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Juicy books for struggling teenage readers

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The Gun, part of the Bluford Series, appealed to Meltzer's eighth-grade students. (Elizabeth McGarr/CNS)

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High-interest books like the Bluford Series, published by Townsend Press, and Orca Soundings, released by Orca Book Publishers, are geared toward reluctant readers. (Elizabeth McGarr/CNS)

In a teacher’s perfect world, students would follow directions, keep their hands to themselves and love to read.

In Jamie Meltzer’s eighth-grade English class in Brooklyn, N.Y., however, many students didn’t like books. Meltzer would suggest certain books, but the students wouldn’t read them or would quickly give up, saying they were bored. “A lot of, ‘This is wack,’ was happening,” said Meltzer, describing the students' reaction to the recommended books.

Then Meltzer found "The Gun."

“I had some kids who hadn’t read all year,” she said. “Then, that was all they wanted to read. I didn’t let the students take the books home because I knew I wouldn’t get them back.”

In an effort to reach struggling or reluctant readers, educators and publishers are creating and distributing books that students not only want to read but that also will not embarrass them in front of their classmates.

"The Gun" is one of 13 books that takes place at Bluford High School. The series of paperbacks, with their colorful, often provocative covers, has been a success for Townsend Press, an independent publishing company in New Jersey that sells the books for $1 each. The series is aimed at struggling urban readers.

Books like "The Gun," "Summer of Secrets," "The Bully," and "Blood Is Thicker" are written at a sixth-grade reading level but are intended for students in the seventh through 12th grade. They average 150 pages, are about the size of trade paperbacks and deal with issues like bullying, revenge and peer pressure.

The first Bluford book appeared in 2001 and sold 22,000 copies the first year, said Paul Langan, the young adult fiction editor at Townsend Press and also the author of several of the books. But sales have increased steadily, and in January alone the series sold 90,000 copies.

At a time when video games and television are drawing students away from reading, many teenagers struggle with age-appropriate reading material. Among eighth-grade students in the United States in 2005, 29 percent were reading below grade level, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Those students, teachers say, often criticize books as being boring, when really they can’t understand the text.

Orca Book Publishers distributes a series called Orca Soundings: Teen Fiction for Reluctant Readers. The books average 100 pages and are written for students who read at the second-grade to fourth-grade level. The series has been so successful since its debut in 2002 that there are now 41 titles, including "Charmed," about a girl who gets caught up in teen prostitution, and "Hit Squad," about a group of students who seek revenge on the bullies at their school.

“Even the kids who are good readers like them,” said Susan Geye, a librarian for two ninth-grade schools in Crowley, Texas. Geye also writes the teacher’s guides for the Orca Soundings series. “I’m so grateful we can put these types of books in their hands,” she said.

Greg Cox, a ninth grader at North Crowley High School, had given up trying to find books that he liked. One day, he picked up "Chill," an Orca Soundings book about a boy who stands up for himself and his classmates by challenging an unfair teacher.

“When I closed the book,” Greg remembered, “I was like, ‘Did I just finish a book?’” Greg returned to the library the next week and asked Geye, “How many are there? Will I have time to read all of them this year?”

Greg checked out five more books from the library in January, prompting Geye to mention him in the library newsletter she sends home to parents every six weeks. “I didn’t think I had checked out that many,” Greg said. “They were short, and they were good. I was proud of myself.”

Other series like Carter High Chronicles, Carter High Senior Year and Walker High Mysteries, published by Saddleback Educational Publishing, are written for a second-grade reading level but are designed to appeal to teenagers and even adults who have trouble reading. Each of the books is 48 pages long.

“If you’re going to get kids to love reading or invest in reading, you need to start with things that they can relate to,” said Grace Enriquez, an instructor in the literacy specialist program at Teacher’s College. “If they don’t, they will continue to distance themselves.”

Some educators worry that these books are too sophisticated for the good readers in the fifth grade and sixth grade who sometimes stumble across them. But most dismiss that reservation and believe that the benefits of engaging students outweigh any potential negatives of younger readers being exposed to topics like gangs and alcohol.

The students in Meltzer’s eighth-grade class loved the Bluford books so much that she ended up extending the unit from April until the end of the school year, allowing the students to discuss the issues raised in the books.

“It was literally the first time all year that all the kids were reading at the same time,” said Meltzer, who this year is teaching fifth graders in Brooklyn. “They couldn’t wait to come to class to pick up the books.”

E-mail: enm2107@columbia.edu