Rieger Sayre, 6, describes his three favorite books out of the more than 700 books he read this year. - Jim Craven

The reading bug

All the students in one first-grade classroom at Talent Elementary School caught a bug this year, though not the kind that kept them home from school.

Ginger Akil challenged each child in her class to read 100 books for the year, placing the class goal at 2,400. As the fever to reach that number spread throughout the room, Akil realized that her students had become infected with the joy of reading.

By winter break, they already had topped the class goal. By February, they were up to 4,000. Recently, their count rose above the 5,200 mark.

The program, called the Hundred Book Club, began a few years ago at the school, but no class had ever taken it to this level before.

"They really are an amazing group of first-graders," said Harry Peven, the classroom volunteer who organized and administered the project. "When I tell them to take a rest, like for a three-day weekend, they still want to bring books home."

Known to the kids as "Grandpa Harry", Peven, 78, has been volunteering at Talent Elementary for four years as part of the Foster Grandparents Program.

According to him, every student in the class has read at least 100 books this school year. While the books average 15 pages in length, many of the students are reading chapter books as high as the fourth-grade reading level, he said.

First-grader Rieger Sayre set his own goal at 100 books a month. To reach it, he sometimes skipped recess. At home, he often read well into the night.

"I like to play, but whenever I have a chance to read, I read," said this reader of more than 700 books since September. For laughs he enjoyed Captain Underpants, while the Magic Treehouse books sated his appetite for adventure.

"I like how they go on journeys, like when they went to a pyramid," said Hannah Maclennan, another fan of the Magic Treehouse series.

Sienna Bauer tore through such titles as Katy and the Big Snow and Little Monster at School on her way to reading nearly 500 books this year — earning her top honors along with Sayre.

The antics of Frog and Toad entertained several members of the class, including Oliver Del Rio, who read the books in Spanish. (Akil's class is part of the Phoenix-Talent dual-language program.)

Yesena Alvarez liked it when Frog gave Toad some seeds to grow flowers, while Kamerin Calhoun and Noor Akil couldn't stop laughing when Toad banged his head on the wall to help him think of a story to tell.

Gilberto Garcia and Milo Bertrand got caught up in the excitement of the Spiderwick books.

Alexa Macias, Elena Salcedo and Jasper Cortell couldn't get enough stories about fairies.

"Fairies are cool," added Cortell, who loved it when her two favorite heroines "went on an adventure to help get the magic back."

Peven gave the books to the kids to take home and read on their own time. Parents then signed off to indicate that the child had read the book. When they returned to school, the kids read the book out loud to their foster granddad. Peven helped each student keep a list of the books he or she read, while a wall chart measured the overall progress of the class.

"The students became very enthusiastic to see their lists growing," Akil said.

"Some of the kids couldn't even read when they started the year," noted classroom aide Claudia Montoya, whose daughter is in the class.

As a parent, Montoya appreciated how the program gave her a tangible measure of how much her child was reading.

"We tell parents to make sure that their child is reading every day at home," Akil said.

"This program gives them a way how."

Peven, who earned a degree in marketing and advertising from Arizona State University in 1952, used various incentives to motivate the kids. He handed out little stuffed bunnies as prizes around Easter and awarded achievement certificates. Earlier this month, he threw a pizza party in honor of the students' goal-busting efforts.

"It's inspiring to see a retiree so dedicated to our community's kids," Akil said.

According to Principal Aaron Santi, "This project is a great example of how volunteers, parents and teachers can partner to increase students' interest in reading as a life-long skill and simultaneously boost student achievement."

Akil and Peven hope to infect next year's group of first-graders with the same bug for reading.

"But I think I'm going to have to change the name from the Hundred Book Club," he said.

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