Readers race for the title
Speed and skill on the wing earned Toby Shelley a place in his school's under-12s rugby team, a championship of Oxfordshire and a celebratory outing to Twickenham this week for the Oxford v Cambridge varsity match.
But it's his voraciousness as a reader and his breadth of knowledge about literature that has made him a national champion in the second UK Kids' Lit Quiz and earned him the chance to take part in the finals in New Zealand next June.
Toby, a Year 7 pupil of the Cherwell school, an 11-18, 1,700-pupil secondary in Oxford, was one of his school's team of four travelling to Newcastle upon Tyne this week for the quiz's UK finals. The Kid's Lit Quiz, sponsored by The TES, has captured schools' enthusiasm to encourage wider reading, almost doubling in size this year to attract 1,200 Year 7 and 8 students. Contestants pit their wits in fast and furious question-and-answer events. Thirteen heats took place including one in Scotland and two in Wales. Children's authors and local celebrities attended to present prizes, mark scoresheets and cheer pupils on. At the first heat, four authors (Linda Newbery, Dennis Hamley, Jean Ure and Michael Lawrence) even formed a team, and they didn't do too badly. Sixteen heats are planned for next year, including a second in Scotland and one in Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland has also expressed interest.
The Kids' Lit Quiz has been imported from New Zealand, where it is a high-profile event attracting tens of thousands of children. It is the brainchild of Wayne Mills, a senior lecturer in children's literature at Auckland university's faculty of education and past president of the New Zealand Children's Literature Foundation. He believes the quiz is a highly effective medium for celebrating children's reading and is on a quest to export it to English-speaking countries across the globe. He hosted every UK heat as well as the final.
A flamboyant character in top hat and purple T-shirt, he has bombarded pupils with questions on authors, genres, verse and illustration. At the final, Newcastle Arts Centre filled with suspense and anticipation as Mr Mills read extracts from opening pages and outlined authors' lives and works, while pupils sat poised, fingers on the buzzers, ready to name the writer or the book.
Mr Mills, 55, has already held heats in South Africa; he will travel to Canada early next year and has been approached by China. His ambition is to host the world championships at Scott Base, Antarctica, in 2010. He believes dedicated readers in schools, unlike students who excel at sport, music or drama, are largely unsung heroes, pursuing their interest unfeted, alone in the library. He wants keen readers to enjoy the fun, camaraderie and exciting events that sporty children often enjoy.
"I want to bring readers together so they can see they are part of a wider international community," he says. "The competitive side of the event is a real draw, especially for boys. It's also an opportunity for schools to challenge their precocious readers. New Zealand schools tend to set targets for potential team members, requiring them to keep a log of their wider reading in preparation for the competition. Teachers are always flabbergasted by how widely their pupils read."
Limiting the Kid's Lit Quiz to Year 7 and 8, says Mr Mills, is a deliberate ploy. "These children are on the cusp. If you can grab them at this age as readers, you grab them for life."
The Cherwell school narrowly beats the Billericay school, Essex, by two points in a battle of nerves and timing. The Cherwell has set up a series of initiatives to extend students' reading. There is a book club for all ages; key stage 3 students are given weekly library time in English lessons to discuss their wider reading; authors are invited to work with students in an annual book week. The lower school and upper school sites each have a library and resource centre run by a qualified librarian.
Jill Judson, the Cherwell's headteacher, says the quiz is invaluable in showing students that reading has kudos. Cherwell team member Ronni Shalev, 11, says the quiz has become a great stimulant for reading in the school.
"It's so encouraging because pupils can see they can have all this fun, just by being readers."
Eileen Armstrong, the library and resources manager at Cramlington high school, Northumberland, who is organiser of the Kids' Lit Quiz UK, is thrilled that the number of participants has grown rapidly. "The impact on schools is huge. Preparing for it draws pupils and teachers into sharing ideas about books."
Nicola Morgan, the teenage fiction author (latest novel, Sleepwalking), presented some of the prizes in Newcastle. She was impressed by the range of students' knowledge of literature from the classics to contemporary fiction (the heats have included questions on comic superheroes and films of the book, including a whole section on The Lord of the Rings). She was also "reassured" by this proof that teenagers do read passionately. BBC Radio producer Paul Bajoria, who has just published his first children's novel, The Printer's Devil, also gave prizes at the final. He is largely responsible for quizzes on Radio 4 and says this one could catch on, following the interest in BBC TV's Hard Spell. He says: "Kids have a huge appetite for this kind of thing. I can see it becoming a national obsession."