The Oregon Battle of the Books
We all have our highs and lows when it comes to parenting. Sometimes it feels like the lows are dogging our steps for a little too long. When that happens, I try to remember to focus on what’s working, and in our house one of the things that’s really working is reading.
What could be better, for a parent/bookworm, than to have a kid who loves books? A kid who brings a book or two with him for any car ride over 10 minutes long, and a stack of books on a road trip.
To be clear, our son has the classic toy soldier yearnings. He makes detailed drawings of swords of all kinds, and outfits every Lego character he creates with multiple, uzi-type weapons. So watching the book lover in him blossom, alongside all that unabashed attraction to battles and warfare, is a sweet spot on this journey.
This past spring, our son got to compete in the third- through -fifth grade division of the Oregon Battle of the Books. OBOB, a “statewide voluntary reading motivation and comprehension program,” encourages kids to compete in teams at the school, regional and statewide level. Run by school librarians, it creates an arena where kids like mine can join their love of armed conflict (aka competition) with their passion for reading.
And armed they certainly were. Titles, authors, character names, plot points, factoids. . . these kids were stockpiling their brains with children’s literature. Our school librarian, Lori Culley, skillfully conducted the battles. After working their way through the bracket, our team of 4 fourth grade boys won our school competition in a tense battle in front of half the school that left the opposing team in tears. That team, 4 third grade girls, went down fighting after a noteworthy string of wins, plus some sassy trash-talking on the schoolyard, and have my sincere respect.
But our team, Team Sasquatch, had been working hard for months, and it paid off. They would go on to Regionals, to compete with 63 teams for the top three spots and a ticket to the state competition.
In the meantime, more OBOB practice, and more reading. My son re-read the books he’d only read once. Our team captain was working his way through them for the third time, and seemed to know a few by heart.
I hosted a practice session on a Sunday in March when our team leader/mom, Val, was out of town. It was a day of steady rain. Keeping four 10-year-old boys focused on anything for two hours requires flexibility. “What was the name of Ramona Quimby’s teacher? Stop hitting him with that banana peel. No, you can’t go outside, it’s hailing right now.” You get the picture. You make it work. Teachers do, somehow. These are the moments when you appreciate their artistry, beyond teaching, as entertainers, wild animal tamers and clinical psychologists.
But the rain had us all fidgeting, and the boys (especially one, you know the one, the one who lives in your own house) couldn’t stop poking each other. How would a teacher stop them from poking each other? They needed something in their hands. “Can we just go do Legos now?” they all said. I hate to mix Legos and books, but I was running out of tricks.
We trooped into my son’s bedroom. They could do their Lego thing, I told them, as long as they also kept practicing. I stretched out on my son’s bed and let them dig through the Lego boxes for a minute or two. Then I began with the practice questions again.
And they were amazing. They answered each question, calmly considering, fingers working, letting each other speak. For an hour and a half we were unaware of the time, remembering details of the books, reminding each other of how they went, and forgetting to have our second snack. That day’s battle of the books was won.
Saturday, March 18th, Glencoe School. A quick look around the classroom told me two things. First, these kids were serious. The opposing team, two boys and two girls in matching burgundy t-shirts, sat in the far corner of the room. Their four faces were hidden behind four books. While our boys simmered with nervous energy, those kids from Laurelhurst Elementary were calmly gleaning last-minute wisdom from Escaping the Giant Wave by Peg Kehret, and Knucklehead by Jon Scieszka.
Secondly, there was only one free grownup-sized chair left in the room, reserved for the timekeeper. I volunteered. It would give me something to do—I was nervous too. And those second grade chairs are very small.
The battle began. (In which book did a boy fail to deliver a note? Skateboard Party by Karen English.) The first half of the match was a flawless tie, and the tiny crowd of onlookers, including the awesome team of third grade girls we beat in our school finals, applauded. In the second half, a tricky question stumped the other kids, and Team Sasquatch commandeered their answer points, tipping the balance. Then both teams missed a question, and again, our team managed to steal the opponents points. Something was working.
We won that battle, and won again in the next round, and then again in the third, each time keeping it together despite the pressure and the bouncing knees and feet. The tears of the fallen made each victory more intense. The top three teams would go on to State, and we were in the top eight.
Halfway through the fourth round, our boys started to cut up in their huddle. They were ahead, and getting giddy. From the timekeepers chair, I made that mom-face, that settle-down face, but my son wasn’t looking at me. And they missed their question, a question they knew the answer to. The other team scooped up their points with the correct answer, and Sasquatch spent the rest of the battle trying to catch up, to no avail.
When you want something that badly, a loss hits hard. Our team would not go to the state competition. The other team burst into celebratory sounds. Our boys dragged themselves from the battlefield, clutching their wounded hopes. Sometimes a hug from mom or dad doesn’t make everything all right. Not right away.
Our child was silent on the walk to the car, silent all the way home. I didn’t tell him that he’d already won, that reading and understanding 16 great books in just a few months was its own reward, that the world is rich with books all year long. He’s a warrior, and he’d been beaten, and he needed to bum out for a few hours.
On Monday afternoon, he walked out of Atkinson school with his usual bounce. “How’s everybody doing?” I asked, and he knew I meant Team Sasquatch.
“Good,” he said. “Next year we might not be Sasquatch again, we’re thinking about being the Lightning Strikes.”
Bring it on, 2017-18 OBOB. It’s a whole new school year, and these reader-warriors are back on the horse.