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America's Battle of the Books: Dueling Readers Spar About Literature


Students choosing to read classic and meaningful literature. Groups discussing their reading and reinforcing their understanding. Avid readers from different schools working together as teams. Sound too good to be true? America's Battle of the Books invites schools to join in a reading incentive program that combines exceptional literature with friendly competition. Included: Tips to help you start a successful "battle."

"I have never had a student or parent come to me and say anything but words of enthusiasm about America's Battle of the Books," reports Cris Smith. "They are only sad we don't go on longer! Many parents say it started their child's love of reading."

Smith, the district elementary library media teacher for Atascadero (California) Unified School District, joined the "battle" eleven years ago when retired librarian Erna Wentland approached one of her principals with the idea. The principal brought the concept to Smith, and when they tried it out they were hooked! Together they demonstrated the program for other elementary and junior-high principals, and everyone jumped at the chance to get involved.

America's Battle of the Books is a reading incentive program for students in grades four through eight. Students read selections from book lists provided by the organization. Then, in March or April, they meet for a few hours of competition and fun. The kids are placed in teams for the day-long "battle" and answer questions about the books in the style of television's "Family Feud."

By the Books

If your school is new to America's Battle of the Books, co-founder Steven Wentland has some advice.

Start small, build experience and leadership first; see what format works best for you.

Get more than one school involved so you can have a bit of a competition between students.

Make it a fun, social experience, not a school-against-school tournament.

Mix up students among the schools.

Get local sponsors to provide rewards for all students. Most businesses are willing to underwrite all your expenses if it is about reading and a fun event.

Seek the assistance of clubs in your community. Many are especially willing to help, not only with funding issues but with running the event, cooking, and other tasks.

Learn from others. Contact schools or districts that have been participating for years. They can help with what to do and what to avoid.

"I think one of the most compelling reasons for schools to join America's Battle of the Books is that we use books that are considered classics -- great reading literature that naturally develops in students the love and joy of reading," said Steven Wentland, co-founder and president of the organization. "Secondly, we believe all students should be familiar with and have access to conventional solutions and values that address everyday issues and problems that students can learn about through reading."

Participating districts purchase questions for the tournament for $35, with most buying questions at three levels. According to Wentland, the cost for most schools will be even lower next year because questions and resources will be free and only a small membership fee will be required. Students must have access to the books on the list through the school and public libraries, and refreshments must be provided on the day of the "battle." For those involved, the benefits far outweigh the monetary investment for this reading program.


"We call the program A Celebration of Reading," Smith told Education World. "And it is so in the truest sense of the word. The 30-title list has books with reading levels from 3.0 to almost 7.0, so all students in grades 4-6 may participate if they desire. We also purchase copies of the books in Spanish and unabridged audio tapes to include all of our other readers."

Smith applauds the cooperative nature of the program. Her district intentionally mixes the students among grade levels and school sites during "battles" so there is no direct competition between schools and age groups. Students enjoy sharing their knowledge with the new friends on their teams.

"Each one of our battles has been memorable because of the joy and enthusiasm of the students participating," observes Smith. "I have never had a student tell me that he or she did not have a wonderful time at the battle. When we have an author from the list come to speak at the district battle, such as Sherry Shahan who wrote Frozen Stiff, that is especially memorable."

The best way to start out with America's Battle of the Books is to attend a battle at another school, says Smith. She believes that seeing the process in action is helpful and inspiring. It is wise to appoint a district coordinator and site coordinators as needed, so that group can meet throughout the year and share ideas, responsibilities, and requests.

Community support is vital to the success of the tournament in Atascadero, where Kiwanis members cook lunch for the participants and other community groups offer donations. A T-shirt company gives the district a discount on materials, and all of these helpful groups are recognized in the event program.


"When I heard about the program, I loved the idea of getting kids to read good books and participate in a competition that was very non-stressful as they work in teams," says Jennifer Lackey. "Even the shy kids can do well without having to get up alone, on stage, in front of their peers."

Eight years ago when Lackey got married, she discovered that her husband's school district was taking part in America's Battle of the Books. She was taken with the idea and, at her suggestion, the program was adopted at Roy W. Loudon Elementary School in Bakersfield, California, where she is a third grade teacher. Today Lackey is the program coordinator for her school.

"Our students are given a list of pre-chosen books that they read and discuss with others," Lackey explained. "In this way, students are given the opportunity to read good literature at a variety of levels, for a purpose other than just for a report in class. It benefits the school because it gets a whole other group of kids involved in an activity in which they can really excel."

Lackey has had participants that include popular students who are involved with student council to quiet "bookworm" types. All appreciate the team activity. She has seen students who join in the county-wide battle exchange phone numbers and promise to keep in touch. The principal of her school provides special trophies for students who qualify for the county battle and presents them in front of parents and peers during an assembly.

"This year at our battle the kids were having a great time... teams were so well matched that they ended up tied, and I had to run to the other room to get some tie-breaker questions!" Lackey recalled. "Often after the battle, the second place team is very sad, but this year all of the students knew they had done an awesome job. I was very proud."

Getting the kids to read the books and making them accountable are essential elements to the success of America's Battle of the Books. When students work to compete at higher levels, it is important to maintain equal requirements. Lackey noted that although students had to read 15 to 30 books to qualify for her local county competition, some participants had read only a few. That was discouraging for the students who had put in so much time and effort. The key for Lackey is keeping the reading program fun. She gives monthly awards and throws a celebratory pizza party upon its completion.

"The kids and parents are very positive about the program," stated Lackey. "They love having a book list of quality literature to become familiar with and share. I have many parents who have read the books with their children, and what great together time that is. Kids grow up too fast these days, and this is a way for some parents to connect with them and good books."

Many of Lackey's participants lament that they cannot continue America's Battle of the Books into junior high because it isn't offered. She finds the program simple to organize and highly recommends it to all schools. To learn more, visit the America's Battle of the Books Web site and contact the organization to request resources and information. The program is growing, and many new online resources are soon to be released.

"We have done this as a volunteer service for many years," added Steven Wentland. "We consider this a labor of love, and within two years we hope to have a national battle of the books that includes all the 50 states and government schools overseas."


Battle of the Books
Learn about the statewide Battle of the Books program sponsored by the Alaska Association of School Librarians.

Battle of the Books
New Mexico shares its own Battle of the Books program for grades 4-9.