CLEARWATER — When Eliot Schrefer was a student at Countryside High School, he listened to grunge rock and says he was "part of a contingency of about 20 to 30 nerds" graduating in 1997.
Fast forward 16 years.
The Harvard grad, a resident of New York City and a self-proclaimed tea drinker, has written a half-dozen books, is a contributor to the Huffington Post, and is a reviewer for USA Today.
One of his books, The Deadly Sister, is set in a high school that he modeled after Countryside High and the surrounding area.
Thursday, the 34-year-old was back at his old stomping grounds, talking to high school students about his latest endeavor, Endangered, a National Book Award finalist in the category of young people's literature.
The book, which came out in the fall of 2012, also garnered the 2013 Green Earth Book Award for young-adult fiction. It's on its sixth printing; he estimates about 25,000 copies have been sold.
Endangered is a dystopian tale about Sophie, a 15-year-old Florida girl who travels to the violent Democratic Republic of Congo, where her mother runs a sanctuary for bonobos, "the least famous of apes."
The teen is less than thrilled to be there, but when Otto, an infant bonobo, comes into her life, she is touched by the animal's intelligence, spirit and emotionality.
When a revolution breaks out and the sanctuary is attacked, the pair must flee into the perilous jungle, where they struggle to survive.
Schrefer told his young audience his initial interest in the "adorable creatures that share 98.7 percent of our DNA" was sparked by a pair of pants labeled Bonobo.
The word intrigued him and he subsequently lost a whole afternoon watching YouTube videos where the highly intelligent animals play video games, drive golf carts and boil pasta.
"If I had bought a pair of Gap pants, I wouldn't have written this book," he said.
Schrefer learned that unlike the aggressive male-dominated chimpanzee society capable of killing their own, bonobos, who live south of the Congo River, are vegetarians and pacifists. Theirs is a matriarchal "make love not war" society.
Ironically, they only live in the wilds of the most war-ravaged country on earth. Because of the country's violence and poverty, adult bonobos, once considered taboo to eat, are now killed and sold for food.
"In the Congo, if you can get $25 for a bonobo, that money would feed your family for a year. You can get $1,500 if you can smuggle a bonobo out of the country," Schrefer said.
He felt the concept of a sanctuary for bonobos within Congo would make a great backdrop for a dramatic tale of survival, so he pitched his idea to his editor at Scholastic.
"There was a really awkward silence," Schrefer said. "He was hoping I was going to say vampires because vampires make a lot of money these days."
Selling the book editor was one thing; telling his mother he was going to travel to the volatile Congo "where 5.4 million people had died in the last 30 years" was something else.
"Soldiers go into villages and kill people and abduct children to become soldiers. It's a really terrible situation and I was going to fly into it," he said.
His doctor had to "line up syringes" to vaccinate him against diseases he thought had been eradicated from the planet.
Online travel agencies wouldn't sell him a ticket.
"They didn't want to be responsible," he said.
But the hardest part, he said, was getting out of the country.
"Everyone wants a bribe at the airport," he said.
One woman checking his passport said he could pass, "but only if you marry me." He gave her a granola bar instead.
Carter Glogowski, 14, is about half-way through reading Endangered.
"I think the most interesting part is how he showed the political and social aspects of the bonobos and the Congo," he said. "Bonobos are far more civilized."
Anything else that intrigued him?
"Yes, that you can go to school here and be successful."
Terri Bryce Reeves can be reached at [email protected]