'Coraline' author Neil Gaiman is centerpiece for 2010 Naperville Reads

 
 
  • Neil Gaiman recently won the 2009 John Newbery Medal for his

    Neil Gaiman recently won the 2009 John Newbery Medal for his "The Graveyard Book." Gaiman has been selected as the featured author for the 2010 Naperville Reads campaign. Associated Press file

  • A lonely young girl, voiced by Dakota Fanning, discovers a secret tunnel to a fantasy world in the animated

    A lonely young girl, voiced by Dakota Fanning, discovers a secret tunnel to a fantasy world in the animated "Coraline," based on one of Gaiman's books.

Published: 11/23/2009 4:46 PM

Close your eyes and picture the world's stuffiest author.

You know the type. Serious. Self-important. Nose held so high it tickles the ceiling. Chin set so tight it dusts the floor. Maybe wearing a bow tie.

Got it?

Good, because talk to the folks running the 2010 Naperville Reads campaign and they'll tell you one thing about Neil Gaiman, next year's featured author: he ain't that.

What he is, they'll tell you, is a Renaissance man, maybe even a "rock star," who wears leather jackets and tight pants, blogs about drinking orange juice for breakfast, and creates imaginative, quirky and often creepy stories that snare readers of all ages and transform them, like werewolves in the moonlight, into ardent fans.

"He just has a different take on the world," says Gail Wetta of Anderson's Bookshop, one of the organizers of the annual Naperville Reads effort.

"He's just got a very unique mind," says Naperville Public Library spokeswoman Susan Greenwood. "He takes stuff and twists it around."

Better yet, Greenwood says, "he writes across all ages."

Which is exactly what organizers from the bookshop, library and Naperville school districts were looking for when they went hunting for an author to build next year's program around; the kind of writer with widespread appeal who can bring large segments of the community together to discuss his work.

Gaiman, who was born in England and now lives near Minneapolis, began garnering attention more than a decade ago for his "Sandman" comic books. A former journalist, he also has written prose, poetry, comics, song lyrics and films.

His books, most involving fairy tales and fantasy, include "Good Omens," "Anansi Boys," "Coraline," "Stardust" and "Odd and the Frost Giants." Several have been turned into movies.

His "The Graveyard Book" - a spooky tale about a boy raised by a vampire, a werewolf and a witch - won The John Newbery Medal for 2009 for most outstanding contribution to children's literature.

He's listed in the "Dictionary of Literary Biography" as one of the top 10 living postmodern writers and has been active in issues involving First Amendment rights.

His own Web site makes mention of all that, of course, but stops far short of seeming too self-important.

"He has somehow reached his 40s," it says, "and still tends to need a haircut."

A spokeswoman for Gaiman said he was traveling and "deep into writing" and unavailable for comment.

But when he appeared in Naperville in 2008, he drew a large and appreciative crowd, says Candace Purdom, another Anderson's employee involved in the Reads campaign.

"We know he has a following here in Naperville," she says. "He was certainly high on our wish list."

Gaiman will spend three days here next year - Feb. 23-25 - and make several appearances. Some details still must be finalized, but Purdom says he's expected to meet with sixth- and seventh-graders in Naperville Unit District 203 and Indian Prairie Unit District 204, speak at a large-scale community event and spend time with teachers.

"If you're selected for Naperville Reads, we're going to make good use of you," Purdom says.

This is the ninth straight year organizers have invited one or more authors to be part of a program that's designed to get as many people in the community as possible reading and talking about the same books.

Based on a similar project in Chicago, the campaign began in 2002 when the city celebrated the works of Gary Paulsen.

Other authors to participate are Joseph Bruchac, Tracy Chevalier, Kate DiCamillo, Dan Gutman, Pete Hamill, Katherine Hannigan, Kevin Henkes, Yann Martel, Gary Moore, Greg Mortenson, Jodi Picoult, Daniel Pink, Lisa See, Brian Selznick and Jerry Spinelli.

Gaiman's wide-reaching appeal makes him an ideal choice to "strengthen the whole idea of a community read and a community discussion," Greenwood says.

Those discussions may take some unusual twists and turns because Gaiman's books are hardly ordinary, often taking "mythological creatures and turning them on their heads," Greenwood says.

Organizers say they're also excited because Gaiman is an engaging speaker, both in person and when reading his stories for his own audios.

"He's very evocative when he reads his own books," Purdom says.

Better still, Greenwood says, he's extremely approachable. Meet him at a book signing and he'll autograph any of his works - even old paperbacks - unlike many other best-selling authors who tend to deal only with their newly minted (and purchased) works.

Greenwood says she's even spotted him with his family in the audience during other author appearances.

All of which is nice, but it's really his storytelling - and the creepiness that attracts young readers as well as adults - that convinced organizers to celebrate his works.

"He has an imaginative streak that's fun and quirky," Wetta says, "but the core values are still there, too. His stories often have themes of classic literature."

Greenwood knows all about Gaiman's talent, his penchant for graveyards, giant trolls and mothers living inside walls. But combine all that with the rock star persona, she says, and you've got something different and special.

"He really," she says, "has a bizarro mind."