Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" did not do it for the students of Fairfax High School. Too much slow-moving dust.
Toni Morrison's "Beloved" won no prizes either. Who could get through it?
Then came "Rain of Gold" by Victor Villasenor, a book once referred to as "Roots" for Latinos. Teachers saw students reading it at the bus stop and during breaks, and when they weren't reading it they were talking about it.
With video games, TV, chat rooms, movies, music, cars, cellphones, short attention spans, girlfriends and boyfriends, what does it take to get a high school student to open a book, read the first sentence -- and the next, and the next -- without threats from teachers or parents, until, 562 pages later, the book has been devoured, The End?
The characters were like members of your own family, explained Fairfax junior Ana Tabares.
"It was impossible to stop reading," says Michelle Gomez, another junior at the Los Angeles campus. You live in two worlds as the first-generation child of immigrants, she said, and "Rain of Gold" made her more comfortable in both those worlds.
Villasenor's mystical, folk-driven narrative of his life, published 13 years ago, takes on the two questions every lost soul or wandering spirit must eventually ask:
Who am I, and where do I come from?
Villasenor, who is dyslexic, grew up on a Carlsbad ranchero and says he couldn't write and didn't read much as a struggling student. But in 1975 he began asking questions of his father, mother, aunts, uncles, cousins. Each answer was the beginning of another chapter in his life, and as an adult he went back to Mexico and found a family story as old as time -- a story about love outlasting revolution, displacement, prejudice and death.
It took him 16 years to write the book, he says, and getting it published wasn't easy. But Robyn Solomon, who teaches 11th-grade English at Fairfax, read the book years ago and passed it on to her relatives.
"It became our family book," says Solomon, who introduced "Rain of Gold" to students three years ago. The only book that has had students nearly as enthralled, says Solomon, is "Always Running" by L.A. author Luis Rodriguez. Find a book that connects, Solomon says, and you unleash curiosity.
After "Rain of Gold," students began tracing their own roots, interviewing family members and writing their own histories. Then they wanted to know if Villasenor would come to Fairfax so they could read him the stories he inspired.
"I sent him an e-mail," says student Tabares. Unbeknownst to her, literacy coordinator Susan Canjura was already making arrangements to bring Villasenor to Fairfax.
Last Thursday was the big day, and student Alonzo Gonzalez was hoping to meet Villasenor and hand him a copy of his own story.
"I liked the way he incorporated Mexican and folkloric stories without being scared of not being believed," says Gonzalez. He told me his own Mexican and Salvadoran heritage made "Rain of Gold" all the easier to connect with, because to read it was to better know his own family.
"He just put it out there. Like, these stories about mystical canyons and unbelievable things. I was curious to know if something like that happened to my family, so I thought maybe I should interview them, and I learned all these beautiful stories. Are they true? Yes. I think they're true."
Gonzalez's family tells a story of his Salvadoran grandmother, as an infant, being pulled dripping wet from a raging creek after his great-grandmother prayed at the water's edge.
" 'God, I know you can hear me,' " Gonzalez wrote, recreating the family story. " 'Don't you dare just sit there and do nothing. You can do everything. You're God, for Christ's sake.' "
How could God not have answered such a prayer? The baby was recovered in Alonzo Gonzalez's story, which he proudly presented to Victor Villasenor, one writer to another.
"He signed a copy of it for me," Gonzalez says. "I'm going to have it framed."
On Thursday night at Fairfax, Villasenor told students to open their hearts and pour out their stories. It isn't easy, he said, reminding them of his own academic failures. But there's genius in everyone, he promised.
I watched 14 students perform for Villasenor, reading portions of their narratives as the author sat in the audience with his boots, blue jeans and fine black cowboy hat.
Lidia Garcia said she learned she was born dead and was miraculously revived, and this discovery has been like a rebirth. Diana Delgadillo said she found inspiration in her grandmother's will to survive during hard times in Mexico.
Each student offered up a powerful story and seemed liberated in the telling. Villasenor clapped when each student was done, then stood and applauded when all of them were finished.
If it were a scene from a book by Villasenor, or young Alonzo Gonzalez, angels would have been dancing in the star-filled heavens above Los Angeles -- sacred city of a hundred million interwoven stories.