Among the array of events at September’s Decatur Book Festival, just outside Atlanta, Ga., the festival organizers and Decatur bookstore Little Shop of Stories (a "bookstore for kids and the adults they become") unveiled the inaugural title in the city’s new community reading program: The Phantom Tollbooth the 50-year-old classic by Norton Juster, illustrated by Jules Feiffer. Called "On the Same Page," it’s the first one-city-one-book program ever attempted in the metro Atlanta area. It’s also, according to Little Shop of Stories manager Krista Gilliam, a runaway success.
"We started thinking about it in April. I was actually reading something about Anderson’s Bookshop," Gilliam tells PW, referring to the Naperville, Ill., store, which started a community-wide reading program in 2001 called Naperville Reads. Looking at the attendance and enthusiasm for the annual Decatur Book Festival, which this year drew some 75,000 book lovers, Gilliam and her colleagues decided, "Atlanta needs one of those."
"We started to work out the details: what it would take, what author we wanted, and would we be able to get that author [to visit in person]," says Gilliam. "We did planning all summer, and made the announcement with a bunch of kids from the community at the festival. I read the first chapter out loud, and the children acted it out—they practiced for weeks!" On stage, the kids put together a life-size tollbooth—a real structure, made of wood—just like Milo, the hero of Phantom Tollbooth. That tollbooth now resides in Little Shop of Stories, serving as the focal point for its On the Same Page display.
The Phantom Tollbooth was picked for a number of reasons, but mostly for its broad appeal, according to Gilliam: "It’s a great book that a lot of different audiences could read, it works at a variety of levels, you can get something out of it regardless of your age—our adult book club is also reading Phantom Tollbooth. Also, it’s about words and numbers and learning and knowledge, which makes it a perfect way to kick off the program." Gilliam reports that, as of last week, they’ve sold more than 800 copies of the paperback, and counting. "It’s going to be hard to top it in the future."
The timing worked out perfectly: the store’s owners were able to pitch the idea directly to Random House in New York City during BEA this past May. Random House, Gilliam says, was "really excited from the moment we talked to our rep about it," especially since this is the 50th anniversary year and Random House was planning a special edition annotated by Leonard S. Marcus and published last month.
The On the Same Page program features an event series, including a free family screening of the Chuck Jones-directed animated movie adaptation from 1970, and what Little Shop calls an "in-store shebang," featuring kids’ activities, a numbers-versus-words debate, a spelling bee, and Phantom-inspired snacks. Both Norton and Marcus will be on-hand for the finale event, a sit-down discussion between the author and the scholar in a 1000-seat Agnes Scott College auditorium on December 9. Free tickets are available in person at Little Shop, Gilliam says, "and we already have people calling from different states to see how they can get tickets."
Perhaps the most significant event, however, was Little Shop’s first: a book club training day, designed for anyone who wants to lead a Phantom Tollbooth book club of their own. "Our thought was," Gilliam explains, 'instead of us trying to create a bunch of book clubs, it would be more organic if people who already had groups—Boy Scouts or soccer teams or whatever—came in to learn how to organize a book discussion." Little Shop also distributed a packet of discussion questions, vocabulary words, crosswords and word searches, art activities, and certificates for completing the book. The program has made it as far as Cobb County, on the opposite side of Atlanta and some 45 minutes from Decatur, where every public library has adopted On the Same Page.
Working in association with the Decatur Rotary Fund and the Decatur Education Foundation, Gilliam and company have also been visiting schools to drum up interest. "At least a dozen" Decatur schools are on board, notes Gilliam, including public, private, and charter schools, and a copy was given free to every Decatur public school student in grades 2-7 who receives free or reduced-price lunch.
At the store, staffers are incentivizing kids with buttons, bookmarks, and Livestrong-style bracelets colored teal, to match the book cover, that say, "I am on the same page 2011." In addition, kids who finish the book are invited to sign a giant Tollbooth poster hanging in the store. Gilliam recalls one girl was worried about finishing the Phantom Tollbooth in time to sign the poster. She said, 'My dad is reading it to me as fast as he can!' "