Instead of blaring familiar, catchy tunes through a speaker system attached to the roof, the sides of the vehicles are adorned with cartoon images of superheroes that take the form of an owl and a fox. And the trucks are not filled with frozen treats, but rather a collection of books, electronics and other materials that can help children learn.
Kids tend to greet the "Curiosity Cruisers" deployed by the Harris County Public Library much like they would an ice cream truck, according to Edward Melton, the executive director of the Houston-area library system.
"When kids see a cruiser coming into their community, they start running for it," Melton said. "They're excited about it. They're excited about reading and getting a book they can take home."
Melton said the library's mobile outreach program has distributed more than 69,000 books to more than 55,000 Houston-area children since its inception in 2017, focusing on reaching underserved, low-income parts of the region where there are no nearby public libraries. The fleet of Curiosity Cruisers has gradually expanded as the program has become more popular, with a fourth set to deploy next week.
The newest Ford transit van, outfitted and donated by the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation with financial support from local energy company Oxy and other corporate and charitable sponsors, will enable the mobile library program to make an additional 12 stops per month. Each of its vans visits 3-4 locations per week, according to library outreach manager Bryan Kratish, who said they stop at places such as schools, parks, community centers, housing complexes and literary-themed events.
Children up to age 18 can take home one book per visit while engaging with other on-site learning materials such as laptops, tablets, 3D printers and curricular kits that teach robotics, circuitry, coding and other STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) disciplines. In many cases, the cruisers visit the same locations once per week for 8-10 weeks, partly to provide consistent educational programming and also to allow kids to build a collection of books they can use to create their own home libraries.
"It is a huge deal," Melton said of adding a fourth cruiser. "There is a great need for literary services in Harris County. Even with the efforts we're putting forth, it's really like a drop in the bucket. There's a lot of work that needs to be done in this space, making sure children are school-ready and reading at (grade) level. So the more vehicles we can have, the more impact we can have."
The Curiosity Cruisers program was the brainchild of the Ladies for Literacy Guild, which is an auxiliary, volunteer organization of the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation. Julie Finck, the president and CEO of the foundation, said the idea was to promote reading and STEM skills while helping to fill educational gaps in communities where there are not libraries, even in schools.
Three out of 10 Houston children failed to meet the minimum, end-of-third-grade reading standard in the most recent statewide STAAR test, according to Finck. She also said research shows that if children aren't reading proficiently by the end of the third grade, they are four times as likely as their peers to end up dropping out of school.
The foundation has invested more than $1.5 million into the Curiosity Cruisers program, according to Finck, who said a variety of companies and charitable organizations have donated money for the initiative, which also benefits from funds raised at the annual Power of Literacy Luncheon hosted by the Ladies for Literacy Guild. Materials for the new cruiser were purchased with donations from Crown Castle, PwC and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo.
"Our vision is that Houston will be a city filled with readers," Finck said. "We think the Curiosity Cruisers is just one fantastic way of helping to make that possible."
Melton said the books available in the Curiosity Cruisers are curated for interest and age-appropriateness and cater to a range of grade levels. Among the titles, according to Kratish, are "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" by Jeff Kinney, "Dog Man" by Dav Pilkey and "I Survived" by Lauren Tarshis.
Kratish said the mobile program – which has Owlbotron and Northtale the fox as its superhero mascots – meets a need while helping to educate community members about the services offered by Harris County Public Library. It has 26 branch locations across the region.
"We meet a lot of kids and families who would like to go to the library, but they don't have access to one near them," Kratish said. "With Curiosity Cruisers, it's like a library coming to them."