While the pageant is held in their city, for most residents of Atlantic City, their only chance to see a Miss America contestant is at the parade or on television.

On Aug. 27, a handful of kids got some time up close and personal with Miss New Jersey Cara McCollum, who visited the Atlantic City Free Public Library as a guest reader.

Maureen Moffit, head of youth services with the library, said it was a pleasure having Miss New Jersey in to read for the children.

"This was nice, because all the kids really love seeing her in her crown," Moffit said. "We were very excited."

McCollum, whose platform for the competition is giving the gift of reading, has traveled to schools and libraries statewide since winning her crown in June.

She has been an advocate of literacy since high school, when she started a charity called the Birthday Book Project, which provides books to disadvantaged kids in her hometown of Forrest City, Ark., on their birthdays.

McCollum has been a student at Princeton University since fall 2010. During her first three years in college, her charity work fell by the wayside, she said, and she entered the pageant as a vehicle to give back to her adopted state.

"It's a lot easier to get into the schools and the libraries with a crown on your head, so I got one of those," McCollum said.

At her Aug. 27 appearance, McCollum read the books "Miss Rumphius" and "How Rocket Learned to Read."

McCollum started her reading by introducing herself and asking the kids a few questions about themselves. She kept the kids engaged as she read, showing them the illustrations, leading brief discussions about scenes in the book and, at one point, singing her ABCs with the kids.

The kids were responsive to Miss New Jersey, even some who otherwise wouldn't interact with a stranger.

Ricky Gerhardt, who works in the circulation department at the library, came by on his day off with his daughter, Olive, and son, Liam. While Olive is outgoing, Liam is more reserved - but McCollum got him out of his shell.

"My son, himself, is pretty shy, but he raised his hand today, so she really did a great job," Gerhardt said.

The Miss America Pageant was first held in Atlantic City in 1921, and remained there for 85 years until moving to Las Vegas in 2006.

Now, the competition has returned to its home in Boardwalk Hall.

The event, which will be held Sept. 14, is days away, but McCollum is less anxious than she is excited.

"I've just been so busy, I haven't had enough time to get nervous," McCollum said. "I'm so new to this that I'm still pretty green, and I'm just a big ball of energy looking forward to it."

Contact Braden Campbell:

609-272-7415