One evening in February, well past Halloween and not exactly Mardi Gras, our school gymnasium looked like a costume party. Six grey-haired old men hobbled in on canes, followed closely by a bevy of beautifully adorned Greek goddesses. Some hooded grim reapers crept in next and then—what were they? Pillow people?
What whipped these kids into a costumed frenzy? I’m proud to say: books. At this highly anticipated event, the school’s fourth through sixth graders compete to answer questions about eight books in our annual Battle of the Books quiz competition—BOB for short.
Preparation for this year’s BOB begins right now, at the start of the school year. I help choose the eight book titles and we keep them under tight wraps until December. The trick is to find books that appeal to ages 9 to 12 and provide a range of reading levels. You don’t want fourth graders feeling frustrated. (I’ve provided a sample book list at the end of this post.)
Soon, our new students will form their teams of six and secure a coach (a parent or teacher). In our school, that’s 16 to 20 teams, with 96 to 120 students participating. No one is turned away, so some teams might have seven or eight members.
Each team chooses a name: The Book Bosses, Contagious Readers, Pretty Little Readers, Agent 00 Divas, the Grim Readers, to name a few recent ones. Then, kids design costumes—in some cases very elaborate—to go with their theme.
By December, teams can’t wait to report to the gym to collect their stack of eight books—an event in itself. I see fists pump and hear shouts of excitement every time kids realize they have already read a title. Sometimes, students argue over who gets to read which book first. (Be still my heart!)
When the dust settles, the real work begins. Over the next two months, teams meet at lunch, before school, and on weekends to write and answer practice questions, memorize the spelling of author names, and discuss the plots, characters, and settings of each book. By the time the competition rolls around, they know these eight books cover to cover.
READALICIOUS! Books for Tweens
Wow! Wow! Wow! This is the debut novel of Matthew Kirby and Wow! (I say again) it is terrific. It reminds me of so many stories, and yet the plot is unique. (My sister Lorraine passed along an ARC of Kirby's next book, Icefall, which I like even more; review coming soon.)
Three characters, Giuseppe, Hannah, and Frederick all live in a bustling, late-1800s port city bordered by McCauley Park, an area that has never been developed. Parts of the park are so wild that cougars still live there.
Each of the three characters needs something, and they can't achieve their goals without helping each other. Giuseppe (joo-SEP-ee) is a street musician who longs to return home to Italy. Fredrick is an apprentice clockmaker who wants to make journeyman (a step above apprentice) by creating the most amazing clockwork man (a type of automaton) the world has seen. Hannah has had to quit school to support her family as a maid in a fancy hotel. Her father is seriously ill, and she desperately needs money for the medicine to help him.
Before handing this middle grade novel to a student, I ask a few questions:
What things are you are willing to say, “Yes!” to? Cleaning your room? Going to church on Sunday? Babysitting young children? Digging for a lost ring in the kitchen garbage? These day-to-day tasks are easy to agree to, and sometimes, just as easy to say no to. (I'd love to hear from some kid about that!)
But what if your parents say, “Yes” to something big that affects you directly—like serving in the military? How would your life be different?
What if your mom or dad were deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan? What if you had to move every couple years to a new military base; new home, new school, new friends? Would you even have close friends?
Author Sara Lewis Holmes is married to an air force pilot and has raised two children. She wrote OPERATION YES based on her family’s experience in the military.
In an interview with author Kathy Erskine, she said, “Much of my family’s real life is in there—including air shows, FOD [foreign object debris] walks, 'remove before flight' key tags, the sound of flight suits in the dryer, living on base, moving often, dealing with deployments, bravery, fear, uncertainty, hope, and the kindness of all the communities we’ve been a part of.”