Young poet signs books for his fans at Borders

November 16, 2003|by SCOTT BUTKI

A 13-year-old from Maryland whose poetry has captured readers' hearts drew about 250 people to Borders bookstore at the Centre at Hagerstown on Saturday.

Mattie J.T. Stepanek of Upper Marlboro, Md., whose physical ailments almost took his life this year, patiently signed copies of his best-selling poetry books for more than an hour while his best friend, mother and dog sat nearby.

Those in line praised his poems.

"They are really heart-felt. He is a voice for our time," said Rhonda Way of Hagerstown.

"He has an adult's mind captured in a kid's imagination," said Laura Branham of Martinsburg, W.Va., who was there with her mother, Joyce Young.


Shannon Young of Martinsburg, who was there with her children, said she wanted to buy and read his books after hearing him read poetry during one of his many appearances on Oprah Winfrey's television show.

The large turnout will help raise the spirits of Mattie, who has muscular dystrophy, said his mother, Jeni, who also has the disease. She said he's had a rough year, during which he spent several months in intensive care and had a brush with death, she said.

Saturday's visit came after Borders asked if he would make four book-signing appearances.

Teen heartthrob Lance Bass attended Stepanek's book signing last weekend in Rockville, Md., his mother said.

Mattie is to sign books in Waldorf, Md., on Thursday and in Germantown, Md., on Saturday, Jeni Stepanek said.

While Mattie is an impressive writer, and an even better motivational speaker, he is also "100 percent a 13-year-old," his mother said. For example, she said, he will only clean his room if someone special is coming over.

"He is not a little prophet just sitting at home," she said.

Jeni Stepanek said Mattie's writing and speaking is partially his way of dealing with his parents' divorce and the death of his brother and a friend. His brother also has muscular dystrophy, she said.

"He has lived an incredible life," she said.

Much of Mattie's poetry is a way for him to speak about friendship and to try to be a peacemaker, she said. He is working with former President Jimmy Carter on a collection of essays for a future book project, Jeni Stepanek said.

Some critics say that Mattie's books are successful only because he is a child with a disability, Jeni Stepanek said. But that would not explain why acclaimed poet Maya Angelou praises his poetry, she said.

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