Battle of the Books

  1. In which book did a dragon crash-land on a row of porta potties? (Answer at the end of the post)

Nothing brings me more joy than seeing a team of middle schoolers, heads together, hotly debating books. “It must be Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire because there’s a dragon!” “No, Dragonet Prophecy is all about dragons—it has to be that!” “But there aren’t any porta-potties in Pyhrria!”

Welcome to the Battle of the Books.

I first encountered the Battle of the Books in the 1990s, during a graduate internship in North Carolina. At the time, BoB was a state-wide public school competition with a list of twenty-plus books and multiple age levels. Teams alternated answering twenty questions a round from that set list of books, the answer always being the book’s title and author. From school competitions, teams moved to regional and state competitions. I thought it sounded amazing!

  • 2. In which book do characters regularly eat canned food that’s over 200 years old?

When I wanted to Battle at my first school, since I wasn’t in a BoB state and lacked that infrastructure, I decided to stage a Battle just at my own school. Though I have happily continued that, I’ve always felt guilty for not expanding into something more like the statewide program. For the last few years I‘ve had the good fortune to compete with one or two other local schools, but trying to expand the program further brought up issues of time/scheduling, number of books kids were willing to read vs. number of questions needed, and too few/too many participants. Unfortunately, I think expanding would require more time and organization than I can currently manage, plus just looking at the thirty-two page book of rules and regulations for the current North Carolina Battle of the Books overwhelms me! So what follows is a description (probably TL;DR) of how I run a one or two school Battle.

  • 3. In which book does the main character break out of jail using a key made from hardened porridge?

At my school, 5th grade Battle is required and limited to that grade, and 6th-8th graders can sign up to compete against our partner school on a voluntary basis. As I discovered this year, it’s vital to run a “Mock Battle” at weekly announcements to ramp up excitement. Having not been able to stage one this year, my 6th-8th grade participation is unfortunately down, plus kids’ reluctance to miss more than one class block meant conducting the Battle virtually. In general, I run the Mock Battle and signups in late November/early December, and schedule the Battles for late February/early March. That allows time for reading.

  • 4. In which book does the main character accidentally call the Tanzanian president’s wife a diseased wildebeest?

After the Mock Battle, I solicit student input on the book list. Students choose half of the books and librarians choose the rest, to balance the list for genre and diversity. With the two-school Battle’s list of thirteen books, that means students at each school choose three. My partner librarian and I generally make our additional selections from the extensive list of titles for which I already have questions, to save time. We will sometimes add fabulous new books that we can’t resist, though!

  • 5. In which book did a character wear red nail polish made with snake venom?

I post the lists and the Battle rules on the Library website, and our library assistant pulls/orders books and puts them on display. I also recruit colleagues to help read books and write up questions. When I write up questions, I often try to make them intriguing enough that students will want to try the book based on the question, if they haven’t read it. I mean:

  • 6. In which book do two characters send the main character a toilet seat to cheer him up after an adventure?

Who wouldn’t want to read that?

My partner school often runs team practices, but I have never had much student interest for that; this year I’m trying some Kahoots, using questions from non-Battle books. I do assign 6th-8th graders to teams, balancing for grade level. I send several reminders to the sixth-eighth graders and the question writers during the months before the Battle, and I also remind students that they need to show good sportsmanship!

  • 7. In which book does the main character say: “It was like towels were meeting each other in the laundry room, getting married, and having babies”?

To prepare for the Battle, I recruit volunteers for timekeeper/scorekeeper and crowd control. I set up a board that includes the Battle rules, the schedule of rounds for the day, and the scoreboard, which gets updated after each round.

Organizing the questions takes the most time, and I’m sure others could find a better way! I’m old-school, so I have all my questions printed out. After I determine how many questions I need from each book, I go through all the questions for each title and select the best. To ensure each book is evenly represented in every twenty-question Battle, I use a randomizer to tell me in which order to draw questions from each book’s pile.

  • 8. In which book does a monk give oddly specific blessings, like “may wasps never sting the palms of your hands”?

During the Battles, each team on deck selects a captain, and the answer can only come from the captain, after consultation with their team. They get twenty seconds to give me the title (four points), and the author’s last name (two points). If one team can’t answer or can’t answer fully, the other team gets ten seconds to earn half points with a correct answer. I find that even if kids haven’t read all the books, they start to recognize elements in the questions and often make accurate guesses! The questioned team may challenge a question as possibly applying to more than one book, and I might replace that question.

  • 9. In which book does the main character get attacked by bronze spiders at the “Thrill Ride O’Love?”

I love staging Battle of the Books, and seeing kids get so hyped over books! It is a lot of work, but I think it’s time well-spent, and it also encourages me to read new books and see what books kids really love these days. If you are interested in running your own Battle, I am happy to share my questions (I have them for more than 100 books), or you could look into America’s Battle of the Books, a membership-based organization that offers pre-written questions and a variety of competition formats. Battle on!


Answers: 1. The Lost Hero, Rick Riordan. 2. The City of Ember, Jeanne DuPrau. 3. Eye of the Crow, Shane Peacock. 4. Spy School, Stuart Gibbs. 5. Holes, Louis Sachar. 6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling. 7. Front Desk, Kelly Yang. 8. A Wish in the Dark, Christine Soontornvat. 9. The Lightning Thief, Rick Riordan.

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