34 years is a long time. That is how long my library has collaborated with our area schools to run a Battle of the Books competition. 34 years! Last night we celebrated with an awards ceremony for the winning team and all of the Battle participants and their families. Just today, an author I admire, Rosanne Parry, commented in a discussion of multiculturalism that book battles can really motivate young readers. And that made me think it was time to explain how we do our Battle in the hopes that maybe other libraries and schools will continue the tradition.
Battle of the Books began as a radio program in the 1930s in Chicago, co-sponsored by the department store Carson Pirie Scott and the Chicago Public Schools. There are many different versions of it around the country, but its basic structure always centers around kids answering questions about the books they have read. (This is not to be confused with a March Madness type of book face-off, which is fun but isn’t Battle of the Books.)
It’s an old-fashioned, book-centered program, just like the Summer Reading Club and storytime. It’s a classic, even when you are reading your Battle book on your Kindle. Here are some things you need to make it a wonderful program:
1. A great list of books. That’s a no-brainer, but believe me that it takes a lot of work. The children’s librarians at my library read year-round to find titles to add to the list, because 20 new books rotate onto the 60-book list every year. We include a mix of entertaining and well-written fiction and nonfiction books at the 4th-6th grade level. Some authors are perennial favorites, like Lois Lowry and Kate DiCamillo, and some books rotate back onto the list every few years, like A Wrinkle in Time or Charlotte’s Web. One of the best things about keeping the list fresh is that it motivates the staff to read new books as they come out, and the need for balance always keeps us remembering to include all kinds of books about all kinds of kids.
2. Interesting quotes from the books to make into questions. If you use quotes from the book instead of pulling out trivia, you catch the flavor of the writing, which is good for competitors to notice and more interesting for the audience, too. Here is one of my favorite questions:
First, he sharpens the pencils. Then he sharpens the chalk, and then some popsicle sticks, and then his finger. Name the book.
Our questions all end with “Name the book” and we make it a rule from the beginning that you have to get it exactly right for the sake of fairness. We do not want to be stuck in the position of deciding that one almost-right answer got points and another doesn’t. Not all great books make great questions, and there’s no question that sometimes it is hard to write questions that aren’t complete giveaways, especially with a popular book like Harry Potter, or a nonfiction book. But having some easy questions is good too. I frankly have no idea how kids get as many correct answers as they do–they amaze me.
3. Kids and coaches. There isn’t any special kind of kid you need to run Battle of the Books. Competitive kids, shy kids, big readers, reluctant readers can all be successful in a well-run Battle. What they need is a good coach. In our Battle, the teams are formed by our schools, and coached by either a librarian or a parent. Some of our coaches run a highly-organized operation with requirements for written reports, and others make it a loosely run lunchtime activity. Some coaches put in just their best team members, while others try to give each kid a chance to participate on stage answering questions. You can win with one really strong reader, and you can win with a team that collaborates well and takes lots of turns. You can have fun without winning.
4. Support from school administrations and your library administration. Battle is a partnership, and like most partnerships it requires commitment.
I’m not going to lie–it is not the easiest program to execute. But it gets kids excited about reading in a way that continues later on. They get a chance to compete on behalf of their school without being athletic. It gets the librarians reading new books so they exercise their own reading muscles. It gives us the opportunity to push our favorite authors, and to help widen the worlds of our kid readers by exposing them to other cultures, history, and knowledge. Most of all, it is an on-going celebration of books and authors and writing.
We always end Battle by inviting one of the authors of our Battle books to come speak to the kids at the awards ceremony. In my years of author speeches, I’ve only encountered one snooze that involved a lot of slides involving historical research. All of the other authors have been fun and engaging and seem to enjoy the opportunity to meet face-to-face with their readers just as much as their readers enjoy meeting a real-live author and getting their autographs. Every year, it does my heart good.
P.S. Did you get the answer to the question?