They came, they read, they conquered. Nearly 900 fifth-grade students in 176 teams from across Howard County participated in the sixth annual Battle of the Books Friday, April 19, filling the gyms of four high schools with screaming fans and a noise that rivaled any sporting event.

"I love sports as much as anyone, but to see these places filled with a competition around learning — it doesn't get any better than this," County Executive Ken Ulman said to the gathered crowd at Long Reach High School in Columbia before the competition kicked off there.

Students and spectators filled the gyms elsewhere, too: at Atholton High School, Mt. Hebron High School and River Hill High School. This year was the first time the competition was held simultaneously at four schools. Howard County Library System President and CEO Valerie Gross said the competition gets bigger and better every year.

"This is incredible," she said.

The Battle of the Books is an A+ Partners in Education initiative between the library system and the Howard County Public School System. Students begin preparing for the competition in early winter, tackling a list of 16 books under the guidance of parents or teachers who mentor the teams.

At the event, a moderator reads out questions related to the content of the 16 books: a direct quote take from a character, a question or statement about something that happens in the book, a passage taken directly from the book or a question about a picture or illustration in the book. Runners then go up the aisles in between the teams seated on the gymnasium floor and deliver written answers to the judges.

At Atholton, the top winners were the International Representatives from Dayton Oaks Elementary School. At Long Reach, the Novel Ninjas out of Pointers Run Elementary School took the top spot. At River Hill, the winners were Go Wild for Reading, out of Clarksville Elementary School, and at Mt. Hebron High School the winners were the Literature Police from Thunder Hill Elementary School.

Prizes were also given at each school for best team civility, best team spirit, best team name and best team costume.

The goal is simple, Gross said: make reading fun.

"Reading is the emphasis of the initiative," she said. "When reading is fun, that's going to be the most effective way to inspire students to read. You hear it time and again from students and parents, how this experience is a life-changing event that resonates. It does so for a couple of reasons: it inspires the reluctant reader to read, and it provides a challenge for avid readers to read more. At every stage, it teaches the students how to work together. It's a lot of work to read 16 books, but the reward that culminates in an evening like this is tremendously gratifying to everyone involved."

This year, the book list included classics like "Mr. Popper's Penguins" by Richard and Florence Atwater, and "Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH," by Robert C. O'Brien, as well as newer works like "City of Ember" by Jeanne DuPrau and "Hoot" by Carl Hiaasen.

The list includes something for everyone, Gross said.

Members of the Novel Ninjas — the winning team out of Pointers Run at Long Reach — each had a different favorite. After their win, Mariana Lennon, Annabel Smoot, Hannah Mutrangola, Liza Goldberg and Caitlin Clemens, were excited all their hard work had paid off.

"I keep pinching myself," said Caitlin, 11. "It feel likes a dream."

Liza, 11, said she liked reading because not only does it help her "escape," it helps her understand what the lives of other kids her age could be like.

Hannah and Mariana both said they liked to read because it helps them learn new vocabulary words, and helps to pass the time.

Ultimately, Annabel said, reading lets her go off into her own world.

"I like going into the characters world," she said. "I can picture in my head what's happening."