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Author brings village of inspiration to students

The rowdy eighth-graders who recently bounded into the Powell Middle School media center did not appear to be in the mood to sit quietly and listen to a soft-spoken writer.

Margaret Peterson Haddix waited patiently for them to take their seats. Dressed in a canary yellow shift and white pumps, Haddix was a stark contrast to the middle school students clad in dark-colored jeans, oversized T-shirts, sweat shirts and denim jackets.

Soon, the group settled down. They listened attentively to Haddix, who had traveled to Florida the night before from her hometown near Scranton, Pa.

"Writing is a strange thing to do," Haddix, 33, said. "A lot of times I hear voices in my head, the voices of characters I've created. They're eager to be written about."

Haddix was invited to Powell to speak about her book, Running Out of Time.

The book was chosen as one of the 1997-98 Sunshine State Young Reader's books recommended to elementary and middle school students across Florida each school year. Fifteen elementary-level books and 15 middle school-level books are chosen from 300 titles each year by a committee of the Florida Association of Media Education.

Running Out of Time is a fast-paced adventure story about a girl named Jessie, who discovers, contrary to what she's been told, that the 1840s village she lives in is really a 1996 tourist attraction. When the children are stricken with diphtheria, Jessie is sent on a special mission outside to retrieve medicine.

Haddix, who worked as a reporter for The Indianapolis News, gave up journalism in the early 1990s to write novels. Running Out Of Time, her first book, was published in 1992.

Haddix said she got the idea for the book while covering a story at Conner Prairie, a historical village near Indianapolis. She began thinking about what it would be like to pretend to live in the past. Her imagination took off, she said, and she came up with the first five chapters within a few weeks while making the 45-minute drive to and from her job.

Haddix also had dreamed of writing novels, but she always considered herself to be too ordinary. She always thought that writers were eccentric, extraordinary people, she said.

"But I was wrong. Writers are just like you and me," she said. "They sweat, throw-up and get food stuck in their teeth, just like everyone else."

Before ending her 25-minute speech, Haddix gave the students some writing tips. Her suggestions, however, could be practiced by "just about everyone."

She told students to pay attention to the things people do, to look for the beautiful things and for the ugly things. She also said to listen carefully when people speak, and to hear the types of words they choose and the tone of voice they use.

"But most importantly, don't grow up," she said. "Hold on to the little kid thoughts, and don't lose your imagination.

"Remember to always ask yourself all the "what if?' questions. You'll be surprised at all the questions you'll find."

As part of the reading program, students are encouraged to read the 15 books from their grade levels throughout the school year. When they complete a book, they are briefly quizzed by the media specialist or classroom teacher. Students who read at least three books may vote for their favorite Sunshine State Reader for that school year.

At the end of each school year, a Battle of the Books competition is held for elementary schools. A quiz game is played, with questions taken from the books. The winning team, made up of students who have completed all the books, walks away with a trophy and a title for their school.

The idea behind the program is obvious, explained Cecelia Solomon, Powell's media specialists.

"We're trying to encourage kids to read," Solomon said. "It's plain and simple."

The books on the lists are the ones that media specialists think students will enjoy, she said. Solomon has served on the book selection committee for three years and has read hundreds of books for young people.

"The ones that we pick are the ones that we feel will be most welcomed," Solomon said. "But, the truth is there are a lot of good writers and good books out there for our kids to read."