Virginia Is For Readers

The bell rings like a war siren. A hundred sleep-deprived kids shuffle into the library. They slump in their plastic chairs, just as a police officer marches through the door. Everybody snaps awake. They can't stop staring---not at the man with the badge, but at Leda, his K-9.

The German Shepherd curls up on the carpet. Every so often, she lifts her head and blinks, as if listening to a secret. Alan Krugel, her handler at the LAPD, talks about the "awful, frightening, hollow feeling--that terrible, dreaded feeling of being alone."

When Alan lost his family, he also lost his hope. Then he met Leda, a dog doomed to be "put to sleep," all because she wouldn't chase the bad guys. Alan calls Leda his four-legged angel. Alan grins. "She's a coward," he says. But she's also a gifted sniffer. Now she helps him find the things that go boom...all because she got a second chance.

When Officer Mark Kearney invited me to BOOK EM, an event to promote literacy as a form of crime prevention, I volunteered to speak with other authors at local schools. I met Alan Krugel and Leda at Robert E Lee High School, along with Jonathan Queen, a motivational speaker who transformed his life after spending ten years in prison. He spoke about "change reaction" strategies from his new book, Are You S.A.N.E. (Setting A New Example).

I also visited Stuarts Draft High School, where I had a blast, chatting over lunch with the Writer's Club. They asked a lot of questions: How do you start a chapter? (in the middle of action). Where do you get good names for your characters? (the phone book) And the question that stabbed me in the heart: What if your parents don't believe you can make it as a writer?

Prove them wrong.

Kaitlyn has a "vision" of writers typing masterpieces in a log cabin. She giggled when I said, "I've got a laptop in my bedroom. That's it." She said it's "painful" when she breaks away from her imaginary world (especially at dinnertime). I said, "Sounds like you're meant to be a novelist," and her face glowed. I also spoke to the "poet's corner" and met a recently-published student who had returned, just to visit her old English teacher. "He's the reason I wrote my book," she told me. I met Tessa, who loves "funny zombie fan fiction," and on Friday, I talked with Drew, who created an alternative universe, based on the planets in our solar system.

On Saturday, at BOOK EM, I sat beside Kathy Erskine (author of the brilliant teen novel, QUAKING). We spoke on a YA panel about "The Power Of Words" and met the kids at Kate Collins Middle School (including a trio of giggly girls who kept petting their friend's armwarmers). The event lasted all day. Kathy had decorated her table with bookmarks, temporary tattoos, and candy. We spent the afternoon smiling at the same things (like the smirky boys who ran up to the microphone in the auditorium and played a disco ringtone on a cellphone).

The book sales raised money to fund crimefighting and literacy programs. Officer Mark said he'd never seen so many young people at the event, which is sponsored by the local police. I hope more cities will get involved with their own version of BOOK EM-style literacy campaigns. So much fun to see kids grabbing paperbacks off the table and lugging them like gold--not to mention, all the hardworking teachers and librarians who snagged books for their collections (special thanks to Catherine Morris, Darren Ralston, and Sue Simmons).

Afterwards, I stopped at Stone Soup, an indie bookstore down the block. It looks like a farmhouse on a hill and it's packed with a great teen selection upstairs. I wanted to pack my bags and move into the attic.

In Virginia, I stayed in the historic district of Staunton--a town that reminds me of those miniature villages that come with train sets. Or maybe a Thomas Kinkade sculpture: all brick Colonial houses with buttery lights. The Stonewall Jackson Hotel was smack in the middle of everything (including "fork to farm" restaurants that could rival any organic-inspired plate in NYC: check out the Staunton Grocery and Zynodoa).

On my last night in the city, I took a ghost walk with the Staunton Paranormal Investigators. They showed us their spirit-hunting tools, like an electro-magnetic field detector, and audio recordings they had captured of whispery, little girl voices in graveyards. One of the haunted buildings is now an Italian restaurant (sometimes diners get a whiff of cigar smoke on the stairs). I ducked inside and climbed to the roof, where a dredlocked band was blasting funk and reggae classics. A waiter scooted past me, turned around, and said, "You came to my school." It was Colton, who had shared a conversation with me about OCD.

I was so busy thinking about ghosts, I didn't notice the police officer. He marched upstairs, looking amused in his uniform, and told the band to "shut it down." I waved goodbye to Colton and headed back outside. The wind stung my cheeks. It was two in the morning. I wanted to stay there, with the Halloween lanterns winking in the stores, and write a novel in a log cabin. But that will have to wait.