It was tense in the Newport Beach Community Hall.
On an otherwise peaceful Wednesday morning, the children who had gathered inside for the fierce competition watched each other across the room as the competition began. The judges paid close attention, tallying up the points. Onlookers leaned forward on the edge of their seats.
In the end, only one of the eight competing teams was able to emerge victorious from the legendary tournament that was the sixth annual battle in the Newport-Mesa books.
The competition is part of a large national program to encourage reading called America’s battle for books for students in grades 3 through 12. Students who choose to participate in an after-school book club on their respective campuses receive a list of books to read throughout the year and demonstrate what they know about them at the end of that year. The official list is published every June.
The local Battle of the Books is usually held at Eastbluff Elementary. In the first two years of the pandemic, 2020 and 2021, the contest was forced to move to a Zoom format, according to volunteer parent and contest moderator Lindsey Coombe.
“The kids really wanted to have an in-person competition,” Coombe said. “We only offer it to fourth and fifth graders. So once they [age] through that they are finished. I said, ‘I’ll do what I can.’ So what happened was that we had a general PTA meeting in January and our representative, Carol Crane, was at our meeting. Omicron was booming at that time.
“She said, ‘Hey, let’s talk about it.’ She called me after because I was right in the middle of how we were going to get this group of kids together in an auditorium in Newport-Mesa, and she said, “I think it’s going to be tough. In January , we just couldn’t think of [having it in-person].”
Coombe said she then contacted Newport Beach Councilman Will O’Neill, who offered the town’s community hall to host the contest.
“At that time, Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic School [which participates in the competition along with Eastbluff, Sonora and Andersen], said, “We have a new auditorium that might be ready in time,” but the kids were excited about the opportunity to go to the Civic Center, which is also next to the public library. We thought, “What a perfect bond for the kids to compete in person,” Coombe said.
The questions posed to the contestants focused on direct quotes or narrative details taken from the list of books the students had read. Ten questions were asked to each team of six students. Each team had time to chat among its members to decide on an answer before the team captain responded.
Scores were checked at the end of each round.
According to Sonora elementary teacher Hilary Fenn, her student book club members have been reading the contest list since the first week of school.
Fenn said the books are usually donated by donors choose, a crowdfunding platform for public school classrooms. Teachers try to pique the interest of their students and bring in former participants to encourage new fourth and fifth graders to enter.
“We train our teams. Kids start reading August through January,” Fenn said. “We just focus on reading and we meet every week to assess progress, monitor their progress, and then we start to get really serious with our practices, where we do mock battles and ask them about the perpetrators. The children give up their lunch once a week to come and train.
As far as students are concerned, Battle of the Books is no joke.
Quinn Pedersen, who attends Eastbluff Elementary, said this was her second year attending. He had tried Battle of the Books last year and found it fun. He said he hoped he and his team would win, but was still quite nervous heading into the competition.
He said he spent at least 30 minutes a day, five days a week for the past few months getting ready. Her favorite book from this year’s list was “Bridge Home” by Padma Venkatraman.
Ten-year-old Emma Backlund said it was the second year she had been involved with BOB – the acronym children use for Battle of the Books. Emma said she was nervous and excited to compete, but she really wanted to show off everything she knows about the books. She said she read about half an hour every night.
She picked Joan Hiatt Harlow’s “Midnight Rider” as her pick of the year.
“It was about our American history, and it had sets full of detail — characters you’ll love and relate to,” Emma said.
Andersen’s fifth-grader Aaron Chiaverini said he decided to participate because he loved to read and needed an after-school activity.
Aaron said it didn’t hit him until he arrived at the Newport Beach Civic Center on Wednesday morning that he was there to compete.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is the battle of the books.’ I got here and I was like, ‘OK, it’s time.’ I wasn’t ready when I got here,” Aaron said with a laugh.
Sawyer Seaton, 11, said it was his second year competing. He said he was excited to return for an in-person contest after last year’s Zoom experience.
Sawyer said he got involved because he loved to read and he loved competition and that BOB was a happy combination of the two.
Sawyer said he was quite nervous because his school, Andersen, did not do well last year, but was rather excited to participate because the team was determined to get a win, which later turned out to be the case.
The final round was between Andersen and Eastbluff and ended in a tie. The judges and scorekeeper had to count the total score of the entire competition to determine the winner. In the end, Anderson emerged victorious.
Fenn said it was exciting to have Battle of the Books as a common interest for students, especially when they were students from different campuses. She said the quality of the books chosen for the competition also helped to create an excellent dialogue between students and teachers.
The day’s moderator, Coombe, praised the extracurricular activity.
“They’re not required to read the books, but I feel like this club has been instrumental in getting kids interested in reading. I think it’s widened [my daughter’s] so many horizons,” she said. “These characters…I think you can learn kindness and bravery and empathy from them and from the stories.
“Children identify with stories. What I see as a parent is that my child connects with a character or a story and it takes them on a journey that will stay with them forever.
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