The Grammy Award-winning superstar stopped by the headquarters of Scholastic Inc. on Wednesday and chatted and performed at the publisher's downstairs auditorium, where about 200 grade-schoolers and middle-schoolers, most of them girls, had received a break from class to see Swift talk about reading and writing. The children had been selected by their schools because of improvement in their reading scores.
"I think that smart kids are the coolest kids," Swift, wearing a dark-blue cotton dress with red and white flowers and two-tone high heel shoes, said to much delight as she was interviewed on stage by "America's Got Talent" host Nick Cannon.
The 20-year-old singer-songwriter, who has been busy promoting her new CD, "Speak Now," shared songwriting tips (imagine you're writing a letter, she advised), childhood reading memories and repeated plugs for books as a path to a better life.
"(Without books) You can let little things pass you by, little details," she said. "Like, say you're driving down the road and there's just this really beautiful autumn tree and it has these gorgeous orange leaves. You might just let that pass you by if you have never read books that describe how beautiful they are, from somebody else's perspective."
Swift did more than talk. She sang a few lines from one of her favorite songs, Faith Hill's "This Kiss," and was joined by her band at the end to perform her new single, "Mine."
The children made their own music, spontaneously singing along when Swift's "You Belong With Me" was played on the house sound system before she arrived.
Swift, a native of Wyomissing, Pa., whose first record came out when she was 16, said she had always been a reader and was encouraged by her parents and teachers. She started writing poetry in second grade and by fourth grade had enough courage to enter a poem, "Monster in My Closet," in a national poetry contest. (She didn't win, she says, but she did place.) Studying "Romeo and Juliet" in ninth grade helped inspire her Top 10 single "Love Story."
She also said she loved "Sesame Street" books growing up and was inspired by the stories of Dr. Seuss because of their rhymes.
"A lot of people who gravitate toward music are really, really sort of drawn to poetry because the words all have a rhythm and it comes together just right," she said. "I love poetry, because if you get it right, if you put the right rhymes at the right ends of the sentences, you can almost make words bounce off a page."
Responding to student questions, Swift said she enjoyed authors who had a "a very conversational style to their writing" and was drawn most to books that dramatized history, perhaps about a "girl during the Revolutionary War." She said reading made her a better songwriter because it helps you with "understanding metaphors" and "how to paint a picture with a song."
Asked how to encourage children who don't like to read, she suggested not taking on too much, perhaps starting with a short story or even a newspaper.
"It doesn't have to be a big, thick, long book," she said. "You don't have to pick up something that looks scary."
On stage, Swift cited Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" as a favorite. Interviewed briefly at a post-show reception, Swift said she loved the novel, set in the South in the 1950s, because of how it was narrated from a child's point of view.
"The main character didn't exactly know what was going on, but the reader does," she said. "It's all portrayed in an interesting way, all the huge issues in the book, like civil right, come from a children's perspective. It's an interesting way to tell a story."
Swift is part of a new Scholastic promotional campaign, "You are What You Read," for which authors, celebrities and public figures from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to "Percy Jackson" novelist Rick Riordan choose favorite books. Swift's picks include E.B. White's "Charlotte's Web" and Elizabeth Gilbert's memoir on divorce and recovery, "Eat, Pray, Love," not a surprising choice for a songwriter known for her romantic laments and explorations.
Swift said during the reception that she was enjoying Gilbert's most recent book, "Committed," in which the author marries the Brazilian man she met in "Eat, Pray, Love."
"Listening to her talk at seminars, especially one that I YouTubed, where she was talking about trying to create her followup project, it made me cry," Swift said. "It was so inspirational."