With all the frenzy of a varsity basketball game, thousands of people crowded into five Howard County high school gymnasiums Friday, April 4, cheering for their team.
But it wasn’t a sporting event that drew the crowds. Instead, it was the seventh annual Battle of the Books, jointly presented by the Howard County Library System and the Howard County Public School System.
“This is the biggest night in Howard County,” said Brenda von Rautenkratz, owner of Fit for Life and master of ceremonies at Howard High School in Ellicott City.
Indeed, it was a big night: for the first time, the reading competition took place simultaneously at five county high schools, with 247 teams of fifth-graders at Howard, Mt. Hebron, River Hill, Atholton and Oakland Mills.
The more than 1,200 students is roughly one-third of all fifth-graders in the county, said library system President and CEO Valerie Gross.
And they were all there to celebrate reading.
“How many of you enjoyed reading the 15 books on this list?” County Executive Ken Ulman asked the crowd at Howard.
The response was deafening.
“Parents, we just asked a group of fifth-graders if they were excited about reading, and that’s the response we got,” Ulman said. “Together, we have kids excited about learning, about reading, about being here on a Friday night, competing and having fun.”
At first glance, the competition seems simple, even static, said Ellen Giles, Board of Education chairwoman and moderator at Howard. The students form teams, each read 15 books on a pre-determined list, and then answer questions at the Battle of the Books that relate to those books.
But in reality, the competition is “controlled pandemonium,” said Thomas Munns, Board of Trustees member for the library system.
“The enthusiasm these kids have, the cheering, it creates a room full of positive energy,” he said. “When you have one out of every three fifth-graders in the county excited about reading, you get excited, too.”
Students paraded into the gymnasium at Howard to the tune of Pharrell’s “Happy,” dancing as they went. They wore costumes coordinated with their team names: members of Alice in Novel-Land from Lisbon Elementary School wore costumes based on the Lewis Carroll characters. The Book Elves from Our Lady of Perpetual Help School donned hobbit cloaks and pointy ears, looking as if they’d walked right out of a J.R.R. Tolkien book. The Minions of the Books from Pointers Run Elementary were dressed as the yellow sidekicks in the movie “Despicable Me.”
And they were loud. After answering every question, before Giles even announced the correct answer, the students would cheer as high school student volunteers raced down the aisles, collecting answers, and then skipping, hopping, even cartwheeling back to their stations.
At the end of the night, Game of Tomes from Hollifield Station Elementary won at Atholton, Book Slayers from Hammond Elementary won at Howard, Minions Love Books from Clemens Crossing Elementary won at Mt. Hebron, Book Babies from Clarksville Elementary won at Oakland Mills and iBooks from Gorman Crossing Elementary won at River Hill.
But there were plenty more prizes to go around. At each school, teams were awarded for having not only the best overall score, but for best civility, best costume, best team name and best team spirit.
“Everybody wins,” Gross said. “All kinds of talents are acknowledged in this event. It’s an event that really polishes all kinds of skills.”
Battle of the Books has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception, Giles said. For the first time, the event was held at five schools; seven years ago, it was just at one.
“I think it says a lot about Howard County, about our kids and our parents and educators, that the students are being encouraged to step forward,” Giles said.
Giles said at first, students who competed in the Battle of the Books were mostly avid readers, but now, more and more students are participating, even struggling readers, which means “everyone gets an opportunity to experience the joy of reading, as opposed to the frustration,” she said.
Gross said that books on the competition list cover a wide range of genres and difficultly level, so both avid and reluctant readers can find something they enjoy.
“It expands the students’ horizons,” she said. “Reading is fundamental, because without reading you can’t be successful in any other subject. It’s an inspiring way to realize that to read for a lifetime is an education in and of itself.”