This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

May 19, 2011 - no losers in battle of the books

[This week's column is by David Farnan, Associate Director of Community Service for the Douglas County Libraries.]

In which book …

…was the significance of a literary work not what was written but what it was written with?

It’s okay if you don’t know the answer. It is highly likely that you don’t know. I’ve read the book, and I still didn’t know. And yet, 5 nine year olds knew last Friday night in the final round of Battle of the Books.

What is Battle of the Books?

Where do you go on Friday night to see Iron Horse Elementary Principle Steve Getchell and Pioneer Elementary Principle Tim Krabacher duke it out with oversize boxing gloves with the theme song from Rocky blaring in the background as the warm-up act to charge up their team?
Battle has cheering crowds, nervous jitters, wringing hands, tears, and most of all heads coming together in vigorous whispered debate. All that “thrill of victory, agony of defeat” stuff happens in the library.

Schools invent exotic names for their teams; “The Book Brawlers,” “The Killer Bookworms,” “Little Freddie Muffin Muffins.” Clear Sky Elementary even tie-died their shirts. Kids sign each other’s t-shirts, ask for autographs, invent ways of high-fiving to celebrate a correct answer.

It should be televised. It would be perfect for the Wide World of Sports or ESPN. The library should sell tickets. The kids are THAT good.

And guess what?

It’s all about reading.

The library has been hosting Battle of the Books for 3 years. This year over 30 elementary schools and more than 450 kids participated. Battle is a 5 month apprenticeship in the art of competitive deep reading. It’s the kind of examination of the written word that in centuries past was reserved for monks and ministers and rabbis engaged in Biblical exegesis and Talmudic hermeneutics. It is a full-on literary-smackdown the likes of which haven’t been seen since the Council of Nicea, the Diet of Worms, and the Baraita – all accompanied by cheering crowds.

Where else can you find this kind of entertainment?

I spoke to Principle Alan McQueen of Heritage Elementary. Heritage had teams reach the finals for the 3-4 and 5-6 grade. He attended each match. “Battle has totally changed the culture of our school. All the kids are talking about it. This year we had 55 kids try out just to make the two five-person teams that would compete. We talk about it in assembly. Kids convene during lunch to talk about the books. Reading is cool.”

In the Parker 5th and 6th grade finals there were around 100 parents and grandparents, teachers and administrators, there to root on the kids. When the 20 questions were over, the teams were tied. It went to a tie breaker, and then a second tie breaker. The teams huddled together in heated debate whispering and gesticulating, teetering toward consensus.

When the answers were turned in, and the final correct answer was announced, the crowd roared to their feet. Wild applause. High fives. Kids jumping up and down. Crying. Hugging. It seemed more like the Rockies won the series, than a reading competition.

Winning and losing is never easy. But it mimics life, and its lessons learned. Several kids on winning and on losing teams burst into tears: a release after 5 months of studying minute intricacies of 10 books.

One mother on a losing team came up to me afterwards. Her son’s eyes were dry and clear, flickering with excitement. You could never tell his team lost. She said, “Before Battle he had only read Calvin and Hobbes. Since Battle began last fall he has read all the books on the list, plus all the other books by the authors on the list and he’s still going strong.” Elizabeth, the librarian, asked him, “Did you know there was a sequel to Dog’s Life?” “No,” he said. “Do Bone and Squirrel meet again?” “I’m not telling,” Elizabeth shot back. “You are going to have to read it yourself. Then we’ll talk about it.” He immediately bounded away off into the library.

In reading, if you play, you win.

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