At first I thought it was crazy. Not the part about kids reading, but the competitive angle – seeing who could memorize the most. It felt like a game show or gimmick, and I assumed that such close-level reading would turn kids off books, the way that studying a poem in English class can sometimes ruin its magic.
Happily, I was wrong.
Battle of the Books began in U.S. schools over 30 years ago to encourage literacy. Now it’s a popular extra-curricular activity across North America that allows cerebral kids to shine. A group of schools will agree in the summer on a set of age-appropriate books, spend the winter reading and discussing, and then face off in the spring to answer very specific questions about all of the books at once.
I thought memorization would dull literary appreciation, but the opposite seems to happen: kids want to read and reread their favourites! They stockpile details. And then – what joy when the right answer can be retrieved from the collection at the right time during the Battle!
Follow the reader
Finding someone else who’s read the same book as you is one of life’s under-rated pleasures. That’s part of what drives the success of Battle of the Books, along with countless (unregulated) adult versions – Book Clubs. (Snacks are equally important for both groups!) It’s also the driving force behind the CBC Radio Program “Canada Reads.” Each year, five famous Canadians pick a new book they think everyone in the country should read, and then they debate, vote and eliminate four titles until one remains. The winning book becomes an overnight best-seller.
At first, a decade ago, the goal of Canada Reads seemed to be pleasure: to win, a book had to be well-written and enjoyable. Recently, however, I’ve noticed the criteria weighing a little more heavily on each book. Now the judges speak more of duty, choosing books that every Canadian “should read.” Now the titles correspond to current events or hot button issues, and whether a book is well-crafted or makes your heart sing seems to have slipped down the relevance chart a little.
I think that’s a mistake. Books can of course deal with tough topics – and tons of excellent books do – but don’t make that your measuring stick. Beauty and skill still matter. Without those, there’s no chance that even an award-winning book will be around a generation later.
In CC’s new design, we dedicate two pages of every issue to reviews. Literature really is a battleground. Books battle for space in our busy lives. They battle our devices for attention. They battle apathy and ignorance. They march in steady, patient lines out library doors, off bookstore shelves. They ignore all the foolish reports of their immanent and utter demise.
Junior fiction as a genre has grown so much since I was a kid. The 2018 Battle of the Books selections in our region ranged all over the world – to war-torn Afghanistan, Sweden under the Nazis, the African veld, 1400s China. Stories dance backward in time and leap sideways into fantasy, asking with urgency, “Do you remember?” and “What if. . . .?” Main characters, all under 20 years old, face every hardship that life throws at adults – which plants small seeds of resilience in young readers at the same time.
Pick up a book! Join the joyful fray!
And if you’re lucky enough to have someone reading alongside you, then give thanks to God, Author and Inspiration.
You just read something for free.
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