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Floating Bookmobile
By Elizabeth Manning

Few kids around Bethel used to read while they were helping their parents and grandparents catch, clean and dry salmon at fish camp. But starting three summers ago, books can now be found in summer camps up and down the Kuskokwim River.

What made the difference? The Kusko Book Express, a floating library sponsored by the Lower Kuskokwim School District. The Book Express, now two skiffs strong, travels up and down the river, handing out books to students.

Last summer, the Kusko Book Express distributed thousands of books to 1,150 students. Lenora Arnold, the district's migrant education specialist, decided to start the program because the district had been giving out books for summer reading but books rarely made it out to fish camps.

Boy and girl reading at fish camp.
"It wasn't solving our problem," Arnold said. "Kids don't read in the summer and our reading scores are very low."

These days, reading is a common activity up and down the river, and the floating bookmobiles have become so popular that students recognize the skiffs and get excited when they see them coming. "Kids will chase you down the beaches," Arnold said.

The way it works is simple: Instead of hoping the kids will pack reading materials when they leave for fish camp, the district now brings the books to the students. Arnold packs the books in plastic tubs, which are organized and labeled by grade level. The boats start out a couple of weeks after school dismisses in the spring and make a circuit up and down the river throughout most of the summer, returning to Bethel every couple of weeks to restock. Along with the books, the Book Express also hands out Ziploc bags containing a spiral notebook and a workbook, plus crayons, pencils and prizes like inflatable beach balls.

The workbook suggests topics for the students to write about, like where were you born, who are your favorite elders, and what are you good at doing? They also encourage the children to draw. But books continue to be what the children are looking for, Arnold said.

Floating bookmobile and readers.
Arnold said that one summer a little girl cried because one of the boats had visited her fish camp and she was not there to receive a book. The little girl's father phoned a worker in Bethel and made arrangements to pick up a book for the child. Arnold said, "The little girl incident was a sign the Book Express is making waves.

"At fish camp, they have no TV, so we just capitalized on that. They were just begging for anything to do," she said.

Arnold said she thought of the program years ago after coming to Bethel from Oklahoma, but she didn't get support for the idea until Bev Williams, head of academic programs for the district, latched onto it three summers ago. Bev's husband, Carl Williams, a principal at Akiuk School, also became one of the skiff captains. The program was started with a $90,000 grant from the Migrant Education Department but now continues with funding from the school district.

Another goal of the program is to encourage parents to read so the students have good role models. But Arnold said she soon realized how busy adults are out at the camps, so instead of sending books for the adults, she now sends the two local newspapers, the Tundra Drums and the Delta Discovery. People love reading the newspapers, she said.

The Battle of the Books, a statewide reading competition, has also been a big help to get the kids reading. Some of the books they offer for the older students include To Kill a Mockingbird, The Perfect Storm and The Hobbit. The younger children read books like Caribou Journey, Stone Fox, or Jesse Bear, What will you wear?

Reading to baby at fish camp.
The competition requires the students to read 12 books, and Arnold said some kids are reading all of them. Some of the books are also written in Yupik. She has also heard reports from the river that high school students are discussing books they have read.

The program mushroomed in its second year and Arnold said she now oversees the warehouse and logistics while two boats with two staffers in each ply the rivers. The children are allowed to keep the books but are encouraged to pass them on when they are done reading them. They get to select no more than three books at a time.

In addition to the skiffs, the Book Express program also pays for a book van that drives around Bethel, handing out reading material. Similarly, eight villages have their own book distribution centers manned by part-time staffers. All in all, it takes about 15 people to keep the program going each summer, Arnold said.

It's a lot of work but worth it, she said. Reading has become a part of life in the fish camps, and Arnold said she expects that soon will translate into better academic success.

"I haven't actually looked at the test scores," Arnold said. "But I know they are going to improve. It can't not happen if people are reading."

Upper photos are by Joy Shantz; lower photo is by Lenora Arnold

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