To be in a room with dozens of fourth through eighth graders who are about to compete in a state-wide reading quiz bowl is to experience a level of energy and suspense too high to measure.
To witness whole teams of bright-eyed kids on the edge of their seats, buzzers in hand, eager to display their book knowledge, is to be exhilarated by the literary confidence they exude.
And to hear so many articulate young Georgia readers answer difficult trivia questions about the twenty new books they have all read recently is to be filled with hope for future literacy in the state of Georgia.
On February 13, I had the pleasure of attending the regional competition of the 2016 Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl at Clayton State University in Morrow, Georgia, invited by a young friend of mine, fourth grader Virginia Laster. She and her older sister Annie were competing on teams for their respective schools, Springdale Park Elementary and Inman Middle.
Both girls were key players for their teams, contributing to enough winning rounds to advance their schools to the divisional competition in Jasper, Georgia, on February 27th.
The sisters played well again at the divisional level, though the competition was stiffer. Their schools will not go on to the finals at the University of Georgia, but they will try again next year, if Virginia and Annie have anything to say about it. Their enthusiasm for the reading bowl is contagious.
When asked why she likes it so much, Virginia said, “because it’s fun to be on a team with other people and the books are really good.” Her media specialist and coach, Roy Jackson, confirmed her thinking when he explained why he takes a team to the reading bowl each year. “The [students] work so hard, and it’s rare for kids who are academically oriented to get a team experience.” Parents appreciate it too. As Virginia and Annie’s mother Jill Laster says, “I love that the girls are excited about reading such quality literature every year. We start reading the books as soon as the list is published and the girls read them over and over.”
A little history: The Helen Ruffin Reading Bowl is the namesake brainchild of an innovative school media specialist in DeKalb County, Georgia, who wanted to entice her students to read the twenty books nominated every year by a committee of experts for the Georgia Children’s Book Award. Unlike many children’s book awards where the recipients are selected entirely by adults, the GCBA winners are chosen by the audience for which the books were written. The stated purpose of the award is “to foster a love of reading in the children of Georgia, and to introduce them to books of literary excellence.” School children across the state read the twenty nominees for their age level and vote on their favorites early in March. The winning titles have already been determined for this year, but will not be announced until the annual Children’s Literature Conference held at the University of Georgia on March 18-19.
Every year since 1968, Georgia’s school media specialists, teachers, and public librarians have encouraged youngsters to read all the books on the list, so that they may cast informed votes. And every year it is a struggle, because, well, because that’s a lot of books for a kid to read on her own. For the picture book category, it’s easy. I was a first grade teacher for many years and read the nominees aloud to my students before they voted. But I often heard discussions among middle grade teachers about how hard it was to get their kids to read twenty novels. The problem was not unique to my school, of course.
Enter Helen Ruffin with her grass roots reading bowl inspiration for DeKalb County Schools. Beginning in 2000, the program was an instant success and quickly spread to other school systems, becoming a statewide initiative in 2003. Today, the state is divided into six geographic regions, and over 600 schools hold local competitions to send teams to the regional contests for each age level. The regional winners then advance to the division semi-finals, the winners of which compete for the state championship. It’s a brilliant way to motivate kids to read the books they must vote on.
The titles and questions and answers at this year’s bowl were enough to make an interested adult spectator like me, who hadn’t read any of the books on the list, want to read every one of them. Questions like:
In Upside Down in the Middle of Nowhere, by J.T. Lamana, what did Georgie see coming toward him that made him scream? A giant wall of water.
In A Bird on Water Street, by Elizabeth Dulemba, what did Piran and Jack find in the woods while picking blackberries? An old moonshine still.
In A Snicker of Magic, by Natalie Lloyd, what’s a snicker? A magic leftover.
Judging from my conversation with other adults in attendance, I’m not the only one who was attracted by these middle grade novels. And yes, I stopped at a bookstore on the way home to buy Virginia’s favorite to read for myself—The Fourteenth Goldfish, by Jennifer L. Holm. Now I’m eager to see how it fares in the vote. You can bet I’ll be watching for the March 19 announcement of the 2016 Georgia Children’s Book Award recipients. You too?
Now it’s your turn: Can you recommend any middle grade novels (ages 8-12) that you have enjoyed as an adult?