SPARTANBURG, S.C. -- A visitor well versed in Southern stereotypes might be disappointed to discover that the indigenous people of this upstate community harbor a passion not for a benighted Confederacy, but for literature.
In fact, few places in the nation are doing more to advance literacy than this historic textile mill town, where books are free and reading is rewarded.
Last week marked the second year of Spartanburg High School's summer reading program, an innovative approach to literacy that is the brainchild of Kathie Bennett, an international flight attendant and mother of a local high school student.
Bennett credits her own love of books to a fortunate education at Sewanee, the University of the South, where she got to meet some of the authors she read. She wanted to give Spartanburg children the same opportunity in hopes of cultivating a love of reading.
With other like-minded citizens and teachers -- and a determined principal named Rodney Graves -- the summer reading program is flourishing with 100 percent participation.
Here's how it works: Students pick a book from a selection of eight and voluntarily read it over the summer. When school reconvenes in the fall, some of the books' authors visit to read and discuss their work.
As extra incentive, students who have finished their books -- and produce a paper or other project -- are given four points that can be used in any class to raise their grade. It's a win-win deal, with a bonus lesson in free-market economics. Work and be rewarded.
Although most schools have summer reading programs, this one is unique for a couple of reasons. One, the books are gifts to the students, purchased through state literacy grants and the generosity of donors who believe, as Graves put it, that anytime you give a kid a book, "you're changing a life." In many cases, these students have never owned a book.
Also, the Spartanburg community, not just teachers, participates in the program. Between 75 and 100 citizens, including Mayor Bill Barnet, volunteered to read the books and participate in classroom discussions.
I was a visitor to the program this year -- asked to stand in for my friend, political cartoonist and author Doug Marlette, who was killed in July in an auto accident. His first novel, "The Bridge," was one of the books selected. Other speakers were North Carolina poet and author Ron Rash, who read from his novel, "The World Made Straight," and Florida writer Janis Owens, another Marlette buddy, whose novel, "The Schooling of Claybird Catts," led last year's program.