The gymnasium at Atholton High School was overflowing with students and parents on April 20 as the timer's buzzer joined shouts of victory and encouragement that reached the rafters.
But the athletics were taking place across the parking lot, at the field where Atholton's boys lacrosse took on Reservoir High School. The crowd in the gym was cheering for a different kind of competition: the literary kind.
The fifth annual Battle of the Books, sponsored by the school system and the Howard County Library System, took place Friday night in Howard County and drew the biggest crowd yet, said Valerie Gross, president and CEO of the library system.
The annual competition, held for the first time simultaneously at three county high schools, drew 135 teams of fifth-graders and more than 2,000 people to Atholton, Long Reach and Oakland Mills high schools.
Over the course of four rounds, students gathered in groups on the floor of Atholton's gymnasium answered questions relating to 16 books they had read since November, when this year's book list was announced.
After each team took 30 seconds to write its answer down on a piece of paper, volunteers from the Future Educators of America ran — or skipped, galloped or danced — down the aisles to collect the answers and deliver them to the judges' table. After moderator and Board of Education member Ellen Giles announced the correct answer, students either screamed in excitement, waving signs and flags in victory, or sat quietly, frowning at their incorrect answers.
The book list changes every year, said Christie Lassen, director of public relations for the county library system, and is determined by a library committee. Books on the list vary, from established classics like Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Little House in the Big Woods" and Beverly Cleary's "Ralph S. Mouse," to newer titles, like 2003's "The Tail of Emily Windsnap," by Liz Kessler, and 2008's "Diamond Willow," by Helen Frost.
"It's always a combination, to get pique people's interests, and to excite both the avid reader and the reluctant reader," Lassen said.
A combination of subject matter and reading level helps interest all the students that participate, Gross said, and contributes to the enthusiasm displayed at the competition.
"Reluctant readers are inspired to read by this event because it's so fun, and all readers are being introduced to genres outside of what they'd normally read," Gross said. "There's fiction, non-fiction, poetry, so an avid reader can still be challenged. Students take pride in getting answers right, and everybody leaves here a winner."
Local dignitaries were on hand at Atholton to award prizes, including state Del. Guy Guzzone as Best Team Costume Judge and County Council member Greg Fox as Best Team Spirit Judge. County Executive Ken Ulman was also in attendance to cheer on his daughter, Madeline, who was on one of Pointers Run Elementary School's teams, the Paperback Penguins of the Book Rookery.
"How great is it that there's a competition like this that celebrates reading?" Ulman said. "This is what it's all about. We place such a priority on education in Howard County, and this is a large piece of that — kids are actually volunteering to read these books and participate in this competition. That's fantastic."
At Atholton, Guzzone awarded best costume to Brain Power, a team made up of Pointers Run students Andy Boulle, Emily Masker, Annie Shi, Kyle Hess and Sydney Robinson, for cerebral outfits, which included papier mache head gear made to look like brain matter.
Fox awarded best team spirit to the Bookie Monsters (dressed up as Sesame Street's Cookie Monster), made up of Thunder Hill Elementary School students Rawdah Ahmed, Rebecca Hayes, Korina Leyl, Greta Cover and Asha Kadagala.
Best team civility went to the Super Secret Spies of Bushy Park Elementary School, made up of Will Blackert, Carter Montgomery, Austin Grimm and Charlie Schell. Best team name went to the Titans of Text, a Pointers Run team made up of Noah Alper, Kurt Holz, John Spurrier, Javon Daniel and Kevin Qualls, who each had the name of a different titan emblazoned on the back of their T-shirt: Cronus, Helios, Prometheus, Oceanus and Atlas.
First place in the entire competition at Atholton, meanwhile, went to the Secret Agent Swans of Swansfield Elementary School, made up of Adeoluwa Adeyemo, Ariel Callage, Valerie Battista and Alyson Conover.
"This was great because we got to get together and just have fun," 11-year-old Ariel said.
The competition spread beyond Altholton's gymnasium, to Oakland Mills and Long Reach high schools. At Oakland Mills, competition went into sudden-death overtime, and resulted in a tie between the Hollifield Station Elementary School teams of Be All You Can Be Readers, made up of Khiem Doan, Abel, Odolil, Rohan Samy, Chibuzo Obiefune and Luis Rangel-Mora, and the Sweet Treat Readers, made up of Saima Ahmed, Kaylie Bergeson, Sophie Freedman, Katie Lee and Uma Phatak.
At Long Reach, the overall winners were team Suess-A-Palooza, made up of St. John's Lane Elementary School students Christopher Lanthier, Jack Lorenz, Alex Manning, Brennan Olds and William Vasilios.
Teams Suess-A-Palooza and Be All You Can Be Readers also took home the prize for best team name at Long Reach and Oakland Mills, respectively.
At Long Reach, the Nerd Birds, a team from St. John's Lane Elementary, made up of Genna Bartucca, Anna Froehlich, Blaire Ridgely, Katherine Stone and Scarlet Woofter, won best team costume. At Oakland Mills, that prize went to Five Guys Books and Fries, made up of Clemens Crossing Elementary School students George "Max" Abitante, Mitchell Bardsley, Everette Medina, Jacob Sheppard and Justin Silverstein.
Best team spirit at Long Reach went to the Vampire Puppets, from St. John's Lane, made up of Ariane Ablis, Avery Dyer, Justine Hurst, James Peters and Melissa Skarbek. At Oakland Mills, that prize went to the Hippie Readers, from Clemens Crossing, made up of Robin Ten Hoor, Emma Kohanski, Chaan Murphy, Noah Oyan and Paige Wells.
Best team civility at Long Reach went to the Fire Breathing Marshmallows, a team from Fulton Elementary School made up of Lauren Hayden, Kaitlin Pang, Sydney Sweeney, Margarette Wang and Jessica Zinderman. At Oakland Mills, that prize went to the Booktastics, a team from Guilford Elementary School made up of Olutimilenin (Timi) Aiyegbusi, Ore Olajuyigbe, Victoria Vander Putten, Amanda Russell and Esha Sandeep.