Author Suzanne Collins, her gentle smile and soft features framed by waves of blond hair, looked out upon hundreds of fans crowded into the Books of Wonder store in Manhattan and unveiled the most anticipated young adult novel of the summer, "Mockingjay."
"I didn't know there were so many of you until I came out," she said, seated behind a rectangular table at the back of the store, confiding that she usually didn't stay up until midnight, the Potter-esque launch time for the final work of her "Hunger Games" dystopian trilogy. "Now, let's get on with it."
Affecting a soft Appalachian accent, the voice of fictional narrator and teen fighter Katniss Everdeen, Collins read a couple of pages from the second book of the series, "Catching Fire." Then she switched to the opening section of "Mockingjay," a No. 1 best-seller on Amazon.com even before Tuesday's publication and an object of such secrecy that when the occasional fan announced online that an early copy had been obtained, peers demanded no plot points be revealed.
At Books of Wonder, fans stood for hours outside under mist and drizzle, each greeted personally by store owner Peter Glassman, a longtime supporter of Collins whose loyalty was rewarded with her appearance early Tuesday, a rare outing for an author who cares little for publicity. "When others' interest waned, Peter was there," Collins said as she hugged Glassman in a small office at the store where she waited before coming out to read.
Collins' first reading ever was at Books of Wonder, around eight years ago, when she appeared on a panel of fantasy writers that included such future stars as Christopher Paolini of "Eragon" fame and Jonathan Stroud, author of the "Bartimaeus" trilogy. "That was a great group," says Glassman, a heavyset man with a big and ready laugh. "I think there were about 100 people, which seemed like a lot at the time. It was a great night."
The million-selling "Hunger Games" novels are as dark as can be, stories of a murderous society where one has to kill or be killed. But the Books of Wonder event, well under way by early Monday evening, was more like a carnival, with jugglers, a trivia wheel, raffles, a face painter and a fortune teller. The books' golden logo - a winged mockingjay, encircled by a ring and clutching an arrow with its beak - was seen on the cupcakes served by the adjacent cafe, on pins worn by fans and officials from publisher Scholastic Inc., and on a pendant that hung from the neck of Collins herself.
The fans were mostly girls and women who ranged from grade schoolers and teenagers to adults self-conscious enough to ask that their names and ages not be revealed, to prize-winning children's author and Collins admirer Rebecca Stead.
They included 15-year-old India Coombs, an actress who traveled all the way from Allentown, Pa., just to tell Collins she considered herself ideal to play Katniss in the film version of the first book, "The Hunger Games," currently in development.
Kelsey Dixon, a high school senior on vacation from Birch Run, Mich., convinced her mother it was worth losing a night's sleep to see Collins and get an early crack at the book. "She begged and she begged and I caved in," her mother, Dawn Delacruz, said with a shrug.
A girl who lives near the store and comes often, 8th-grader Ina Brennan, said she loves the "rebellion" of the books and fell even deeper after winning a key chain in the store raffle. Her plan was to begin reading "Mockingjay" all night if she "doesn't pass out first."
Some fans arrived in costume, wearing the feathered bridal gown worn by Katniss during a key scene in "Catching Fire." Some brought bows and arrows, weapons used in the books.
Others acted out the "Hunger Games" version of the Edward-Bella-Jacob triangle of the "Twilight" books. Would Katniss end up with loyal Gale or sweet Peeta? Fans advertised their loyalty by painting "Gale" or "Peeta" on their cheeks. Collins heightened the suspense by reading from the new book: "Peeta was taken prisoner. He is thought to be dead. Most likely he is dead."
From around the store, you could hear gasps.