FOR EIGHT YEARS now, Peter Bradford has been driving battered vans through the battered neighborhoods of West Baltimore, lending books and asking nothing in return but a book review.
Now the alumni - those kids who got hooked on reading as Bradford's unofficial bookmobile worked their street corners and rowhouses - are taking over the operation. Bradford is phasing himself out as the oldest of his readers, now 16 and 17, licensed to drive and ready for high school graduation, become the modern-day itinerant librarians.
Geopardi Bost, for example, was a 13-year-old student at Harlem Park Middle School when last I looked in on Bradford and his friends three years ago. There she was the other morning at Oregon Ridge Park, giving orders as boss of the Big Show Reading Project.
Bost will be a senior this fall at Carver Vocational-Technical High School, and she has her sights set on the University of Maryland, College Park, where she'd like to major in advertising. "I'm looking for scholarships now," she says.
Sean Urquhart was a classmate of Geopardi's at Harlem Park. He told me in 1997 that he had read 100 books from Bradford's mobile library. He also told me he wanted to be a movie director. Today, he's working as a cook at an Inner Harbor restaurant and tutoring in the Big Show. "I learned how to cook by watching my mom in the kitchen," he says.
At 17, Willie Coit is the oldest of the alumni. A tall, quiet young man who will be in a work-study program this fall at Carver, Coit commands the respect of the younger kids. He's been studying carpentry, but this week he'll enter a city fire cadet training program.
Bradford estimates there are 200 alumni, kids he taught in the fourth grade at Harlem Park Elementary and who became patrons of his bookmobile. "A couple have died," he says. "A couple got arrested. Amazingly, there have been few dropouts, and no one has gotten pregnant."
The Big Show is a two-week summer day camp at Oregon Ridge that was organized by the alumni to get their younger siblings and others hooked on books.
Says Bradford, "Geopardi dressed up and went before a committee to raise money to get the kids out of the 'hood in the heat of the summer. It was hard for her to do because she's painfully shy. But all of these kids are beautiful, articulate, funny and mildly obnoxious." He says it laughing, within earshot of the alumni.
The bookmobile routine hasn't changed much in eight years, though Bradford, 35, has gone through four vans and accumulated 15,000 books, leftovers he's scrounged from the Enoch Pratt Free Library and generous bookstores. Three days a week, the van circulates in West Baltimore around Harlem Park and John Eager Howard schools. The children "check out" the books and return in a week or so with a report in a format designed to sharpen their writing skills for the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program.
Kids who complete five book reports get field trips to Oregon Ridge, the Maryland Science Center and elsewhere.
That's it. Except to mention that every so often, Bradford's van - the current version is a 1985 Chevy - becomes a literary billboard. Kids in the Big Show last week were reading "The Drinking Gourd: A Story of the Underground Railroad."
There's a sad reason Bradford is handing over the reins. He's developed a hip ailment and undergone four operations. Walking with a limp, he's had to cut back his Harlem Park teaching to one day a week. Bradford hopes those who are coming behind will carry on the tradition, and there are some strong candidates. Tyrek Jones, 10, is reading his way into the fifth grade at Harlem Park. Same for 10-year-old Robinique London at John Eager Howard. And Jacquez Bost, Geopardi's 8-year-old brother, at Harlem Park.
Robinique liked "Charlotte's Web" and the Goosebumps books. On Dr. Seuss' birthday, she got the honor of wearing the famous red hat in her classroom.
"Someday I'd like to make books like that," she says.