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It was difficult to tell who was the star attraction: former lawyer-turned-children's author Richard Stack or his "wonder dog," Josh.

Josh, central to Stack's well-received books, "The Doggonest Christmas" and "The Doggonest Vacation," won oohs and ahs when he jumped for treats from the hand of his master and friend.

Stack, though, held his audience at Winfield Elementary School captive with tales about how he came to write "The Doggonest Christmas"and about how he met his wife last year during a visit to another classroom in Atlanta.

The latter elicited oohs and ahs, too.

Clearly, both man and dog were welcome. Signs like "Wow Oh Bow Wow You Are Finally Here" and "Welcome Mr. Stack and Josh" decorated the walls of the gym, where kindergarten through fifth-grade students and teachers gathered.

Stack came to the school Monday to kick off the Doggonest Reading Program, a project to encourage students to read. The Maryland resident later spoke at Mount Airy Elementary.

The 49-year-old author stumbled upon writing a few years ago after watching a "terrible" Christmas program with "poor messages" for children. When Stack remarked he could do better, a friend egged him on.

The result, "The Doggonest Christmas," came after studying books on how to write children's stories, reading children's books and writing at least 200 drafts and 100 rewrites of the story, Stack said.

The success of the book prompted Stack to leave his law practice in 1989. "The Doggonest Vacation" followed. Now, Stack is working on a third in the series, called "The Doggonest Puppy Love," due around Valentine's Day. You guessed it -- like master, dog falls in love.

Kim Gorsuch, a member of the school's parent literacy committee, said Stack was chosen to launch the reading program because his books about dogs matched this year's theme of canines. Last year's theme was railroads.

"He's really good with the kids," said Gorsuch, whose 6-year-old daughter, Megan, and 8-year-old son, Jason, attend Winfield. "He's slipping a message in there, too. I don't know if the kids are aware of it."

His message is one of self-worth. Josh, a stray mutt, wandered ontoStack's doorsteps several years ago. The dog has since visited hundreds of schools and has received radio, television and newspaper coverage.

"Josh wanted to do something special," Stack said, recalling the plot of "The Doggonest Christmas." "He became a real star. That'sthe message from him."

"If you want to make something happen. Youhave to work hard enough to make it happen."

For his visit, Stackrequired that the school sell 80 copies of his books in lieu of a speakers fee. Kathy Wallis, reading specialist for Winfield's 460 students, said the school sold 170 books, which both Stack and Josh autographed (the dog uses his back paw).

"We're a small school," Wallis said. "We can't afford speakers fees."

She said the reading program will culminate in the spring with a hot-dog party. She said the dogtheme provides endless possibilities for promoting reading, and the school has already come up with some pretty clever slogans, including"A dog is a man's best friend. A book is a kid's best friend."

Stack's visit made both appear to be true.

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