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July 21, 2004

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The hottest summer trend -- books The hottest summer trend -- books (July 21, 2004)

Reading a popular activity for kids

by Alexandria Rocha

This summer's box office blockbusters are facing some stiff competition for the hearts and minds of children.

Books are the hot items these days. In fact, some teachers say they haven't seen kids so interested in reading since Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys hit the bookshelves decades ago.

Palo Alto is busy breeding its own group of bookworms. According to the latest standardized test results, eight out of 10 students read on grade level, which is greater than the county's average of five out of 10 students. Participation for the city library's summer reading program is also through the roof.

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series that took the adolescent book world by storm in 1997, is often credited with kick-starting the young reader mania.

"There's something very universal about those books," said Debbie Sterling, who taught a summer course in Palo Alto centered on the Harry Potter series.

Other authors have jumped on the trend's wagon. Lemony Snicket's 10-book saga, "A Series of Unfortunate Events," has developed its own strand of bookworms waiting for another "event" this September. A group of five women writers have also leapt into the arena, authoring the popular "American Girl" series.

The school district is also in tune with students' increased interest in reading, and teachers are using the reading rage to educate kids about writing and literature.

The district offered six summer courses in the subjects, including a class on composition, a Future Author's Camp, Classical Summer Shorts, a Reading and Writing Festival, as well as one course on the Harry Potter book series and another on "The Lord of the Rings."

Grace Choi, 12, who took Sterling's course on Harry Potter this summer, boasts reading between two to four hours per day. Choi said she has read the Harry Potter books numerous times.

In class, Choi's hand shoots up seconds before Sterling finishes her questions. She easily rattles off definitions for antagonists, protagonists and rounded characters. She also looks up words she doesn't understand in the dictionary, a practice encouraged by her older sister who attends the University of California, San Diego.

Sterling said books like the Harry Potter series have given teachers a new avenue for instruction on literature.

"I try to get them to think about it on another level other than a great, fun, magical book," Sterling said.

Palo Alto City Library's two summer reading programs are also proof that local youth like to read. More than 1,000 kids and teenagers have so far signed up for this season's two programs - "Track it Down at Your Library" for younger kids and "Explore Your Dreams" for teenagers.

Participating kids pledge to read a certain number of books during the summer months, with a completion certificate and prizes at the end if they're successful. The program works without any pressure, and kids can pledge to read as little or as much as they wish.

"It's to keep kids reading during summer so they keep up with their reading skills, and they're rewarded at the end," said Jill Ehrhorn, librarian of the children's branch.

Ehrhorn said summer is the prime time to dive into protagonists and pronouns, regardless of whether kids are regular bookworms or need a bit of literary catch up.

For the first time this summer, the reading program includes a written element. Kids are encouraged to write reviews of the books they read, which can be any length and are posted on the library's Web site.

For the second summer, Justina Chau signed her daughter and son up for the summer reading program.

"I really think reading is a basic foundation in education. It gives them a chance to improve their understanding, communication and writing," she said. Chau's daughter, Julisia, 9, pledged to read 10 books this summer. It shouldn't be hard for the Duvenek Elementary School fourth grader -- she's addicted to Snicket's "unfortunate events" series.

"I like to pretend I'm inside the book," Julisia said.

For information on library summer reading programs, call 329-2134. Weekly staff writer Alexandria Rocha can be reached at arocha@paweekly.com


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