In Defense of Battle of the Books…

In my years as a librarian, I must confess that I had never had a winning team for Battle of the Book. Not. Even. Close. In fact I think a couple of times we came quite close to dead last. But did my team feel like losers? No way. That’s because I fibbed. Not only would I tell them I was sure we came in either 4th or 5th place, I always let them know that we were “number 1 in fun.”

Lucky for me in our district we’ve only ever announced the top 3 teams so the kids were none the wiser. If I told them we came in 17th, they would feel defeated. They would think their efforts were all for naught and never want to do it again. They would tell their friends and siblings not to bother trying out next year.

Once I became the district library media coordinator, it became my responsibility to organize the competitions. Even though I never had a team come in first, I was never “in it to win it.” I always enjoyed BOB. But at the district level, I’ve heard from librarians all the reasons why Battle of the Books is a “waste of time”:

  • The kids won’t read.
  • There is no time.
  • They hate losing.
  • Nobody wants to do it.

Well I’m here to tell you, if that’s how you feel, you are doing it wrong.

First of all, we are librarians! We should be championing reading! If you aren’t enjoying Battle of the Books, then change up how you do things. Sure the competition may not be ideal, but it’s literally only a couple of hours out of the whole year! Still not convinced? Then I’m here to tell you all the reasons why you should embrace Battle of the Books.

It’s not the Olympics. Don’t take the competition too seriously. Sure, it’s fun to win, but only one team can be the winner. Don’t spend all your time drilling and killing for the right answers. Every team has a better chance of losing than winning, so spend your time encouraging students to read their choice of books, discussing books, and doing activities related to the titles. Play Jeopardy, make dioramas, create book talk videos. Foster an inclusive and engaging environment and students will be more motivated to read.

The only difference between last place and first place is a plaque. Literally. Everyone gets a certificate, a t-shirt, and the day out of school. They’ve been exposed to books they might not have read otherwise. They’ve made new friends, maybe got their picture in the yearbook, and created memories to last a lifetime. So in that case, they are winners! Years from now they won’t remember who came in first. And you? They will remember you forever.

Students will be exposed to a wide variety of quality literature. Don’t require every student to read every book. Split the list up and break students up into literature circles so they each read a portion of the list. Better yet, let students choose the titles they would most like to read. Not every title will appeal to every reader, so let them choose. Students are more likely to participate and will enjoy it more if they have some freedom to pick the books that suit them best.

It builds teamwork. So technically Battle of the Books isn’t a sport, but it is a team. Students will learn valuable skills such as cooperation, collaboration, and communication. They may make new friendships and build a cohesiveness that can help them become more connected to the school culture. Whether you win or not, this team is valuable.

The best readers don’t always make the best team. Don’t cherry pick your team. Sure gifted students are great readers, but the best team members are the ones that want to be there, not the ones whose parents made them join. If you have a parent that quizzes their students and makes them read a BOB book every night, then you will likely end up with a burned-out reader that resents being there. Look for some not so likely candidates. Ask teachers for recommendations of students that might benefit or could use a boost. So what if they aren’t strong readers, there’s always audiobooks!

It could be an opportunity for a student to shine. Not everyone can be a top athlete, most popular, or have the cool shoes. But everyone in your school can have access to the library. Book talk the titles and promote the program to qualifying grade levels. Let the students choose if it’s right for them. You never know, you may have a student that surprises you!

Get staff members involved. One of the middle school librarians in our district does a students vs. staff battle that is all in fun. It started off small a couple of years ago, and this year she had a team of 14 staff members! Each staff member was required to read only 2 books, so the students were at a clear advantage. This year the counselor set up a donut and a hot chocolate bar for the competitors after school and the students conquered the teachers yet again. Lots of laughs!

Meet before school or during lunch. There is never any time during the day, so what about the 15 minutes before school? Maybe set aside a day of the week where team members can eat their lunch in the library. Need to keep kids quiet? Play an audiobook for them to listen to while they eat. If you have time, read aloud to them.

It’s a great opportunity to advocate for your library program. Everyone likes to be a part of something good, and what is better than supporting literacy in your community? Reach out to the PTO, administrators, or local businesses to help sponsor t-shirts, books, or snacks. If you are excited about your program, you are more likely to engage your stakeholders and gain support for your program. Be sure to take photos and videos and share on social media, thanking those that help support your team.

You will cultivate your own “champions.” So maybe your team will come away with the big trophy, or maybe not. Either way, your team will become the “champions” of your school library program by becoming walking, talking student advocates for reading.

Do you have other ideas about Battle of the Books? Then share them in the comments below.


Author: Sedley Abercrombie

Sedley Abercrombie is the district digital learning and library media programs specialist for Davidson County Schools in North Carolina, an NCSLMA executive board member, and an adjunct instructor at East Carolina University.

Categories: Advocacy/Leadership, Blog Topics, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

6 replies

  1. We have been doing Battle of the Books with our 6th graders for years. We compete with another Independent School across town. The kids have a ball. I highly recommend doing a Battle of the Books. It really does get them to read books they might otherwise have passed up.

  2. I agree. I have seen it done with great enthusiasm and with very little. When done well, the kids read and are excited.

  3. Here, here, Sedley! Well said. I left school library for the public library and I am hoping to encourage BOB teams all over the county. I would love to have some practices open to all team members. I am reaching out to the librarians around the county to encourage this when it rolls around next school year.

  4. Great advice Sedley! At the middle school level, students are now able to participate in school sports events which are very tempting. I work with coaches and students who want to play sports and participate on the BOB team. It also helps teach students how to manage many responsibilities.

    We are a small county, and one of my favorite things we do after BOB competition is go out to lunch– all of us, all the teams and coaches and eat together. It doesn’t matter who won, we all eat pizza and play in the arcades. For me that unity is so important.

  5. Absolutely, positively spot on!! Thank you!

  6. Every year the 5th grade students that participate in BOB want to know if there is a BOB for 6th grade and in our district the answer is no. They are always disappointed and tell me then it should begin in 4th grade so they could do it twice. Like you said, we might not get a trophy but we are all winners! The kids love BOB

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