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Students to Tell What They’ll Read and Why : Books: Orange youths will tear themselves away from TV long enough to rate their interest in novels and nonfiction for a national group.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jason Garcia hates reading. He’d rather listen to Metallica, watch a movie--anything but pick up a book.

“Why should I spend the whole day reading a book?” asked Jason, 16, a junior at El Modena High School in Orange. “I can spend two hours watching a movie or listening to an album and get the same entertainment.”

With the flash of MTV and the blasts from high-tech speakers available, bookshelves usually are not the first place teen-agers turn when they are bored. In most circles, youths would rather spend an hour of rocking with Axl Rose than a hour of discontent with Richard III.

But this year, middle and high school students in the Orange Unified School District will become literary connoisseurs. Selected by the Delaware-based International Reading Assn. to help rate contemporary novels and nonfiction, Orange students will have the unique opportunity to say what makes good reading and what, in their minds, stinks.

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Popular books will earn the title of “Young Adult Choices” and will be featured in education journals.

As part of the program, the reading association has sent Orange Unified 600 newly published books, which will be distributed to five district high schools and five middle schools. The young critics have until February to read and critique their choices.

Students will indicate on their critiques whether they liked the books, hated them or thought them to be “OK.” Their reviews will be sent back to the association, which will then publish the results.

Thus far, the budding critics seem excited about the program, and that, educators say, is a victory in itself. According to a 1990 assessment report from the Educational Testing Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education, students read less for fun as they get older. Teen-agers “have very little to do with reading activities beyond those required in school,” the report says.

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Organizers of “Young Adult Choices” hope that the contemporary books to be issued by the association will sufficiently excite youngsters about reading to steer them to the classics or popular literary works.

“It’s exciting for kids to determine what their peers would want to read,” said Lori Morgan, chairwoman of Orange Unified’s reading department. “They feel more involved when somebody ask them what their choices are.”

Ask Eric Anderson, 16, what he thinks about books, and he’ll say he would die without them--especially now that his family’s TV is on the fritz.

“All my life, I hated to read,” Eric said. “But then one day, I picked up this series called ‘Robotech.’ I couldn’t stop reading. Books are kind of addictive that way.”

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Eric said he will zero in on the horror and science-fiction books included in the International Reading Assn.'s selections.

A wide range of other topics will also be available for the young critics. Book selections include recollections of the Vietnam era, and subjects of special interest to youths, from weighty matters such as teen-age pregnancy to lighter fare, such as how to clear up acne.

Last year, the most popular selections in other districts around the country were subjects that usually pique a young reader’s curiosity but often make adults uncomfortable, said Mary Dupuis, a Penn State University education professor and a member of the reading association.

“Children choose to read books about death and divorce as well as issues that they can immediately relate to, like teen-aged pregnancies,” Dupuis said.

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To give a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to a book is a chance in a lifetime, said Christel Sice, 15. A big fan of romance novelist Danielle Steele, Christel said she often becomes frustrated with a book but never before had the chance to vent her displeasure.

“There are some books out there that make you want to fall asleep,” Christel said. “I’ll like to tell people to stay away from them.”

Another student, Josh Sidwell, 16, whose favorite books are J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings,” similarly hopes to warn others to stay away from duds. But Josh pledged to enthusiastically endorse books that he thinks will open doors to new places and people for young readers.

“I love reading,” Josh said. “It’s as if I get personally acquainted with people in the books. They’re a great way to escape, and they’re a great way to learn about our world.”

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