ST. PETERSBURG — Three years ago, Candace Rock couldn't get her daughter to pick up a book unless it was for a school assignment. The thought that one of her children didn't enjoy reading was tough for Rock, a reading teacher at Tyrone Middle School.
"To have one of my kids say they don't love books was crushing," said Rock, 46.
These days, Mckenzie Rock, a 14-year-old freshman at Osceola Fundamental High School, reads about a book a month. She loves mystery and action books.
Rock credits the change to the Delta Academy, a local mentoring program that every year takes a group of girls to the St. Petersburg Times Festival of Reading at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
They arrived at the 18th annual event on Saturday sporting matching red T-shirts and black pants.
"You can't get beyond books," said Deloris Graves of St. Petersburg, a retired educator. "Hopefully we will never lose that. Reading is just absolutely vital."
Graves brought Mckenzie to the festival for the first time three years ago.
On Saturday, the teen returned to the event on her own.
"I wasn't the most avid reader," Mckenzie said. "I like it now. It's an educational thing. Books are cheaper, too."
Though most of the authors at the festival write books for adults — most notably Tampa resident Michael Connelly, whose novel The Reversal was No. 1 on the New York Times bestseller list last week — there were just as many kids at the event as grownups.
Eight-year-old Braylin Carvalho of Pinellas Park teemed with excitement as she stood in a 40-foot-long line waiting to meet children's author R.L. Stine.
Braylin and her 6-year-old sister Caydince clutched their favorite Goosebumps books, which they planned to have Stine sign.
"They have iPods, they have computers … but reading is what's important," said their father, Jack Carvalho, 41. "That's going to be more valuable to them than anything when they get older."
Kameel Stanley can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643.