How it All Began

The ‘Friends Over Books’ journey started in Island Readers & Writers infancy, back when its executive director, Jan Coates, owned Port In A Storm Bookstore in Somesville.  “I walked into the store one day and Jan started telling me about the organization she was trying to start,” recalled, Diana Hambleton a former IRW Board member and current advisor.

During that conversation, Diana volunteered to help if there was a child on one of the islands who could benefit from a special reading program.  As it turned out, there was, and he lived on Frenchboro. “I went out to the island regularly and he and I spent a summer reading about Venice.”

At the end of that summer, the boy built a gondola in honor of the book. He told Diana, “Frankly, it was a lot of work, but it made me want to go to Venice when I grow up.”

Diana said that statement supported her conviction that, with a little encouragement and personal attention, kids could push their horizons and become people they might not be otherwise.

Taking it Further Afield

Jan and Diana decided that FOB would work best as an adult-led book discussion group for kids, so the following summer Jackie Lowe and Barbara Brack joined Diana, and the three women brought FOB to Swans Island.  As the years went by, the program grew, attracting more and more volunteers.  Eventually, the volunteers decided the program would center around three topics a year: new fiction, a foreign country and careers.  But they didn’t stop there.  They also came up with discussion questions and activities related to the books.

“We wanted to develop programs that expanded children’s knowledge in a subject in a fun, non-school way,” said Diana.

The volunteers put tremendous effort into choosing the right books, looking for page turners that would inspire children to want to do and be more. After choosing the subject matter for each topic in August, volunteers spent the weeks from September through March combing bookstores and libraries; talking to librarians, parents and teachers; and reading countless reviews to find the best books for each topic.  By spring they had settled on a handful of volumes, written discussion questions and planned related activities.  During the summer, their work was vetted by focus groups of kids and parents to see what they liked (and didn’t), and which books to keep for potential library packages.

Selecting the Topics

Instead of new fiction, volunteers sometimes chose to read about other topics. For instance, in 2012, they chose the topic of war. Some of the most popular books on that subject were Between Shades of Grey, German Boy, Winter Wars, War Horse, Breadwinner and Midnight Zoo.

China was the foreign country, with A Girl Named Faithful Plum, Snow Falling in Spring, Year of the Golden Dragon and When the Mountain Meets the Moon as the most popular books. A DVD, Please Vote for Me, also made it to the “keeper” list.

The career topic was food and included The Adventurous Chef, Alexis Soyer, Fanny at Chez Panisse, Maman’s Homesick Pie, and Close to Famous.

Activities for the War group included matching word associations with war photographs and making collages. For China, each family created its own faux bike trip through China, and experimented with calligraphy and chopsticks. The food group took a tour of the Smith Family Farm on Mount Desert Island and watched cows being herded and milked – they even got to take home fresh yogurt to remind them of the visit.

Valerie Osborne, a consultant for the Northeast District of Maine Libraries, recently got an overview of FOB.  “She loved it and was impressed by the depth and breadth of our work,” Diana said.

The Volunteers

Friends Over Books has relied on the generosity of its volunteers who are journalists, writers, editors, designers, nurses, teachers, librarians and philanthropists as well as parents, stepparents and grandparents. They come from as far west as Texas, as far south as Florida, and as far north as Maine–with Washington D.C., New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Virginia and South Carolina  sandwiched in between.

From Frenchboro to all of Maine—that’s Friends Over Books.  And that circle of friends keeps getting wider and wider.