Author Allison van Diepen's visit to Grand Canyon School last week was a testimony to the power of persistence and good books.
The book in question were van Diepen's "Street Pharm" and "Snitch." The persistence came from Keslee Foster, a voracious and opinionated reader who wasn't satisfied just to get the books in the hands of non-readers. She wanted to get the author to them as well.
Although she credits her mom, Bess Foster, with introducing her to the first book and suggesting she reach out to the author, it was Keslee who wrote the two-page e-mail describing the following that van Diepen's novels had among high school students here.
Aside from being the longest e-mail she'd received from a fan, van Diepen said it caught her attention for another reason.
"It was very unique in that it told the whole story of the effect of the book on this school, and how word of mouth got non-readers interested," she said.
Keslee said both books, stories about inner city kids facing tough choices, fulfilled her requirement of being compelling from the start.
"I started reading it and had a hard time putting it down. I was sorry when it was done," she said of "Snitch," about a high school girl who finds it increasingly difficult to stay neutral amid a culture of rival gangs.
As Keslee began recommending the titles to her friends, she found that even non-readers were getting pulled in. One student had never finished a book before.
At the same time, high school English teachers Katie Buttram and Cynthia Granberg were promoting silent, sustained reading in their classes and found that instead of talking about television or movies or music, students were spending more time talking about books.
"Before Christmas, I started seeing students asking each other, 'Can I read that next?'" said Granberg. "They started coming to me and asking what I'd recommend. It's taken on a life of its own."
"Reading has become something they talk about in the hallways," said Buttram. "Kids are the best promoters of books."
While van Diepen was intrigued that her books became a word-of-mouth phenomenon, she assumed that she would have to pass on the invitation to visit due to the cost and time constraints. However, Keslee said that she was determined to make it happen, if if it meant writing to local businesses for donations.
Buttram, however, heard about a grant opportunity from the county and applied. With the $3,500 arts integration grant they were able to fly van Diepen here, purchase books for 10th and 11th graders and furnish materials for an altered books project facilitated by art teacher Amy McBroom. They were able to schedule the visit during spring break at the school in Ottawa, Canada, where van Diepen teaches. Red Feather Lodge provided accommodations.
Granberg said that while they did talk about the mechanics of writing, mostly students wanted to talk about books.
"This wasn't an author who said 'I'm going to teach you how to write,'" she said. "This was an author who said 'We're going to talk about books and how to be a reader.' To have that kind of literary conversation is something that will stay with them."