The most popular books among children 8 to 14 are not to be found in their classrooms, nor, with a few exceptions, in their school libraries.
And chances are you've never heard of a single title or of their author, R. L. Stine.
Mr. Stine, a 52-year-old New York writer of shock fiction for children, has 90 million volumes in print, outselling John Grisham and Anne Rice. On Nov. 11, branches of the Baltimore County Public Library were "loaned out" of several of Mr. Stine's thrillers.
For example, the 15 county branches had on the shelves only 19 of 166 copies of "Night of the Living Dummy II," and demand was heavy also for most of the other 113 Stine titles the libraries carry.
Other Stine favorites in Baltimore County: "Say Cheese and Die," "Cheerleaders: The New Evil," "Monster Blood III," "Revenge of the Lawn Gnomes" and "It Came from Beneath the Sink."
"They're really scary, and they make you want to read more," said Tori Wilt, 11, a student at Catonsville Middle School.
Tori's dad, Larry Wilt, director of the University of Maryland Baltimore County library, said Mr. Stine "seems to have found the formula for success. He gives the kids just enough blood and gore so that they'll want to buy the next book, but he's not so bad that most parents will prevent their kids from reading him."
Most teachers and librarians agree that Mr. Stine's work is generally awful. Behind the lurid covers of his paperbacks, turned out at the rate of more than one a month, is a cornucopia of horrors -- bloody murders, immolations, drownings. At the end of "The Baby-sitter," reviewed diligently by Education Beat, the villain falls into a quarry: "She heard a sickening crash, like a full carton of eggs hitting the sidewalk."
In "Dead End," one of Mr. Stine's Fear Street series directed at young teen-agers, there is this immortal dialogue as the heroine learns the awful truth about her friend Keith:
" 'You -- you killed her, too,' I stammered.
'Had to,' Keith murmured. His features suddenly twisted in pain. His eyes were so cold, so far away.
'Had to. Had to. Had to.'
He lowered his foot on the gas. The car groaned, then lurched forward, picking up speed.
'Now I have one last problem,' Keith said softly. 'You.' "
Leslie Green, the media specialist at Running Brook Elementary in Howard County, said she didn't have Stine books on her shelves but had plenty of them available at a fund-raising book fair during American Education Week. "If I don't have Stine titles at the fair, I don't make money," Ms. Green said.
"The Stine books are excellent for reluctant readers," said Tammy Royo, media specialist at Bollman Bridge Elementary in Howard County. "If you can get them hooked on a Goosebumps book [the Stine series aimed at younger children], it can be a springboard into the classics."
"One of my parents equates Stine with potato chips," said Kris Meyer, librarian at Stevens Forest Elementary in Columbia. "Once you've read one book, you can't stop, but it's junk."
Junk, perhaps, but all-American junk. Shock fiction may be gory and scary, but its settings and characters are as clean and middle-class as Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. Divorce is unusual, drugs and condoms never discussed. Homosexuality is unthinkable. The characters are suburban kids who sit around calling each other "cool."
No "Charlotte's Web" here. The writer Diana West regretted that vTC in a recent article in the Weekly Standard. "Ours is, after all, a shock culture, all sensation and no feeling," she wrote.
Baltimore's nabbing of the Cleveland Browns has had ripple effects. Judy Jolley Mohraz, Goucher College president, for example, was heading for Cleveland Wednesday for an alumni fund-raising affair.
"I wish it were some other time," she said before departing for the airport.
She was dressed in brown.
Current students and alumni of Baltimore City College share several traditions, among them the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in Latin.
They did it again Friday at ceremonies inducting five men into the school's Hall of Fame. Pignus Vexillo was led by Jermaine Montgomery, president of the Student Government Association. Uni nationi, Deo ducente, non dividendae. Except in Washington.