In his free time, fifth-grader Nathan Harris likes to read. A lot.

As part of a statewide reading program, Harris read 20 titles between the months of September and February, making him one of the most well-read students in Forest Park. During an afternoon assembly at Grant-White Elementary this month, Harris was recognized as the only student to read all 20 books nominated for the Rebecca Caudill Young Readers’ Book Award.

Most of his classmates read fewer than six of the books.

Participating students across the state in grades four through eight are encouraged to read as many of the nominated works as they can, and each February, the kids vote on their favorite. The outcome of that vote determines the winner of the book award.

“I’m excited, I love reading,” fifth-grade teacher Pat Malarski said of the program. “In order to get the kids to move up in their [reading] levels, they have to love to read.”

Malarski teaches at Grant-White and is responsible for bringing the program to District 91 this year. She was turned onto the program by her daughter, who is also a former teacher at Grant-White, Malarski said.

Though the reading program targets kids in grades four through eight, third-graders at Grant-White Elementary also participated. Much of the reading took place in the classroom, Malarski said, and was done aloud.

Marcellus Davidson is in the third-grade and he read one of the books on the nomination list.

“It was fun,” Davidson said. “It was a mystery.”

For the first time since federal education standards were enacted under No Child Left Behind, Grant-White Elementary failed to make adequate yearly progress. According to district officials, African American students didn’t measure up on the reading test.

A handful of parents attended the school assembly to watch their children give presentations on the books they had read. For several of the parents, reading the books with their children was a highlight.

Anita Dilce’s daughter Simone Fields is a fifth-grade student in District 91 and often reads independently, Dilce said. Usually, the young girl takes an interest in almost any subject, Dilce said, and doesn’t stick to one particular genre.

“She’s eclectic,” Dilce said. “She just reads different books.”

Fields finished four books nominated for the Rebecca Caudill award.

The Rebecca Caudill award is named for the late teacher and children’s book author who lived in Urbana, Ill. Caudill died in February 1985.

The program is sponsored by the Illinois Reading Council, the Illinois School Library Media Association and the Illinois Association of Teachers of English. The winning author will be announced in March.