A new chapter for Charlottesville's Free Book Bus – The Daily Progress

ERIN EDGERTON, THE DAILY PROGRESS The Free Book Bus founder Sharon Stone organizes books on the non-profit’s new handicap accessible bus Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021 in Charlottesville, Va.
ERIN EDGERTON, THE DAILY PROGRESS The Free Book Bus founder Sharon Stone and her husband Derrick Stone test out the chair lift on the non-profit’s new handicap accessible bus Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021 in Charlottesville, Va.
When a child walks onto the old yellow school bus that is Charlottesville’s Free Book Bus, they’re greeted not by rows of seats, but by shelves of hundreds of colorful books featuring diverse characters of many languages, races and backgrounds. 
After three years of serving the greater Charlottesville and Albemarle area, as well as some surrounding counties, the Free Book Bus has provided over 20,000 books to members of the community. Sharon Stone, founder of the Free Book Bus, takes her bus to schools, housing complexes, food pantries and other community hubs, where children and even adults can browse the bookshelves installed on the bus and choose a title or two to take home. It’s completely free with no catch. Stone, an ESL, or English as a second language, tutor, is simply passionate about making literacy more accessible. 
“Our first mission is to go to places where kids either have less access to books or are less able to afford them, like a Title I school or a public housing project, or where people might be able to afford books, but maybe the car’s in the shop or their parents don’t have a car, that kind of thing,” Stone said. “Mission two is reading encouragement for all, and we go to public events.” 
While the bus was founded in 2018, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit recently made major moves in becoming more inclusive by buying a new bus with a wheelchair lift. The new and improved bus made its debut at the Nelson County Food Pantry on Nov. 20. Stone said it became clear the bus needed to be more accessible after the bus visited the Yellow Door Foundation, which provides a home away from home for patients at UVa Children’s Hospital.
“There was a boy getting treatment for cancer and he was weak and he was in a wheelchair. He struggled getting up the stairs,” Stone said. “And that was the point at which I’m like, okay, we need to get serious about finding an accessible bus, and so that was kind of the catalyst.”
Stone, a lifelong lover of reading, had always wanted to do some kind of project with children’s books and literacy. After her children got older and one went to college, she decided it was the right time to tackle her dream. 
Stone made a website and Facebook page and received her first grant, which enabled her to purchase the original bus from an online auction site. She and her husband, Derrick Stone, gutted the bus themselves and replaced the seats with vinyl flooring and wooden bookshelves. 
While the bus has become extremely popular in the community today, Stone said she had some hurdles to get people to buy into the idea.
“When I first started this, I thought it was like the best idea in the world and as soon as people knew about it, everybody would want me to come,” Stone said. “That’s not what happened. People didn’t quite get what it was and didn’t quite get that there weren’t strings, like that it really was free.”
Stone started cold calling schools, food pantries and housing complexes, pitching her idea. 
“And then once I started going places, every time I went somewhere, someone would come up to me like ‘Hey, can you come to our school or our complex?’” Stone said. 
Some of Stone’s frequent stops include the Southwood Boys and Girls Club, the Nelson County Food Pantry, the Elk Hill schools and public housing neighborhoods like Friendship Court.
Stone decided to take a grant writing course and has since received thousands of dollars in grant funding to stock the bus with books and eventually to buy the new accessible bus. In addition to the books Stone purchases with grant funding, she also accepts donations and hits up area thrift stores looking for books in good condition. Stone said it is very important that the books look almost brand new.
“This is designed to build home libraries where you keep the books. And so it’s important for them to be new, so it’s almost like a little bookstore, just everything’s free,” she said.
Stone said there is a difference between a library and what the Free Book Bus provides. Stone said she loves libraries and has family members who were librarians, but it is important for people to have a collection of books they personally own. 
“There’s some barriers, like maybe you live in the city, but your parents don’t have a car, or maybe your parents work swing shift and they can’t take you when the libraries open. There’s a lot of reasons why maybe you can’t get to the library, but it’s less about that and more about building the home library that you own. And I think that’s important,” Stone said. “I’m usually at a stop and the parents are either outside waiting or they aren’t there at all … it’s totally kid driven. They come on and they pick what they want. I think that’s very important.”
Jami Curry, a librarian at Buford Middle School, said she was thrilled when the Free Book Bus visited the school last month. 
“It was a great opportunity for our students. Because none of them had ever seen anything like it, including myself, and it gave them free choice to find books that they could keep versus just checking out from the library,” Curry said. “Many of our kids grew up without books in their home.  I think it’s important for them to have books in their home for their siblings or their parents to actually see, it’s something they can refer back to.”
Stone buys books based on what the children and teens who visit the bus say they like the best. Anime, manga —  a type of style that originated in Japan — and graphic novels are exceedingly popular with the older children, Stone says, so she tries to keep lots of them in stock. Adults on her stops started requesting books too, so Stone has started stocking a small shelf of novels for adults.
Stone has become passionate about providing books that represent all children who visit the book bus. She said most of the communities she visits are very diverse.
“Early on, I was at the Nelson County Food Pantry and an African American mom got on looking for a graphic novel for her son. She was flipping through my graphic novels I had, which were largely donations. There was not a single one that had a Black main character on the cover. And I was just like, oh, this is horrible,” Stone said. “Now I make sure that at every stop, hopefully a kid’s going to walk in and see themselves on at least one of these covers.”
Curry said she was impressed with Stone’s efforts for inclusion.
“We have a huge diverse population and so it’s important for the Buford population to have options,” Curry said. “[Stone’s] done a beautiful job, a wonderful job.”
Stone quickly realized an inequity in her materials when visiting neighborhoods with high populations of Afghan immigrants. While it was easy to find children’s books written in Spanish and Arabic, it was a struggle to find anything written in languages commonly spoken in Afghanistan, such as Pashto, Farsi and Dari. So Stone has decided to create her own coloring book that will be translated into these languages.
“I decided to write a coloring book, which is going to be called ‘I Love Charlottesville’ or ‘Welcome to Charlottesville’ and the concept is like A is for Albemarle, B is for Bodos, etc.,” Stone said. Stone plans for the first translation to be available in spring 2022. 
Stone hopes as the pandemic winds down, she will be able to resume more frequent visits around the area. More information about donating to the Free Book Bus is available at freebookbus.com/how-to-donate.
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ERIN EDGERTON, THE DAILY PROGRESS The Free Book Bus founder Sharon Stone organizes books on the non-profit’s new handicap accessible bus Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021 in Charlottesville, Va.
ERIN EDGERTON, THE DAILY PROGRESS The Free Book Bus founder Sharon Stone and her husband Derrick Stone test out the chair lift on the non-profit’s new handicap accessible bus Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021 in Charlottesville, Va.
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