-by-one, smiling kindergarten students from Mario Gallegos Elementary School climbed onto the truck, a retrofitted FedEx vehicle painted in bright blues and yellow, to pick out a free book. Copies of Green Eggs and Ham and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie lined the cruiser’s shelves.
The cruiser’s mascots, Owlbotron – a child that spends time at his local library and finds that books give him courage – and Northtale – the local librarian – are painted across the side of the truck. The mascots appeared in person at the debut; children lined up to take photos with the superheroes and give them high-fives. “The idea is reading can turn you into a superhero,” said Tsuru.
The cruiser will officially hit the road in January, and visitors will be able to pick up a library card and check out books. In addition to housing developments in low-income areas, the cruiser will stop by parks, recreation centers and city-wide events. The librarian on board will lead free activities tied into the cruiser’s books. Children might read a mystery book and learn how to solve a crime, or a science-related book and perform an experiment.
Kids will also receive free books from Guild book drives that will help them build their own library at home. Last year’s drive drew 14,000 books. During this year’s Feb. 21 to March 2 drive, led by Lisa Jakel and Rosie Damgaard, the Guild hopes to collect more.
“For many children, books are simply a luxury,” said Betty Hrncir, president of the Ladies for Literacy Guild and a retired teacher. “There is no greater joy when the lightbulb comes on and they get it.”
The group also outfitted the cruiser with speakers, which will play Owlbotron and Northtale’s theme song, alerting neighborhoods that the cruiser has arrived. “We want to trigger that emotion in kids,” said Tsuru.
Morille passed on her love of reading to her now-grown children. When they were little, she would gather a stack of books, and they would curl up in bed together to read. She’s hoping the cruiser will inspire similar moments for other families.
“There’s something incredible about having a child in your lap reading,” she said, “sharing time and space, and the magic of pictures and words. I long for that for other children.”
Editor’s Note: To donate gently used children’s books, see www.bushhoustonliteracy.org/ladies-for-literacy.
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