There's more than fancy hats and purple shirts to Wayne Mills. The New Zealander's Kids Lit Quiz has made reading a sport for children on the other side of the world, and now looks set to take British schools by storm. Elaine Williams puts him on the spot.
Bookworms of the world unite and show the world what you're made of. If Wayne Mills, president of the Children's Literature Foundation in New Zealand, had a rallying call for his crusade, this might be it.If you are good at sport, especially in Mr Mills's country, you are feted, you go to galas, you receive awards, you dream of playing rugby for the All Blacks.
What recognition do readers get for their passion? What honours are showered on them?
Globally, reading for pleasure remains a largely solitary, unsung activity.
But not in New Zealand. The Kids Lit Quiz, which Mr Mills created and is now in its 10th year, draws in tens of thousands of young avid readers a year, eager to pit their knowledge through regional heats, straining to flex their literary strength for the finals in Auckland, a glitzy, televised event that attracts huge audiences.
Now Mr Mills has hit Britain, the first stop-off in his quest to export the Kids Lit Quiz to English-speaking countries across the globe. An impressively energetic and impassioned advocate of children's literature, he believes the quiz is a highly effective mechanism to celebrate reading among children. He says: "I want kids who like reading to enjoy being part of a global community of readers. The competitive side to this event is a real draw. Especially for boys."
If events at Newcastle upon Tyne's central library are anything to go by, he may well achieve his ambition. More than 100 12 and 13-year-olds from 17 schools across the region cheer, clap and bang the tables, fists triumphantly raised, as they spend three hours going through 100 questions covering a range of literary genres and themes from Greek myths to Harry Potter; Dr Seuss to Romeo and Juliet.
Mr Mills, an atypical literary guru clothed in top hat and purple, becomes a conjurer of suspense and anticipation as he weaves among the teams'
tables in the library cafe, a master of dramatic effect as he reads out extracts with flair and gusto and eggs the audience on for further reading.
"Write it on your hand to remember. Go to your library tomorrow. Read it if you haven't already done so," he exhorts as he gives out answers. Books by New Zealand authors are handed out as prizes after every round; pound coins appear from Mr Mills's jingling pockets for the first correct answer to spot questions.
The focus of the quiz on 12 and 13-year-olds is deliberate. Mr Mills says: "These children are on the cusp. They can answer questions on picture books such as Where the Wild Things Are as well as on Philip Pullman. If you can grab them at this age, you grab them for life."
Claire Kirby and Nicola Gainford, English teachers at Kenton school, a comprehensive in central Newcastle, are proud and slightly shame-faced that their pupils fare better than they do. The teams have been chosen from school library data, which revealed the most avid readers. Ms Kirby says: "We have a range of ability here. This is not about curriculum work but about pupils who read for themselves for pleasure. That shows independence and we should be encouraging it. This sort of event provides the rewards they deserve."
Ian Hartley, who works in a local hospital and is here to support his daughter and Kenton pupil, Emma, 12, says: "It's like having the world cup for reading. If this gets out, I think it will catch on."
Ovingham middle school, Northumberland, which takes second and third prizes with its two mixed Year 7 and 8 teams, has been preparing its candidates for weeks with practice questions. Ann Ingham, their English teacher, says the response from students has been overwhelming. "It's all about wider reading - and for encouraging that, it is excellent."
Eventual quiz winners Central Newcastle high, an independent day school for girls, are offered a chance to compete in the New Zealand finals in June, with the added thrills of a stay at the Kiwi International Hotel in Auckland, river rafting and geyser visits. "Finalists get the chance of the greatest week of their life, because they are readers," says Mr Mills.
Expenses are covered by the quiz's New Zealand sponsor, stationery supplier Paper Plus. But with no sponsor yet from the UK, the girls have to find the cost of travel. Twelve-year-old Tanveer Dhanoya is keeping her fingers crossed. Her mother, Pritpal, says: "She always has her nose in a book, anything and everything from Lord of the Rings to Little Women. We are always telling her to go out and play, but this time her passion has paid off. Her sister is very sporty and is always being congratulated, now it is Tanveer's turn."
Eileen Armstrong, school librarian for Cramlington community high school, Northumberland, who organised this event, is convinced of its potential. " To sit in a room full of pupils and hear them cheering out loud about books was just so amazing. The teachers who came fully expect it to take place again next year. We have to do it. I'm sure it will snowball."
Mr Mills had visited Cramlington and had brought the school library to a standstill by reading excerpts from books. In New Zealand, where he instructs trainee teachers in children's literature, he begins every lecture by reading out passages from books and making recommendations. Ms Armstrong wishes he could do the same with UK teachers. "Many teachers don't keep up with children's literature - it's criminal. Children need to be encouraged in their personal reading. Wayne Mills is a real crusader."
Mr Mills believes the success of the quiz here proves that the concept of reading as sport has great potential outside New Zealand. This time he has paid for the occasion out of his own pocket, the book and cash prizes, the cost of his accommodation and travel, to prove that the Kids Lit Quiz can be exported successfully. A maverick he is. His dream is that the quiz will become international and he plans for international finals at Scott Camp in Antarctica five years hence. He says: "We all want to leave a legacy in life and I hope this will be mine. Reading is a passport to the world and I want to give that a literal as well as a figurative meaning." All it needs is financial backing. And you can be sure he's working on it.
For further information about the Kids Lit Quiz contact Eileen Armstrong at Cramlington high. Tel: 01670 712311, or email:firstname.lastname@example.org