Ashland Middle School’s champion Battle of the Books team wasn’t suffering from overconfidence as they headed into their first state competition.
“I honest to God did not think that we were going to win,” said eighth-grader Nick Hemmerling.
The team members had competed twice before but had never reached the state tournament. But after a battle in the final with fellow Ashland students from John Muir School, the team from Ashland Middle School walked away with the “traveling trophy,” which will remain in their version of a training room — the school’s library — for the next year.
“It was super surreal,” said Mirandah Davis-Powell. “It still doesn’t feel like it happened.”
Training for Battle of the Books is an exercise in perseverance of the mind more than the muscles. Teams in the middle and elementary school divisions each have a list to conquer before they face off in competition, and they have to know the 16 books they are assigned inside and out, including every name, location and plot twist.
Those details sometimes stick with participants longer than they would like them to. Mirandah can still recite the topic of a speech made by one character in “The Great Greene Heist,” one of last year’s books: “a nuclear magnetic resonance study of water diffusion in the olfactory nerve of Colorado River cutthroat trout,” she said.
Karl Pryor, the teacher-librarian at Ashland Middle School who oversees the school’s participation in the statewide competition, said the four students are “very savvy” about how to train for Battle of the Books after multiple years of competing together.
Logos Public Charter School also sent a team in the elementary school division to the state competition, although it fell short of qualifying for the final bracket.
Oregon’s Battle of the Books launched in 2007, with the first books list released for competitions in two age groups: third through fifth and sixth through eighth grades. That year, 168 schools registered and 135 participated in regional competitions.
This year, 800 teams from 673 schools participated across the state. A high school division was added in 2008.
The four from Ashland Middle School say they’re not sure whether they will participate again as high-schoolers, because they expect a more rigorous class schedule, and there’s no established program at Ashland High School.
“You wouldn’t have the schoolwide battles to prepare you,” said Mirandah.
In a battle, students answer questions about books in the reading list in a “Jeopardy”-like format, trying to score as many points as possible in the time allotted. Schools typically have battles to determine the school’s winning team, which moves on to regionals. The regional winners compete at state.
This year’s reading lists included several young adult fiction novels in the high school division, a mixture of mystery, fantasy and biography works in the middle school division, and literature running the gamut at the elementary level.
Libby Hamler-Dupras, who manages the state tournament, said volunteers with Oregon Battle of the Books play an integral role in both preparing for and running the competitions. Volunteers come up with thousands of practice questions and tournament questions about the books on the reading list. They sort through and edit them, then release them to the coaches at each school — usually a teacher librarian or classroom teacher.
“People go, ‘Oh, books are dead,’ ” Hamler-Dupras said. “We hope not.”
Battle of the Books is organized by the Oregon Association of School Libraries and is supplemented by a Library Services and Technology Act grant, which is used to provide some teams with the books on the reading list, if cost is a limiting factor. The grants will at times pay for audio and e-books instead of paper copies.
Hamler-Dupras said hearing the conversations that students have at the tournament about the books reminds her why she puts in the volunteer hours each year.
“To me, if you get a kid to open up a book and read it and start talking about it, that’s a whole new pathway for them,” she said.