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Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer gives Meriden students standing ovation for reading

MERIDEN — Students who read a million words or more this school year got the red carpet treatment Monday when Academy Award-winning actress Octavia Spencer headlined an evening of book signings and celebrations.

The third annual Celebration of Readers was held at Lincoln Middle School , where roughly 400 elementary and middle school students were acknowledged for reading a million words or more throughout the school year.

“I can’t imagine saying, never mind reading, a million words,” Spencer said in an address to students and families gathered in the standing-room-only auditorium.

Spencer is perhaps best known for her role as Minnie in “The Help,” for which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2012. To prepare for her visit, middle school students watched the film last week.

“The movie was really good,” said Olivia Edwards, a seventh-grader at Lincoln who read more than 5 million words, or 55 books, this year.

Spencer explained, though, that her presence at the celebration of readers went deeper than her role on screen, and attended Monday to hand out and sign copies of her own novel, “The Case of the Time-Capsule Bandit.”

“Do any of you know what ‘ovation’ means?” Spencer asked the crowd of students and families. “How about ‘standing ovation?’ I was fortunate to have that happen to me, and it’s one of my very proudest moments. I think this is a moment when you deserve that too,” she said, asking everyone to stand and cheer.

As the auditorium filled with applause and cheers, Spencer added, “Every time you read a book, remember this moment.”

Afterward, Spencer handed out and signed copies of her novel, where the line of young fans stretched hundreds deep.

After Edwards received her copy, she walked away grinning.

“She told me that a lot of people used to call her Olivia instead of Octavia,” Edwards said. “That’s pretty cool.”

The seventh-grader was the third-most prolific reader in her school, a record she hopes to smash next year. “My goal next year is 8 million words,” she said.

Spencer was joined Monday by three other popular authors: Tony DiTerlizzi, whose series “The Spiderwick Chronicles,” made The New York Times’ Best Sellers list; Marilyn Nelson, who spoke recently in Meriden to students about her book, “How I Discovered Poetry,” and Nora Raleigh Baskin, who was signing copies of her book, “Anything But Typical.”

“There are all different types of accomplishments in life,” DiTerlizzi said before sitting down to sign copies of his book, “but the idea of acknowledging students for reading is great. I think it will have more impact on these kids than the organizers even know.”

Already impacted were Ariadne Paulino, an eighth-grader at Lincoln who read 5 million words this year, and Melanie Perez, a fifth-grader at Roger Sherman who read a million. Both said their goal was to keep reading.

“I never want to stop. I want to just keep reading,” Paulino said.

“You students amaze and inspire me every day,” School Superintendent Mark Benigni said Monday. “I couldn’t be more proud of you, our students; our staff; our school system; or our city.” (203) 317-2279 Twitter: @MollCal

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