Elise Leonard concedes she's obsessed with reducing the nation's illiteracy rate. She says her concern is justified.
"Illiteracy is a crisis in our nation," said Leonard, 48. "When I was in school in the '60s and '70s, we were ranked third in the world for literacy. Now the U.S. ranks 49th in literacy out of 156 United Nations countries. That's a travesty.
Eighty-five percent of the juveniles in correctional facilities are either functionally or totally illiterate."
To help, Leonard has written four series of books. Her books are available through the Hillsborough County Public Library Cooperative. Now, she wants to get her work into the county's high schools, where reading coaches have expressed an interest in using them. She is looking for organizations to sponsor a series of books for a school at a cost of $300 for 40 books.
"We're graduating students now who are functionally illiterate," said Leonard, who lives in Temple Terrace. "They're faking their way through school with multiple-choice questions. It's scary and it's unacceptable."
Some don't bother to graduate, she said. Instead many drop out of school and end up in the criminal justice system.
An educator for 30 years, Leonard said she became interested in the issue of literacy when she realized there was no reading curriculum available for students past fourth grade.
"You can't give a Dr. Seuss book to an 18-year-old," she said. "It's embarrassing, and it's not going to hold his interest."
So Leonard created a nonprofit organization called Literacy Essentials Inc. and spent her own money developing and publishing books designed for the older reader under the name NOX Press. NOX is an abbreviation for nitrous oxide, a substance that gives a car's engine more power.
Leonard's books are used in school districts, literacy programs, penal institutions and libraries across the country. They are also used in English as a second language classes, special education classes and in detention programs, she said.
Leonard said she receives testimonials from educators from the Bronx, N.Y. to Sante Fe, N.M., praising her work.
Former students reach out to her from places as far as Australia and Honduras. Several of them, Leonard said, told her the books have changed their lives.
Among Leonard's fans is King High School teacher Lori Sue Grieb, who won Florida State High School Reading Coach of the Year in 2009. Grieb used her winnings to buy more of Leonard's books.
Ed Fontaine, who teaches "at-risk" public school students in Eustis, said he used Leonard's books for the first time this school year with great success.
"I've never seen anything like it in all the 35 years that I've taught at-risk students," Fontaine said. "I had a blast reading the first book to my classes, and, of course it's really easy to sell something that you so obviously enjoy. It's been the most productive year ever for my intensive reading students."
Leonard's inspiration for her first series, Junkyard Dan, was an old junkyard near her cabin in Georgia.
"I'd drive by this junkyard and it always intrigued me," she said. "I wondered about the history of the cars, so I developed the premise of this guy who had it all — a great job, big house, beautiful wife — but hates his life. Then he loses everything and buys this junkyard and starts solving crimes based on the cars that end up at his yard."
With titles such as Dried Blood and Stolen, and photos of classic cars on the cover, teenagers aren't embarrassed to be seen carrying around copies of her books, she said.
Another series, the Smith Brothers, revolves around four adopted brothers of different ethnic groups who inherit their parents' investigative service.
Her fourth series, due out next month, is Leader and features heroic figures.
"It's based on one of my Junkyard Dan stories about a guy who comes back from Iraq only to be killed in a car crash," she said. "The guys who read it loved the story of integrity and selflessness. One of the penitentiaries asked me to do an entire series on duty, loyalty and respect."
Each series comes with workbooks featuring fun facts, word searches, crossword puzzles and games.
"I try to make it funny for them," said Leonard, pointing to one riddle that reads, 'You can put the word 'Mother' in front of it and not get in trouble.' The answer is 'Nature.' "
D'Ann White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.