Swarms of giddy Montclair children tattooed their foreheads with purple lightning bolts Wednesday to honor their favorite boy wizard, Harry Potter, known for his signature scar.
They waved signs proclaiming "Potter Power!"
And they chanted "Harry Potter Rules" to welcome J. K. Rowling, the author of the wildly popular fantasy series, as she was driven to the door of the Montclair Kimberley Academy in a very down-to-earth Volvo.
So began the British writer's first visit to a school in America, where children have been devouring her books just like their peers around the world. In an unprecedented publishing feat, Rowling's three novels occupy the top three spots on The New York Times best- seller list.
Eight-year-old Jane Stanton of Verona couldn't wait to see the red- headed writer. Jane said she used to struggle each night to finish her school reading assignments. Not anymore. Now she plows through Harry Potter books for more than an hour at a stretch.
"I never liked to read that much, and now I love it," Jane said as she craned her neck to see Rowling. "This is like a dream, I'm so excited."
Rowling's series has been widely credited with drawing a generation of reluctant readers to the library. Demand for the books appears insatiable, and many parents say they are among the few new novels entire families can enjoy together.
For the uninitiated, Harry is a knobby-kneed orphan who discovers he has magical powers. The books follow his action-packed adventures at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The series consists of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban."
So far, 9.2 million copies of the three books have been printed in the United States alone. They are published in 28 languages.
In a jampacked assembly of more than 500 students in Grades 2 through 8, a relaxed and cheerfully irreverent Rowling seemed to cast a spell on her rapt audience.
Rowling said many characters come from her own past. Harry's know- it-all friend, Hermione, is "an exaggerated version of me when I was 11, which I'm not very proud of. But I wasn't that clever. Hermione is borderline genius. If I were that annoying, I would deserve a strangling."
Professor Snape, she said, was based on a teacher she despised: "The great thing about becoming a writer is you can get revenge on everyone."
After the first novel catapulted Rowling to celebrity two years ago, she couldn't finish the second one.
"I never expected to get any personal publicity," she said. "I froze and for about a month I couldn't write. . . . I felt this wasn't my private world anymore and I had a load of people looking over my shoulder saying, 'That's not a very good word, is it?' It was a very scary feeling."
The former French teacher began the series when she was a newly divorced mother and briefly on welfare. She says her earlier attempts at adult novels were "complete rubbish."
Juliette Campbell, a 12-year-old from North Caldwell, said hearing about Rowling's perseverance gave her confidence that she also could be a writer someday. "She got popular but it took her awhile to get there," Juliette said. "She just kept going and going even though she didn't know what would happen next."
Harry's fans say they relate to him because he faces so many of their own turmoils; he gets blamed for things he didn't do, he has to struggle with classes and friendships, and he has to overcome his deepest fears.
Harry's saga also appeals to children's yearning for special powers all their own. "Most kids know there probably isn't magic, but they like to think there is," said John Dantzler, 9, of Montclair. "It would be really cool to be a wizard."
Laura Lemaire, a fourth-grade teacher, said she is thrilled to see children so turned on to books, but hopes they won't become dependent on the breathless pace of Harry's exploits to stay interested in reading.
"One of the problems with Harry Potter books is there's such instant gratification," she said. "My hope is kids will be patient with books that don't have such excitement."
Several teachers at Montclair Kimberley said students' eagerness to discuss the twists of Harry's fortunes had inspired a more sophisticated level of discourse about characters and motivation, even after the school bell rings.
"They talk about Harry so much, he's the 17th member of our class," said Christine Lagatta, a fourth-grade teacher.
Rowling came to Montclair Kimberley to kick off the school's annual book fair; a parent at the private school works for Rowling's publisher. Her Friday afternoon visit to Books, Bytes and Beyond in Glen Rock is sold out; the store expects several hundred fans. That night she also will appear at Borders Books & Music in Livingston.
Highlights of the assembly will be available for viewing on MKA's Web site beginning Monday at www.montclairkimberley.org.