Like any good actress and author, Octavia Spencer knows how to connect with her audience.
Take a gym packed with students, for instance.
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"How many of you have ever done a book report before?" Spencer asked. "That's kind of like what writing a book and talking to you about it is. Do you all like book reports?"
Spencer, an Academy-award winning actress for her work in "The Help," just released her first children's book. On Thursday, she talked about it and signed copies as a guest at Young Elementary School in Aurora.
The book, "Randi Rhodes, Ninja Detective: The Case of the Time Capsule Bandit," unleashes a team of sleuths determined to find a 200-year-old time capsule stolen from a small Tennessee town. Spencer said the book was 10 years in the making.
The actress, who said she "always wanted to be a ninja and always wanted to be a detective," passed along some wisdom for her young listeners to take home.
"I want you guys to pay attention to everything around you. Every time you leave your house, that's important," Spencer said. "I like to solve mysteries, but I also like to pay attention."
Mystery books like the Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown series were Spencer's favorite genre growing up, but she also enjoyed reading the "Little House on the Prairie" novels. She buried herself in books despite being diagnosed with dyslexia.
"I enjoyed reading when I was growing up, but reading was very hard for me," Spencer said. "But did that stop me? No. And if you have a problem reading and understanding, it shouldn't stop you, either."
Spencer won a Best Supporting Actress award for her role as a maid in the 2011 movie "The Help."
Asked by a Young student where she learned to cook fried chicken, Spencer shared a Hollywood secret.
"You guys know movies are pretend, right?" she said. "Because I can't cook fried chicken. I learned to make fried chicken that day of the shoot and I was very, very nervous."
Spencer just turned in the manuscript for a second children's book, and has the outline for at least four. Asked how a famous actress dipped her pen into children's books, Spencer shared sage words passed on from her mother.
"Have you kids heard of the saying 'Idle hands make the devil's workshop?' That means you can't sit around and do nothing, or you'll get into trouble," Spencer said. "I had a lot of idle time so I thought I'd fill it with something I love."
The Indian Prairie Unit District 204 school got the chance to host Spencer's visit as part of a five-year relationship with Anderson's Bookshop in Naperville, where Spencer signed books Wednesday. Young has played host to several authors, including actress Jamie Lee Curtis in 2010 and figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi last year.
Blaire Ranucci, the school's Library Media Center director, said kids saw video of Spencer winning awards and students in grades three through five read the first chapter of the book in preparation for the visit. Ranucci conceded youngsters probably know Spencer better for her work on Disney's "The Wizards of Waverly Place" than "The Help."
"I think her story shows kids they don't have to be interested in just one thing," Ranucci said. "You can pursue as many dreams as you have. Just because you're good at one thing doesn't mean you can't try other things."
Spencer shared advice from her own inspiration, her mother.
"My mom always told me I could do anything if I dared to dream," Spencer said. "We were always taught that you shoot for the moon, and if you land on the stars that's OK. You should shoot for the moon every day, and dream big. You can't just dream, though. You have to work for it."