Eight years ago, Veronica Roth was a teenage girl who thrived as a junior in Barrington High School's AP English and The Interrelated Arts class. The class used literature, music appreciation, art history, architecture and many field trips to Chicago to teach kids how to think and write.
"That class really appealed to the divergent mind," remembers teacher June Kramer. "Veronica was a natural for that class. She loved it. She had a divergent mind."
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Now Roth is the sensation of the literary world. Bookstores such as Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville and Downers Grove hosted midnight parties and throngs stood in line to buy "Allegiant," out today as the final novel of her best-selling "Divergent" trilogy. A clip of her reading the first chapter of her new book began airing at 11:59 p.m. Monday at divergentofficial.com. Her Saturday appearance at the Tivoli Theatre in Downers Grove is sold out. A movie based on her debut novel, "Divergent," comes out on March 21 and stars Kate Winslet, Shailene Woodley and Ashley Judd,
Only 25 now, Roth was a terrific writer even as a high school English student, says Kramer, who wrote a recommendation letter for the teen's college application. As a senior in 2006, Roth won a National Council of Teachers of English Award in Writing.
"She was fabulous. I put a lot in her college recommendation about her writing, how mature it was. It was like reading a colleague's," Kramer recalls. "But she worked very hard at it."
When Roth visited Barrington schools earlier this month as part of a Barrington High School Alumni Legends program, the best-selling author once again thanked Kramer and other teachers for their support and encouragement.
"That's one of the best parts of my job -- helping kids get to where they need to go," says Kramer, who gave Roth a copy of the glowing college recommendation the teacher wrote for the student.
Roth protested that students weren't supposed to see what teachers wrote, but Kramer persuaded her that those student rules no longer apply. "She cried when she read it," Kramer says
During a 23-year teaching career that began in 1975 and spent some time in the corporate world before returning to the classroom, Kramer says she's taught many talented writers, but Roth stands out.
"There are a lot of kids who have talent but not the desire, and she has both," Kramer says. "She is just driven to write."
Roth had written an unpublished novel even before she earned fame for signing a publishing deal when she was still a student at Northwestern University, Kramer says. Often compared to "The Hunger Games" series, Roth's books are written for young adults, feature a strong female character and take place in a dystopian Chicago, where society makes 16-year-olds fit into one of five factions based on a particular virtue -- Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent).
"What I really like about them is that they are really character-driven," Kramer says of Roth's books. "They've really got some depth and deal with these issues of 'what kind of person will I be?'"
The seeds for using some Chicago landmarks in her books might have been planted during a junior year field trip, but Kramer says Roth's characters are "not like anyone" from her English class and "are their own characters."
"Her main character (a girl who goes by Tris) is definitely not herself, which I really admire," Kramer says, noting that, even as a teen, Roth studied people and the world around her. "She's a student of human behavior. She's got this acute sensitivity and awareness. She takes delight in little things. She notices details and let's them please her. She's very aware. You can imagine her dystopian world because she makes it come alive with real things and real people."
If Roth struggled with the angst of teenage life, she didn't show it, Kramer says. "She was a normal-looking kid, just smarter than the average bear. And a voracious reader, a very perceptive reader," Kramer says. Roth had friends, was a "snappy dresser," participated in school events, and "wasn't a nerd by any means," Kramer says.
"She describes herself as shy. I don't think's that's exactly right," Kramer says. "She's always been very polite. She's a little reserved. But she's very playful, so that's nice."
Roth promised on her blog to jump into a pool filled with marshmallows if she ever managed to sign a publishing deal. When she did, she posted a YouTube video of her, fully clothed, getting into a bathtub filled with marshmallows.
Seeing a former student go on to writing fame and fortune is fun, says Kramer, who adds, "I really enjoy being a fan."