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Not Just for Kids: A lifeline for struggling teen readers

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The average American teenager spends two hours watching TV each day and just seven minutes reading, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That's brutally apparent in the eighth grade, where two-thirds of students read below the expected level. In California, that statistic is even worse. Seventy-seven percent of eighth-graders read below grade, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The negative effects only compound as school progresses, making it more difficult for students to keep up in class, more likely that they'll give up and drop out, and less likely that they'll ever make up lost ground as their bodies and interests mature and their reading levels remain stuck in elementary school.

"You can't give high school students a book on 'Clifford the Big Red Dog' and expect them to be interested and motivated," said Arianne McHugh, president of Saddleback Educational Publishing in Costa Mesa, which this month released the first title in a new teen fiction series about high school cheerleaders and football players that is written at a third-grade level but looks like a regular teen book.

Each of the 10 titles in the Urban Flip Book series is about 150 pages long, but each story is also packaged with a second, companion title. The series kickoff, "Always Upbeat," is written from the perspective of an African American cheerleader named Charli. Flip it over, and readers get the alternate point of view from her quarterback boyfriend, Blake, in "All That." All 10 books will be published over the summer, so if readers like one book, they don't need to struggle to find another. (They are sold by Barnes & Noble, Amazon and at larger independent bookstores.)

The Urban Flip Book is the fourth Saddleback series targeting urban youth and is written by African American author Stephanie Perry Moore, who's penned several Christian-themed teen books. She wrote all 10 Urban Flip Books, co-writing the boys' perspectives with her husband, Derrick Moore, a former NFL player.

Inspired by the novel and TV show "Friday Night Lights," the Urban Flip Books written from the girls' perspectives are packaged as "Cheer Drama," with each of the five books following a different cheerleader — whose names begin with "C," "H," "E," "E" or "R." The boys' perspectives are offered as "Baller Swag," each of them following a different football player whose first names are likewise represented in the title.

While the backdrop of cheerleaders and football players isn't at all new, the format is intriguing and the scenarios and dialogue are authentic. In the series kickoff, which takes place at an Atlanta high school, Charli is the quintessential good-girl pom pom girl with the devastatingly handsome jock boyfriend who's pressuring her to have sex at the same time he's tempted by other, easier girls coming on to him. Blake is also dealing with the high expectations of his father and talented, college-bound teammates, one of whom boasts, "I'm just tryna decide where I'ma sign come February."

"Many of our struggling learners are African American, Latino, ethnically diverse, so it's important to connect with all of them and show them there are books about them, about the families they're a part of, the friends they have, the environments they're used to," said McHugh, whose company publishes 100 books each year for middle- and high-school students that marry tween and teen content with a first- to fourth-grade reading level, as well as supplemental educational material written at lower reading levels than the curriculum.

Like Saddleback's bestselling Urban Underground books for teens, "Cheer Drama" and "Baller Swag" will spin off a companion Urban Flip Book series that takes place at a rival high school that's ethnically more diverse, McHugh said. Saddleback is reaching out to authors of other ethnicities to expand the flip book concept, designed to appeal to both genders, who McHugh said often read the opposite perspective first.

In the two weeks the Urban Flip Books have been on the market, McHugh said preorders have exceeded sales for any other book in the company's 30-year-history, underscoring what one struggling teen reader said in a focus group: "Finally, I can have a thick book and look like everyone else."

susan.carpenter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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