Written by Helen Farrar, librarian at Cockermouth School. Cockermouth has won the Kids Lit prize twice.
I have been privileged to work at Cockermouth School over the past few years with not one but two teams of young readers who have won the UK final of the Kids’ Lit QuizTM, an international quiz for pupils between the ages of 10 – 13. This quiz was started by Wayne Mills, now Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education at Auckland University, when his own children were young because he saw pupils being rewarded for achievement in sporting events, maths and science but never for reading. A firm believer in the importance of reading for pleasure, he settled on a format for a literature quiz which had something for everyone but especially those who had been readers since they were little, and which would encourage emerging readers to explore further and read more. Celebrating the ‘sport of reading’ the first heats were held in New Zealand in 1991 and since then the Quiz has spread across the world to the UK, South Africa, Canada, Australia and the USA.
Compared to ‘a pub quiz without the beer’, it pits the literary knowledge of teams from across the world against each other in a nail-biting competition which starts at local level and moves up, along with the difficulty of the questions, to national and, finally, international level. Each country’s winning team is invited to participate in the world final which takes place in different countries: so far it has been held in New Zealand where the quiz originated, South Africa and the UK. In 2011 our winning team and I travelled to Hamilton, NZ, and hopefully in July 2013 the current team will be travelling to Durban, SA, to take part in the 2013 world final.
The local area heats comprise 100 questions divided into 10 rounds of 10, each with a different theme as diverse as Islands, Rats & Mice, Body Parts and Wings. During the Quiz as well as asking questions which require a wide-ranging experience of reading by the contestants Wayne also recommends lots of titles he thinks the young readers will enjoy, introducing them to authors they may not have come across before. Teams can confer and discuss their answers before committing them to paper. Answers are marked after each round and there are prizes of books for the highest scoring team in each round with teams being allowed to win only one prize in order to give as many as possible a chance to win something. Between the rounds there are questions for the audience when correct answers are rewarded with Book Tokens, and spot questions for individual team members are rewarded with £2 coins. Often authors are invited and their presence adds an extra dimension to the proceedings; in some heats there are enough authors in attendance to make up a team which is sometimes defeated by the winning school, such is the range of knowledge demonstrated by the students.
The national final moves the questions up another notch. It is based much more on individuals’ knowledge, requiring the contestants to press a buzzer before answering. Questions are longer, starting with general clues but becoming much more specific as they progress. Like University Challenge, it’s a case of whose brain is in gear fastest as the answer must be given within 5 seconds: not much chance for debate, either you know the answer or you don’t! However, an incorrect answer results in a point being deducted, with two points for a correct answer. Five rounds of thirteen questions ensure some of the most diverse questions are asked, really taxing the knowledge of all the teams.
The world final is similar to the national final in that questions are longer, more involved and more difficult. A buzzer is used and fast answers get the points – if they are correct! But in my experience, by the time the quiz day dawns team members have made such good friends with each other that winning the quiz is academic – there is a certain amount of competition but it is very good natured and by reaching the world final in the first place, all the teams are winners. It was a wonderful experience to have so many book-lovers under the same roof, able and more than willing to discuss their favourite reads with each other and to exchange recommendations. The fact that they were from such far-flung parts of the world was irrelevant and their mutual love of books meant they immediately had so much in common. This has been continued by all the members of our last winning team keeping in touch with friends they made in New Zealand via social networking – Facebook does have its positive side! I too have kept in touch with librarians, teachers and parents from various countries whom I met in New Zealand and have found it immensely rewarding to be able to call these people my friends – and to pick their brains on many occasions as well!
Having now been successful in reaching the world final twice, people are beginning to think it’s an easy achievement, that there must be a selection of titles the students have to read in order to be able to answer the questions. My response is that it certainly is not an easy thing to do because the questions are drawn from young people’s literature both past and present – and everything in between, including picture books, authors, illustrators, publishing houses, cartoons and comics, films of books, book prizes… I could go on. The only way to prepare for the Kids’ Lit QuizTM is by encouraging participation by as wide a range of pupils as possible, discovering by talking to them who the readers are and giving them mock quizzes in school so you get some idea of what they know.
In the UK we have a very short space of time in which to organise our teams. Our academic year begins in September with a new intake of Year 7s, all of whom are eligible, as are the Year 8s, and in larger schools like ours we have upward of 200 new faces to get to know; the UK heats of the Quiz take place in November so we have to work quickly to spread the word about it and encourage interested pupils to try out for the team. In other participating countries middle or intermediate schools which take pupils from 9 – 13 are common so they have much longer to get to know their students’ strengths and to build up their knowledge. In the Library here it quickly becomes apparent who most of the keen readers are in the first few weeks of term but these are not always the ones who end up in your team. So many children have their own eReader that they can be reading their socks off and you might know nothing about it because they are buying their books, not borrowing them from the School Library (because we don’t yet have facilities to lend eBooks), or they might be borrowing from Public Libraries which do lend eBooks. But it’s hard for book-lovers to stay away from libraries and sooner or later they will show up! Also, in locations such as our catchment area, where we have an excellent local book shop, many parents buy books for their children because they can afford to do so and, because they are readers themselves, they have communicated their interest in reading to their children. Parents who read and for whom reading is a part of everyday life give their children a wonderful advantage. Reading at home is such an important factor and parents who share books with their children and encourage them to carry on reading when they become independent readers are giving them a firm foundation for their academic futures – and for potential success in the Kids’ Lit QuizTM. However, it is not totally dependent on parents and an enthusiastic Librarian can work wonders with some less-than-keen readers. One of our previous team members said, when he was interviewed for Books For Keeps, “I didn’t really read much before Mrs Farrar put a book in my hands and said she thought I might enjoy it – and I haven’t stopped reading since!”. If only it were that easy with them all.
If you have never taken part in the Kids’ Lit Quiz I urge you to give it a try next year. There are lots of trial questions on the website so you can get an idea of the type of knowledge that is being examined and of course there’s nothing to stop you making up your own. All you need is a good stock of teen and pre-teen fiction and lots of enthusiasm and you’ll find the pupils quickly get on board! It’s what being a school librarian is all about: encouraging pupils to read, enjoy books and motivate themselves to learn.
For more information see www.kidslitquiz.com