Book series creates reading craze

Published April 26, 2007

Martin Luna is a high school student struggling to rebuild his life after his brother is shot and killed.

"He's in a gang, but he's trying to get out," said Chani Orta, 15. She rolls her eyes dramatically and drapes a hand across her heart. "I love him!"

The Tampa teen loves the fictional character enough to have ripped through two entire novels about him. That's saying something for the Liberty Middle School seventh-grader.

"These are the first books I've ever read," Chani said.

Librarians, teachers and middle school students throughout the Tampa Bay area are singing the praises of a series they call relevant and relatable. With reading levels low among minority students, educators have longed for a way to even the score. Some say they have found it in this 13-book series built on city settings and minority characters.

"Anything that we can use to get reluctant readers to start reading is good," said Emily Spiegel, a library information specialist at Southside Fundamental in St. Petersburg.

"They're books they can identify with, because they're modern problems that teens have," she said.

Bluford students don't drive Daddy's convertible to school. They help Mama pay car insurance.

They don't surf or sunbathe. They cope with absentee or abusive fathers, gun violence and gangs. The student body is predominately black.

"They're just real," said Shandria Orr, an eighth-grader at Liberty.

For fellow eighth-grader Mario Clark, The Gun, by Paul Langan, mirrored life. In it, freshman Tyray Hobbs brings a gun to school to get revenge against a boy who embarrassed him.

"When I was in sixth grade, a boy brought a gun to school," Mario said. "It was a fake gun, but he still got expelled."

The books are flying off the shelves at libraries in St. Petersburg, especially at the Main and Mirror Lake branches.

At Liberty, kids are training for a "Bluford Bowl," a sort of Battle of the Books that will quiz Bluford readers.

"I'll probably reread most of these," said eighth-grader Christine Rivera.

* * *

Who's behind the Bluford phenomenon?

A handful of authors, including Langan, a white man in New Jersey.

They named the series' high school after Guion "Guy" Bluford, America's first black astronaut.

The main characters have names like Darrell, Hakeem and Tyray. They live in apartments where the water's not always hot and their families can't always afford rent. Much of the dialogue is scripted in broken English.

A critical reader may spot broad stereotypes, akin to the 1970s TV comedy Good Times.

But educators say economics, not race, is what gives the series an appeal to young readers.

"The attraction is all the way across the board, regardless of race or gender," says Nancy Harris, a librarian at Turkey Creek Middle School in Plant City.

"It's not necessarily a race issue," agreed Melissa Perrotta, a reading specialist at Liberty. "The themes in the series - a death in the family, running away, a girlfriend is pregnant, what does it mean when dad goes away - really aren't race specific. If they readers haven't gone through it, they know somebody who's gone through it."

* * *

Langan said he drew his inspiration and cityscape descriptions from his own experiences.

Living in Philadelphia and New Jersey in a single-parent home, Langan said, "most of my friends were African-American ... sometimes I was the one white kid in the group."

"Most books are oriented around white middle-class kids," Langan said. "Kids who aren't white or who aren't middle-class, they're being forced to find something interesting in a book that has no daily relevance to them."

With Bluford books, "their world is invited back into the classroom ... and we're saying, 'Hey, now those kids can read about you.' "

Last year, the failure rate of elementary and middle school level black students on the reading portion of the FCAT was roughly three times that of their white counterparts. The failure rate among elementary and middle school level Hispanic students' was only a little better - twice as high as that of white students.

The idea, educators say, is to whet their appetites for a far broader array of literature.

Said Langan, "If you get them to read, you can get them to be scholars."

Reporter Rita Farlow contributed to this report. Amber Mobley can be reached at amobley@sptimes.com or (813) 269-5311.

Fast Facts:

By the numbers

43 Percentage of sixth graders in Pinellas County that do not read for pleasure.

20 Percentage of eight graders who report spending more than one hour each day reading for pleasure.

84 Percentage of students who reported watching at least one hour of television everyday.

Pinellas County Schools.