Making the teen scene — in books

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Teens across the U.S. nominate Flathead teacher's book for top 10 list

"Teens are discriminating readers," Flathead High School teacher 'Asta Bowen said, reflecting on her still-fresh nomination for a national teen book award, "and to be chosen by them is a real honor."

Bowen learned last month that her book, "Wolf: The Journey Home," has been nominated by a group of teens across the United States for 2006 Teens' Top Ten books.

At first she was skeptical. Now she's excited.

It doesn't hurt, either, that she's on the list alongside J.K. Rowling for "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince."

Theirs are among 22 nominated books from which teens can choose when voting online for the best 10 books of the year during the American Library Association's Teen Read Week Oct. 15-21. It is an initiative the Young Adult Library Services Association started in 1998 to get teens reading.

As a teacher of English, composition and creative writing, Bowen works hard to ignite student imaginations, too.

One of her favorites is Reading Day. One day a week, her students hoist their chosen books high in the air, announce titles as if presenting awards, then settle in for an hour of uninterrupted silent reading. It has connected some nonreaders with a success born uniquely in literature.

"If they read, their whole school experience changes," Bowen said. "The more words they're bathed in, the more their academic success."

"Wolf" is the story of Marta, the alpha female of the Pleasant Valley pack, and her heart-rending yet exhilarating determination to find her home again after she and her tiny pack were trapped and relocated to the Nyack Creek area high in the Rocky Mountains.

Five years of research and trekking along Marta's paths, and Bowen's relentless writing while simultaneously working toward her master's degree, holding two part-time jobs and writing newspaper columns resulted in "Hungry for Home: A Wolf Odyssey" being published in hardcover in 1997 by Simon and Schuster.

A year later it went into paperback. Readers in The Netherlands lent the book its greatest success before it went out of print.

Sure that it always had a young-adult audience, her lawyer convinced Bowen to tweak it for teens. This year, Bloomsbury Publishing printed the reworked version as "Wolf: The Journey Home." Last week Bowen learned it will be translated and printed in China.

Flathead High senior Katie Heselwood read the book's original version as a pre-teen and an animal lover whose interest had been riveted on wolves.

Since then her reading has become more varied. Her favorite author today is fantasy writer Tamora Pierce, but Bowen's book stuck with her.

"Now that I have other books to compare it to, it's almost an odyssey," Heselwood said of the book. She was struck with Bowen's presentation of "a whole different spectrum that I'd never seen before," the "localness of it all," and her ability to turn research into novel form while avoiding anthropomorphism.

"I had read other wolf books," Heselwood said. "They put too much human emotion into the character - but it's an animal! She doesn't do that."

Her classmate Katie Hursh also read the original odyssey when she was in junior high.

"It was an amazing book," Hursh said. "It draws you forward. You just wondered what was going on next. It takes you into the wolf culture."

Hursh was intrigued by the pack culture authentically illustrated in Bowen's book. But she appreciated the author's writing as much.

"It's not treating you like you're stupid," Hursh said, "but [she doesn't] necessarily use all the big words." It is written simply, but "there's subtleties underneath that if you're not paying attention, you're not going to get … You know more, often, than you really want to know."

Fourth-graders and buddies at Hedges School, Wyatt McGillen and Jake Culver, have read half or more of "Wolf."

"So far, I think it's a good book, because it's not the person talking, it's the wolf," Culver said.

"It's really sad and it's a good book," McGillen agreed. "It draws you in."

They both have their favorite parts. McGillen's is in the first few pages when Marta's mate dies. Culver's centers on the newborn pups when "it's spring and the wind is whistling."

And both were introduced to the book by McGillen's mom, Shannon. She's a teacher, a believer in Bowen and the book, and a staunch advocate of recreational reading.

Flathead High's reading advocates are equally convinced of literature's value to a fully engaged student.

"We used to give high-school kids classical literature," said Michele Paine, the new districtwide language arts coordinator who works with reading recovery and other programs to help students catch up on reading abilities.

"But as we developed this program, we found that wouldn't work. You've got to engage students. You've got to be not only a teacher but a librarian, and know what's out there."

As a reading specialist in the school's remedial reading program, Sylvia Heselwood keys in on matching student to book.

"You've got to know your students,

what clicks with them," said Heselwood.

It's never too soon to build a connection between reading and successful living.

Test scores begin plummeting in fourth grade, Flathead librarian John York said, especially among boys just starting to be involved in sports programs. The phenomenon is being noticed among girls now, too, he added. Often activities from visual media on down compete for a child's free time, and reading loses out.

Bowen's students thank her for class reading days, when they rediscover their love of reading. It's a luxury many teachers feel they cannot afford, Paine noted, with increased state and national demands to cover more academic content.

A new reading room in the high-school library, where students are free to choose books geared to their reading abilities, has been a big success.

"Sometimes a kid has been told all his life what books to read, and he never has liked them," and just stopped reading, Paine said. "So we just suggest something different."

Genre-shopping can hook non-readers when they find something that resonates with who they are, Bowen said. When interest and ability levels match up, success results.

"It's an exciting thing, and it's lifelong for these kids," Heselwood said.

Perhaps books like "Wolf" will provide that hook for a new round of youths. Bowen hopes so.

Her nomination for the Teens' Top Ten is wonderful in an of itself, she said, whether or not the book advances to the final top ten. But her prize was claimed well before the nomination.

"It's a gift," Bowen said. But "the real reward of this book was in the doing of it."

Reporter Nancy Kimball can be reached at 758-4483 or by e-mail at nkimball@dailyinterlake.com.

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