PORTLAND – First lady Karen Baldacci kicked off the coming school year’s Read With ME campaign Tuesday by reading a story to kindergartners about the adventures of circus animals whose steamship runs aground off the coast of Maine.

Joining Baldacci at Hall Elementary School was Chris Van Dusen of Camden, author and illustrator of “The Circus Ship.” The book was inspired by the sinking of the Royal Tar off Vinalhaven in 1836. The sidewheel steamship was carrying a troupe of circus animals and most of them died, although reports suggested that a few swam to nearby islands.

In Van Dusen’s story, the Royal Tar is replaced by the Royal Star and the tale has a happy ending. The book describes in verse how the animals make it to shore and encounter suspicious humans, before winning their trust.

Read With ME is a program of Maine Reads, a literacy organization led by Baldacci. Through Read With ME, the more than 18,500 kindergartners in Maine will receive book bags with copies of “The Circus Ship” in the fall.

Released by Massachusetts-based Candlewick Press in September, “The Circus Ship” has been designed and reissued for the program with activities.

The book bag will also include literacy information and a bookmark illustrated by Van Dusen and developed by the state Department of Education. School libraries will receive DVDs produced by FairPoint Communications, an underwriter of the program. The DVD provides tips on reading aloud to children and includes an interview with Van Dusen.

The Maine National Guard and a 100-person volunteer corps will pack and deliver the materials to participating schools.