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Kids from tough Rio slum learn to read by writing real-life texts

Boiling up like overheated milk, this slum spills chaotically over the jutting peaks of Rio de Janeiro. A patchwork city of impossibly perched shacks and twisted pathways, the cliffside favelam hovers over condominium-studded Ipanema Beach.

This is Rocinha (pronounced ''hoseenya'') or ''the hill'' - Rio's second-largest slum and maybe its meanest. More than 120,000 people are squeezed edgewise into the brimming hillside community, where families of 10 share two-room hovels and the average salary is less than $150 per month.

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But in the last couple of months, Rocinha has been the unlikely site of a brash educational experiment that vows to make authors out of children who can not even write their own names. The project, coordinated by anthropolgist Lygia Segala and run by Rocinha's teachers, was born out of concern over the alarming rate of illiteracy and truancy in the favelam.

Only 20 percent of the children here can find classroom space within Rocinha. And many of those that do are forced to leave school to work - shining shoes or selling sweets in the city - by the time they are eight years old. According to Ms. Segala, ''It is not uncommon to have children repeat the same grade five times.''

Part of the problem, said Segala, who has worked six years within the favelam, is that Rocinha's children use textbooks that are foreign to their lives.

''Their readers showed traditional middle class scenes of a family with both mother and father, a two-story house with a car, a dog, and a maid. This image disrespects the reality of Rocinha.''

So she and a handful of local educators, with a bit of seed money from the Brazilian government, set out jotting down tales of the real Rocinha. The result: two handsome volumes (''Ice Cream, Ice Cream: Pure Water Nobody Would Want'' and ''Victoria the Cat Fell into the Garbage Can'') uniting the works of 60 authors and artists, ages 4 to 10.

The two collections (selling for about $1.50) now being used as substitute reading texts are often startlingly blunt.

''To us, the parents of asphalt and suburbia, the stories seem frightening,'' Segala said.

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That is something of an understatement. Violence, abandonment, illness, and desperate poverty are all nearly casual themes for Rocinha's young storytellers. ''These are children who often don't know their own father and who stay locked up in the house because their parents have to work,'' says Rocinha teacher Dylma da Silva Ferreira.

Not all the stories are so bleak. Some picture the tattered slum in brilliant primary colors or describe it drenched in morning sunlight. Others have the luster of any child's fantasyscape - Rocinha visited by comicbook superheroes or , as in one vivid tale, by a smiling, great white whale. Samba and Macumba (an Afro-Brazilian magic cult) course throughout these stories.

It is too early to tell whether these true grit texts have had an impact on the favela'sm literacy rate. However, the three community schools where the project was born now have a waiting list of about 2,000.

Teachers put in full days in the classroom for no pay. Says Jeovaldo Norberto dos Santos, who gave up a factory job because it conflicted with his night teaching duties here: ''I just can't seem to leave Rocinha. I feel good here.''

All the work may yet pay off. In the two short months since the books were published, 4,800 have been sold, nearly exhausting the first printing. The children themselves are peddling the books, door-to-door.

''Everyday, the students ask me, ''When are we going to write another?'' says Dylma Ferreira.

The answer to that, however, will depend on how much money the Rocinha educators can scare up in a money-strapped economy.

If funding does come through, Marilene de Melo will be waiting. The nine-year old girl used to dream of being a store clerk - before she wrote three stories for the Rocinha texts.

Now, the young author smiles and says, ''I want to be a writer - for children.'

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