Helping busy teens pause to enjoy some good books

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For high school senior Lindsay Ferrara, finding time to curl up with a good book can be almost as challenging as it is for Harry Potter to overpower the wicked wizard Voldemort.

Though Lindsay would like to peruse the popular series by J.K. Rowling, leisure reading takes a back seat in her tight schedule: An average day is filled with up to three hours of homework, classes, band, or indoor track practice. Not to mention spending time with friends.

But Lindsay, who lives in Stratford, Conn., says she loves reading and tries to squeeze it in. "I read before bed, in the hallways ... trying not to run into anyone."

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High school's greater social and academic demands are key reasons why the American Library Association (ALA) created Teen Read Week, which started Oct. 15. Like Lindsay, teens say "fun" reading time dwindles when they leave elementary or middle school, as it competes with music, movies, and the Web. Many young people abandon reading altogether.

During this week, bookstores and libraries nationwide are hosting events to encourage young people to make time for perusing the latest books. Writings by Stephen King and John Grisham are popular teen choices. One goal is to show youths that not all reading is academic, says Mary Arnold, the ALA's president of young adult library services.

According to a 1999 survey conducted by SmartGirl.com, 43 percent of kids ages 11 to 18 said they like reading for fun, but just don't have time for it. When teens do read, two-thirds said they read magazines, which are easy to pick up and put down. Many also said they thought reading was boring or hard.

But educators say it should play a vital role in students' personal growth, both in and out of the classroom. Students who frequently read develop broader vocabularies and earn higher grades and test scores than those who don't.

"If school's the only place you read, you're almost always behind," says Nadean Meyer, a librarian at Medical Lake High School in Spokane, Wash. "Once they get behind, at the high school level, it's hard to catch up."

Roughly one-fourth of eighth- and 12th-graders in America read at the "below basic" level, according to the US Department of Education. Ms. Meyer says she helps slower readers become more comfortable by starting with short stories or five-minute mysteries. She also creates lists of books that teens recommend. More advanced students might delve into books by Ayn Rand or Jane Austen, she suggests.

For Teen Read Week, she is encouraging students to read 45 minutes a day, to keep a book in their pocket or backpack and scan it in spare moments.

During the week, the Cleveland public libraries will have librarians visit schools for brown-bag book talks. At some schools around the country, teens will discuss their recommendations with peers during English class. And there will also be book chats online.

Mysteries are the most popular theme among young readers, followed by adventure and horror, according to the SmartGirl.com survey. Books they enjoy include: the "Harry Potter" series; "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee; "The Outsiders," by S.E. Hinton; and "The Baby Sitters Club" series, by Ann Matthews Martin.

Ms. Arnold of the ALA recommends "thoughtful" and "complex" books for teens that appear on the ALA's 10 best books of 2000 list. These include "The Facts Speak for Themselves," by Brock Cole; "In My Hands: Memories of a Holocaust Rescuer," by Irene Gut Opdyke; and "Ender's Shadow," by Orson Scott Card.

For more information on Teen Read Week, go to www.ala.org/yalsa (see review, page 14)

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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