It’s a warm Sunday afternoon and the atrium in the lobby of the Scoville Square Building on Oak Park Avenue is echoing with laughter and shrieks. Teenage girls are clustered within a circular game board taped onto the tile floor. Reading instructions from index cards, they’re rolling dice to “attack” one another, forage in the “woods” for food, search for fresh water, and hunt in the “arena” – a clock face whose sections they must navigate in order to win “the hunger games.”

Watching along with parents and with the players already out of the game are Rose Joseph and Iris Yipp, owners of the Magic Tree Bookstore, Oak Park’s specialty bookseller stocked for more than 25 years with books for toddlers to teens. Amid the energy and excitement of their latest marathon planning effort for a book-release party, Joseph and Yipp look pleased.

Pros at creatively engaging the older of their readers in age-appropriate literature, Joseph and Yipp are the planning wizards behind the Harry Potter release party that, in July 2007, brought more than 10,000 to Oak Park Avenue. To introduce the first book in the blockbuster series by J.K. Rowling, the Magic Tree’s all-out effort wound up also engaging Avenue businesses in the thematic partying. Shop employees were dressed up in robes, beards and tall hats while local restaurants sold out of butterbeer and other magical treats. Merriment included animated paintings, smoking cauldrons, and tournaments for chess and Quidditch.

The impact of the Harry Potter book release party was felt throughout Oak Park. The parties were an unprecedented success.

So for the release next week of the last book in another series – Mockingjay in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy – the Magic Tree is finding a helping hand at village hall. The Magic Tree’s marketing coordinator Oryna Schiffman approached Village Manager Tom Barwin, who arranged village sponsorship of the event to promote Oak Park as “home of the ultimate book party.”

Winberie’s and Trader Joe’s are partners in the event. And from beyond Oak Park, there’s sponsorship of the party’s storytelling contest by Windy City Publishers.

“Readers can answer a teen-selected question as an essay or illustration and win $100 cash, a photo op with Suzanne Collins and a pre-publishing deal with Windy City publishers or an internship with animator Phillip Carrera,” says Schiffman, her enthusiasm for the project echoing that of her high school volunteers.

The Magic Tree created another logo and a second website, all to create an exciting venue for teens, not only for this party but also for future events that will be planned for the Y.A. Lit Café. TheTree.me is in addition to, not in place of, www.magictreebooks.com.

Teen interns are responsible for choosing the food, the music, the décor and the events of the party.

“We actually have a reservation from a woman in Ohio who came for the Harry Potter events and is coming back for the Mockingjay party,” beams Joseph.

What makes this series a pageturner?

The first book in the series, The Hunger Games, and its sequel, Catching Fire, follow a determined teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is trying to keep her family from starving in a poverty-stricken mining area known as the Seam. The United States no longer exists, only a collection of Districts known as Panem.

After war and an uprising, what remains of the government controls the Districts from a glamorous city known only as the Capitol. The Capitol controls almost all technology. Its inhabitants live in carefree ignorance and plenty, while the Districts slave and starve.

To punish the Districts for the uprising and to remind them who controls their lives, the Capitol every year names two children from each District to compete in a violent struggle known as the Hunger Games. The rest of Panem watches, bets on the winners, and suffers or celebrates.

This all may be about to change in the coming sequel, Mockingjay, as Katniss and her friends escape to the mysterious District 13. There’s talk of a massive revolt to overthrow the system and end the Hunger Games for good.

The action is brutal and fast-paced.

After her cousins recommended the books, Emily Freedman, a senior at Oak Park and River Forest High School, decided to volunteer to help with the Mockingjay release party.

“I definitely have some friends who might find the books disturbing,” Emily says. “But as for me, I’ve always been fascinated by human nature and what makes people do the things they do. In The Hunger Games, it’s a media-run society. When you look at how many people are brainwashed by the media now and how much influence they have on our society it’s a scary thought how easily you can take control with technology.”

Emily and other kids working on the events related to the book party say the series gets them thinking: “Wow, where are we heading?”

“Honestly, this could happen,” says Robert Vyshnevsky. “Empires rise and empires fall and something has to set it off – in this case, a teenage girl. That’s how histories happen.”

It can be hard to keep teens engaged in reading, says Joseph, who notes that she and Yipp observe that, at a certain age, some of their young readers tend to move on, feeling that the Magic Tree is a bookstore for little kids.

“I think teenagers are in the moment,” Joseph says on a busy Saturday afternoon when moms and babies fill the aisles of her bookstore.

Yet, “the YA genre has exploded,” Joseph says, referring to an acronym for Young Adult readers. “Years ago, there were just a handful of books for teens. You jumped from kids’ books straight into adult. Now they cover every subject matter. … The topics that teen books discuss are things that you never used to talk about. But they are very relevant to kids’ lives today.”

A party on a school night?

Mockingjay’s publisher Scholastic may not have checked the calendar, scheduling the release for midnight Aug. 23. OPRF and many other high schools start their year that Tuesday, and so do the middle schools – both groups the prime audience for this book.

“Some parents are just adamant that their kids can’t come, or can only come for an hour and not stay for the midnight release,” says Joseph.

But she says some parents are finding value in an event that encourages teens to keep reading for enjoyment and to be involved in a community activity.

“One mother quoted Mark Twain, who said that he would never let schooling get in the way of his education.”

Bronwyn Soell, an avid reader and book reviewer who works for Chicago Parent magazine, has worked with the Magic Tree Bookstore for more than a decade. During Magic Tree’s Harry Potter promotion, she was known as the Head of Quidditch in the North American Continent.

“OPRF and the library provide a lot of materials, but this is just a fun way to get excited about the books and discuss them and share opinions.”

Natalie Hardwicke

“The book had such a detailed world that just drew you in. I remembered the Harry Potter book releases from when I was little and just thought this party would be really fun to work on.”

Hannah Freedman

“The end of Catching Fire really made me want to read the third book! I’m thrilled to be a part of the Mockingjay event because it’s an honor to have an opportunity to recreate the Capitol and the Districts for fans of the series.”

Mariel Stolarski

What’s scheduled

“The Midnight Uprising” – a book release party for Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

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Mockingjay Midnight at The Tree

Activities include a DJ, temporary tattoos, an archery contest, a life-size Hunger Game, a costume design competition judged by Twilight stylist Karen Lynn, and presentation of the essays and illustrations in the storytelling contest.

Author Suzanne Collins will be at the Magic Tree on Oct. 4 to stamp her books with a design specially drawn for this event.

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