Atholton’s gymnasium, usually filled to the brim with basketball teams or freshmen getting their PE credit, was packed with book-crazed fifth-graders on Friday night. Across the floor there groups varying from three to five children sat on their mats, discussing answers to questions in hushed whispers and wildly cheering when the correct answer was announced. One girl wore a box of fake plastic donuts strung across her chest, bearing a sign that read the team name “You Bread My Mind”. Another group, the “MacBooks”, kept it simple with black t-shirts printed with a white Apple logo.
Battle of the Books is an annual competition for fifth-graders across Howard County, which Atholton media specialist Ms. Carolyn Pilcher has dubbed “a rite of passage.” The fifth-graders who wish to participate assemble into groups of five and are given a bag of books – the number of books ranged from twelve to sixteen in past years — and months to read and memorize details about the books.
“The book list is a cross-section of all types of books, so that even kids who aren’t ‘readers’ are readers,” said Ms. Pilcher.
On the big night, they come to one of the six participating high schools. A judge sits at the front with the scorers and reads each of the fifty questions twice. The questions are memory-based, and the teams can be asked to identify which book a quote or passage belongs to, as well as questions about the illustrations or covers of the books. The teams are given thirty seconds to circle the question on their answer sheets, which are then held up for runners to collect and deposit at the scorers’ table.
Student’s faces were wide-eyed, nervous, and twisted with concentration as they considered the questions. Parents watched excitedly from the bleachers while a professional photographer tip-toed among the teams. As the end of the event drew closer, the tension in the gym grew, as did the volume of the teams’ cheering. By the time the correct answer of the forty-ninth question was being announced, the gym was roaring.
Then, it was time to announce the winners. Apart from scoring the highest, there were other categories to earn a title from: Best Costume, Best Team Name, Best Team Spirit, and Best Civility.
“The Boisterous Book Busters” of Pointers Run Elementary won Best Civility. The“Starbooks Baristas” from Worthington Elementary, dressed in green aprons with white-and-green paper coffee cups glued to their headbands, won Best Costume. The aforementioned “You Bread My Mind” took the title for Best Team Name, and the “Knighttime Readers”, who were found to be the most sportsmanlike, won “Best Civility”. Where winners were announced, elated screaming ensued, and teams were ushered to the front to be photographed.
When it came to the title for Best Score, there was a tie. The top two teams, the “Knighttime Readers”, dressed in black capes, and “Operation Booknerd” shuffled to sit in front of the judges’ table. The rest of the fifth-graders formed a semi-circle around the two teams to watch them answer the five answers that would determine who would receive the title. This time, the teams reached up to place their answer sheets on the scorers’ table. The teams were sent back to their tables, and the final winner was announced: “Operation Booknerd”.
“I know, it’s crazy,” said Ms. Stacey Shroeder, coach of the “Starbooks Baristas” about winning the title of Best Costume. She started talking about the moment the winner was announced and her team began cheering. “If you noticed, the whole team went out, and I was like ‘what’? I didn’t really realize it was us.”
She wasn’t the only one to have been caught up in the excitement of the competition; Longfellow Elementary student Isabella Horvath of “One Hundred Acre Woods Readers” couldn’t stop giggling while she was explaining how her team “had a great time, because we got to relate to each other. If I didn’t understand part of a question, everyone else would help me to.”
“We did not come here to win,” chimed in teammate Laiba Muskan. “We just came here for fun.”