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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Rhett Saggio checks out the Creative Discovery Museum's potions exhibit during the second annual Magic of Literacy event at the Chattanooga Choo Choo on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2019 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The Harry Potter-themed event is hosted by Moms for Social Justice to celebrate literacy and bring the community together.
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Magical literacy event

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Bubbling potions, magic wands, an array of fantastic beasts and creatures and dozens of other activities helped transform the Chattanooga Choo Choo into the Hogwarts Express, straight out of the world of Harry Potter created in J.K. Rowling's children's books.

Hundreds of children and their families, many dressed in "wizarding" robes or as other characters from the books, spent Sunday afternoon immersed in the "Magic of Literacy" event hosted by the local activist group Moms for Social Justice at the Choo Choo.

The event, which grew out of the group's desire to connect with the community and promote literacy, had even more to offer children and families in its second year.

This year, a smaller group of attendees was able to enter the event an hour ahead of general admission's staggered entrance times for a special "inclusion hour" for children with special needs or who needed a quieter environment away from the crowds.

Inclusion hour attendees attended a VIP event at Gate 11 Distillery, where they were sorted into one of four "houses" that the fictional Harry Potter and his classmates belong to at their magical boarding school, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

When Levi Black was sorted by the "Sorting Hat" — into the Hufflepuff house — his younger sister, Clara, 5, decided to stay behind with the children's father. Clara was shy but excited for the event — Levi got to attend last year with their mother, but she was home sick.

Lawton Caldwell wasn't nervous to be sorted, though. He sat on the stool, squeezing his eyes shut in anticipation, while Taylor Lyons, one of the founders of the activist group, placed the hat on his head. When Mari Smith, another founder, announced that Caldwell would be a Gryffindor, he leaped off the ground and cheered.

"You will see fantastic beasts. You will make potions. You will see charms. You might even encounter some danger," Lyons told the crowd.

Lawton's mother, Greer Caldwell, is another Moms for Social Justice founder and an event organizer. She said nearly 1,000 people attended last year's event. This year, the group sold nearly 2,000 tickets for the event.

"The purpose of this event is to get kids excited about reading and to have something that is based on a book that is fun and exciting and engaging," Caldwell said. "That is what happens when you read a book — you connect with this whole world."

The group has spoken out and held events on controversial issues in the past, including supporting student walkouts, demanding gun control reform and on LGBTQ issues. But last year's Magic of Literacy event served as the launch of its newest and largest initiative: The Classroom Library Project.

The project is aimed at improving childhood literacy rates and access to reading materials. Through the project, members of the organization collect books and diverse reading materials and then create a classroom library space, such as a cozy reading nook, in a teacher's classroom. Since the project's launch last year, the team has established more than half a dozen libraries in several of Hamilton County's Opportunity Zone schools.

"We are so passionate about literacy," said Erin Wynn, a volunteer with the Blumenwagen flower truck of Joli Jardin Farm.

"And about Harry Potter," the 28-year-old laughed. "I am so excited that I can be here and nerd out."

She said she was especially excited about the inclusion hour that allowed children who needed to do so to access the event early.

After last year's event, the group of moms received feedback from some attendees about making the event more inclusive or welcoming for individuals with special needs. That inspired this year's inclusion hour, as well as other enhancements such as making sure all activities were wheelchair accessible, hiring an American Sign Language interpreter and creating a "sensory area" where overwhelmed kids could take a break from the noise.

Dozens of community partners took part in the event, including the Chattanooga Zoo, which brought some animals including two opossums, a dove and a ferret for children to meet, and the Creative Discovery Museum, which led a science activity in "Potions Class."

Levi Black was super excited for potions. Last year, the kids were able to create a fizzy drink with Sprite and food coloring, but this year's activity featured dry ice and mixing ingredients to create bubbling cauldrons.

Carrie Morton, programs educator at the Creative Discovery Museum, said the activity was modified from a series of science lessons the museum provides for after-school programs and other groups.

"At the museum or after-school, we do a lot of these programs at schools around the holidays," Morton said. "We try to adjust to the age-level we are presenting, too."

Levi was excited for the mystical, science experience, but his little sister Clara?

She was most excited about the event's Halloween candy.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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