Nebrea Ragland, a fifth-grader at the George L. Hess Educational Complex in Mays Landing, dreamed of meeting Lauren Tarshis from the first time she opened an entry in the author's popular "I Survived" series of historical novels for young adults.

When she saw her favorite author arrive at the school for a visit May 3, she could hardly contain her excitement.

"My heart (leapt)," Nebrea said. "I was really excited because I was dying to meet her. I really love her books."

The author, who also visited with students at nearby William Davies Middle School on May 2, is the latest in a series of popular authors to visit the Hamilton Township School District as part of its successful student literacy program.

Hess is one of the most well-read elementary schools in the country, this past summer placing 13th in the nation in minutes read in the Scholastic Corporation's Summer Reading Challenge thanks largely to the efforts of librarians Janet Yunghans and Kristen Mulraney and literacy coach Jennifer Farrell.

The trio actively promotes literacy among the students, organizing frequent book sales and literary character dress-up days in addition to ensuring students have access to books that suit their reading level. But while these things all help the cause, it is getting the students up close and personal with the faces they see on the flaps of their favorite books that Yunghans said has had the biggest impact on the kids.

"I cannot think of a better way to engage children in reading than to have an author visit," Yunghans said. "The children almost feel as if they know (Tarshis) by the time she gets here, and they just consider her a superstar.

In addition to speaking with students at assemblies, Tarshis spoke with smaller groups. In late morning, she joined 25 students who had won an elective poster contest for an intimate lunchtime meet-and-greet.

Nebrea, who made a hand-illustrated poster of her favorite book in the series, "I Survived: Shark Attacks of 1916," was one of those selected to attend the luncheon. The 11-year-old said meeting her literary idol was everything she hoped it would be.

"I thought she would be really, really nice, and she was," Nebrea said. "It's better to see her in person than see her in pictures. It was great."

Tarshis lauded the staff at Hess for structuring both a strong reading curriculum and giving her and the students a fulfilling day of reading appreciation.

As much as the students enjoyed speaking with Tarshis during her visit, the author equally enjoyed meeting with them. Being able to discuss her works with fans, Tarshis said, is why she got into the business to begin with.

"It was fantastic," Tarshis said. "It really is the most meaningful part of being a children's author: the opportunity to be with your readers."

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