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Wichita students read to compete in Battle of the Books

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, at 7:54 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, Jan. 24, 2014, at 6:51 a.m.

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For this year’s Battle of the Books, Evan McCord and his teammates had a novel strategy:

“Before going to bed, we read over the list of books and authors,” said the Beech Elementary School fifth-grader. “Because you do most of your remembering in your sleep.”

Teams from 34 Wichita elementary schools are competing in this year’s Battle of the Books, a contest that tests students’ reading comprehension in a game-show-style format. This week and next, the four-member teams are meeting at the Wichita school district’s recording studio; twice each day, the competitions are broadcast live on local cable channels and streamed online.

“It’s a great thing that gets kids to read,” said Sheri Roberts, who coordinates the annual competition on behalf of the district’s librarians.

“Oftentimes, you’ll get somebody to participate that maybe isn’t a strong reader, but their friends are doing it,” she said. “Or they only read ‘Captain Underpants’ but they’re kind of forced to read these other genres, and it’s like, ‘Oh, I really like that.’ ”

Wichita students have been competing in Battle of the Books since 1995. Each year – usually before summer vacation, to encourage summer reading – the district publishes a list of 64 books on which the next year’s contest will be based. Most schools split the list into four smaller lists.

Students need to be familiar with the characters, settings, events and authors of their 16 books, and elimination rounds are held in December to decide which four students represent the school.

The lists change each year, Roberts said. But they always include the current William Allen White master list, some classics, award-winners, contemporary books and several recommendations from local students and librarians.

This year’s list, for example, includes: “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” by C.S. Lewis; “Power of Un,” by Nancy Echemendy; “Wonderstruck,” by Brian Selznick; “Number the Stars,” by Lois Lowry; and “The Third Wheel,” the seventh book in Jeff Kinney’s popular “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. Reading levels range from third to sixth grade.

On Wednesday morning this week, teams from Beech, Clark, McLean and OK elementaries faced off. Each team picked a title out of a hat and performed a 1- to 3-minute “book talk” that explained the book’s characters, setting, problem and resolution.

Then it was on to the studio, where former television sportscaster Jim Kobbe played host and quizzed the students.

“In what book are Noah, Nadia, Ethan and Julian on a team called ‘The Souls’ in an academic bowl league?” Kobbe asked.

“The View From Saturday,” answered the Beech team, earning five points.

In the next round: “In which book would you read, ‘North winds are nothing to fool with this time of the year. You keep an eye on the weather and your ear to that radio before you go messing out in the water’?”

“Williwaw,” answered Evan, from Beech.

“And the author?”

“Ummmm.” Evan quickly conferred with this teammates. “Tom Bodett,” he said.

Correct. Ten points.

Unlike Battle of the Books competitions in some other parts of the country, Wichita’s battle is district-only, and teams don’t advance to championship rounds. The high-scoring team from each four-team battle is named the winner, and everyone gets medals that say “Read to Succeed.”

“We get to have nine winners this way,” Roberts said. “We have a zero budget for it, but it’s not about the prizes. It’s about being out here, and I just tell them they’re all winners because they are.”

McLean Elementary’s “Brainstormers” won the Wednesday-morning battle, correctly guessing every title and author during the final round.

“It was pretty exciting and really surprising,” said Jeffrey Blessant, a McLean fifth-grader. “We got all the answers except the steals.”

Jameson Parks, a first-time member of the McLean team, said he would urge more schools and students to compete. He also recommended two books from this year’s list: “Great Bear Lake,” by Erin Hunter, and “Gregor the Overlander,” by “Hunger Games” author Suzanne Collins.

Battle of the Books “makes reading fun,” Jameson said. “That’s why I like it.”

Reach Suzanne Perez Tobias at 316-268-6567 or stobias@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @suzannetobias.

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