Austin Kids Take on the Battle of the Books!

Meghan Dietsche Goel -- February 28th, 2020

I’ve been hearing about Austin ISD’s epic Battle of the Books events for years from the middle school librarians we work with. I’ve always been curious, but I didn’t actually know what these literary competitions were like. For the past few years we’ve been donating ARCs for all the participants, but this time we were invited to attend a big regional match as booksellers, and I jumped at the chance. Honestly, it was a blast!

Focused around books from the reigning Lone Star Reading List, the event pits teams of avid readers against each other in a battle of the wits to see which team reigns supreme. This particular middle school contest has been running for seven years, rotating between large district venues and schools willing to host. Often drawing teams from as far as Fort Worth and Waco, this year’s match featured 18 teams from 14 Texas schools. Teams are limited to five kids plus an alternate, and organizer Elizabeth Switek from Austin Discovery School tells me that for her team (which was hilariously named “We’re the Problem” after all the parents who play the role of “the problem” in the books they read), she has kids give speeches about why they’d be a good team member and that “one year we even had a tie that required doing a spelling test since you must be able to spell the author’s last names perfectly as well as the title of the books [for the competition].”

Austin Discovery School students have been meeting for an hour and a half every Tuesday after school since late August. Members have to present two books to the team over the course of the fall, and they all snack on food from the books being presented as they go (which is a great sensory way to bone up on food-related trivia). They also run mock competitions weekly. That’s commitment!

“In the First Rule of Punk, what is Malu’s nickname for her mother?”

“In Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World, what poet does Ivy reference?”

In The Storm Runner, what does Zane’s neighbor, Mr. Ortiz, give him to fight with?

“Who said “I never leave the house with just one knife? Seriously, do I look like a one-knife kind of girl?”

I was told by the kids that this year’s structure was new, using the program “Kahoot” to run the Q&A digitally for the first time. I have to say, from the outside, it seemed like it all worked pretty seamlessly. Plus, the jazzy thinking music that played during every team consultation session is STILL in my head, a week later. But really, I came out of the event with so much respect for all these readers. They dove head first into these books, and I was stunned at how much they knew.

The questions at the event were really hard, actually, befitting a serious challenge for which teams have been preparing for months. They were so hard that I wondered how the teams tackled the task of studying for this epic exam—after all, there are 20 books on the list. I’m sure different teams tackle things differently, but Elizabeth Switek reports, “We had three kids on my team of 10 kids who read all the books. The others read anywhere from 5-15 of the books.  About a month ago they divided up the books to re-read and become an expert on. This is where it’s important that the members of the competition team are able to work as a team, respect other’s knowledge, and be able to compromise or acknowledge that they might be wrong.” Speaking as a former member of a (somewhat fractious) academic competition team in high school, it sounds like a good strategy that emphasizes both accountability and teamwork to me.

The art all the teams created to express themselves was also just delightful. From the creative names to the spectacular art, it was so much fun to walk around and see what they came up with. Filled with Ivy Aberdeen inspired tornadoes, Letters of the Lost style flowers, Time Bomb balloons, umbrella wielding Nevermoor characters and more, the kids created some epic literary mash-ups for the ages.

For me, though, the best part of the event was simply talking books with the incredibly enthusiastic, well-read, savvy readers from the different teams who came to our table. No surprise, Austin kids remain as opinionated as they always are when it comes to books — and, well, everything. In addition to some juicy conspiracy theories about past contests that ended with controversial rulings, we heard from readers who want more romance, those who seek out historical fiction, and those who devour dark and twisty thrillers. We were there featuring books from next year’s Lone Star Reading list for those who wanted a head start, and just based on conversations at the table, there was a lot of interest in Secret Soldiers by Keely Hutton, Sorcery of Thorns by Margaret Rogerson, and A Good Kind of Trouble by Lisa Moore Ramée (“I’ve NEVER heard of someone allergic to trouble! I can’t wait to read this one!”).

This year, Elizabeth said that there wasn’t a lot of love on the Austin Discovery School team for Black Panther or The Moon Platoon and that From Twinkle, with Love and The Trials of Morrigan Crow were polarizing. But she says “there was a general consensus that Letters to the Lost and Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World were our favorites!”

The best part is that I’m pretty sure if I asked another team, I’d get a completely different answer.

Hill Country Middle School also loved ‘Ivy Aberdeen’s Letter to the World.’

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