Reading is one of the basic skills necessary for success in school and in life. But there's a difference between being able to read, and enjoying it. Many middle and high school students are reluctant readers, having found television, video games and peer interaction more interesting. But Adopt-An-Author, a nationwide program that uses science-based thrillers and non-fiction stories, is getting teens excited about reading.
"I wasn't really into reading. It wasn't my favorite thing to do," says Alex Rill, 17, a high school senior in Palm Beach Florida. That was before his teacher assigned his class to read Meg: A Novel of Deep Terror, the story of a monstrous prehistoric shark with a voracious appetite. "This book, you have to read it, you can't stop reading it. You have to go to the next chapter to see what's going to happen. I had so much fun, like I was watching a movie."
That was three years ago. Not only did Alex devour the novel, he met the man who wrote it, New York Times best-selling author Steve Alten.
"My teacher is friends with Mr. Alten, so he had him come in two separate times," Alex says. "I actually met him and had a conversation with him. People were asking him questions about his book and he would tell them about it. And the coolest part was that you read these books and you're so into it, like it's your favorite movie, then the star of the movie comes to us. It's just crazy."
Charlie McDaniel is Alex's teacher. He says Steve Alten and Meg helped bring a biology lesson to life. "We are now encouraged to do reading in content area," he says. "We are encouraged to having kids to read things that relate to a particular class area like science, math or whatever."
Oftentimes, McDaniel says, teens don't read simply because they don't find books that engage them.
Author Steve Alten agrees. "Students who hate to read, it's easier to entice them to read a book about a giant shark, or alien extraterrestrial intervention, or submarines with computers that force them to attack. Adventure stories," he says. "You have to make reading fun."
So Alten created Adopt-An-Author, with a fun-to-read book list of thrills and adventures.
"It's a nationwide, non-profit program," he says. "We assist the teachers who are interested in the program in getting the reluctant readers to read. We provide them with free curriculum materials, tests, quizzes, projects, everything that can possibly be used to build a curriculum off any of the books that are part of our menu."
The Adopt-An-Author reading list ranges from science fiction and thrillers to heroic non-fiction stories.
"We have these three African American gentlemen who wrote the book, The Pact," Alten says. "It is about three gang members from New Jersey who made a pact to go to college then go to medical school and become doctors. It's a terrific autobiography."
More than 8,000 teachers are now participating in the program. Over the last eight years, Alten says the Adopt-An-Author program has forged a connection between the writers and their teen readers.
Students can contact the authors by e-mail and, Alten says they'll get a personal response. Teachers can arrange a teleconference with the author so the class can ask questions.
"It's amazing. The program has now been called 'the best secondary school reading program around,'" Alten says. "Most of that is due to the fact that the books are exciting, they get students involved."
Students, Alten says, are not the only ones who benefit from this program. Writers, who often work in isolation, get something valuable, as well.
"I think it gives them a special feeling. It means a lot to me too, because I get to know my readers. I involve them in my work," he says. "Every time I write a new book, before I start the book, I will put out a Character Contest. If a reader wants to be a character in one of my future novels, they enter the contest and tell me how they will help me with the book."
Alten also has reader polls on his Web site. " I give the readers the choice of what they would like to see next from me and I pay attention to these polls."
Adopt-An-Author's influence extends beyond the high school classroom. Teacher Charlie McDaniel says some of his students have decided to pursue careers in science. Others are planning to become writers.