Students from Reisterstown, Chatsworth and Franklin Elementary Schools are gearing up to do battle. Their weapon of choice? A reading list and their young minds, crammed with as many literary facts as they can hold.
On April 20, three teams of five students from each school will face off in the third annual Reisterstown Battle of the Books at Franklin Elementary School. The competition, sponsored by the Reisterstown branch and Youth Services Department of the Baltimore County Public Library, is similar in style to the TV game show, Jeopardy!, with questions based off of 2015-16 Black Eyed Susan award nominees for fourth- through sixth-graders.
"The competition itself is … like a reading incentive program and the kids come and read books, the Black Eyed Susan books in our case, and it demonstrates their abilities and tests their knowledge of the books they read," said Abigail Cooley, Reisterstown branch manager.
The teams compete in different rounds that will lead up to the "final battle" between the remaining two teams, Cooley said.
Though Battle of the Books is a national program, the local version was started by Nancy Braverman, media specialist at Chatsworth Elementary; Elyse Singer, library media teacher at Reisterstown Elementary; and the Reisterstown library.
Braverman, who has taught at Chatsworth for 18 years, said she's held a special luncheon for students who read and complete questions about Black Eyed Susan books for the last decade.
"Every year I run a program within my school for the Maryland Black Eyed Susan books, and I have a set of questions for every one of the grades 4-6 chapter books and if they read a minimum number of books and answer the questions … I have a special catered luncheon, they get a special invitation, and the PTA funds the luncheon," she said.
When she heard about the Carroll County Battle of the Books a few years ago from a fellow media specialist whose child attends school in Carroll, her initial thought was, "what a great idea to encourage them to read," she said.
She knew she had to bring it to Reisterstown.
"It's great to see kids that interested in reading and every opportunity, if I find a reading incentive program I go for it, and basically this is a reading incentive program, so it's very motivating," she said.
Braverman approached Singer about the idea, and Singer "brought it to the attention of the Reisterstown branch, asking them if they wanted to be involved and they said yes," Braverman said.
"We tried to expand it so the first year it was just Chatsworth and Reisterstown, it was held at Reisterstown elementary school the first year, and then last year we tried to recruit other schools in the area … and Franklin took us up on the offer and joined us as well," Braverman said.
Each year, competing students are assigned 10 books to read from the Black Eyed Susan nominee list. They meet with their teams and coaches — parents and teachers — throughout the semester to prepare and strategize, "so there's a social aspect, too," Cooley said.
Reisterstown Battle of the Books participation and attendance are free, and all competing students are given a T-shirt and a certificate. Members of the winning team will receive a $25 Amazon gift card and a banner they can hang up in their school for one year. Chatsworth Elementary has won the past two years.
Braverman said the event is a great partnership between the public library and the school libraries.
Though the event isn't held at the library, Cooley said, the branch is an integral part of the entire process, from providing the refreshments at the event to crafting the questions posed to competitors.
"We organize the planning of the event, we come up with the questions that will be asked during the event, we supply, every student's getting a T-shirt so we're supplying the T-shirt, we're supplying the staff that manage the event, with help from the schools as well – it's definitely a very collaborative effort," she said.
The event has been well attended in the past, Singer and Braverman said.
"It's really exciting to see these children," Braverman said. "They shine. They're so excited and motivated to read books. It's very crowded, we've got family members, not just parents, they have siblings, grandparents come, friends … and each year we have more and more interest among the kids."
It's not just the stands that are overflowing. Singer said there were more Reisterstown Elementary students interested in competing than there were open positions this year, so the school had to hold a run-off to determine who could go.
Singer said the event is a great way for area schools to work together to promote the importance of literature and reading.
"I think it's important because it supports a love of reading and it rewards them in a [unique] way … and it's great for the community to see schools doing something together to support a love of reading," she said. "We look forward to it every year … we're proud that we were essentially the founders in Baltimore County — Reisterstown and Chatsworth worked together."
And for library staff members, being able to help coordinate and publicize an event that promotes literacy among young people goes perfectly with their mission.
"We love seeing kids excited to read and we love encouraging a way for kids to be excited to read and we love working with our community and we love working with our schools so it's a really great way for us to be participating in that," Cooley said.
In addition to encouraging literacy and love of reading, Singer said, the event also promotes school pride and unity.
"It's exciting — it's not just a sports team after-school event, it's something that's academic so those students get the chance to shine and represent their school," she said. "Whether they win or lose it's just a good experience and it teaches them about camaraderie."
The competitive element, organizers said, is what makes this a unique tie between academics and sports.
"It's a method that's not usually equated with reading. It has a sports element with it. It's fast, you get to be with your friends, but there's still an element of competition, wanting to be a winner, but really when it comes down to it every student is a winner just by participating," Cooley said.
Eboni Watson's daughter Zion, 11, competed last year as a fourth-grader for Reisterstown Elementary. This year, Watson will be helping to coach Zion's team. She said the competition is a way to encourage an appreciation of reading among students.
"Zion loves it," she said. "She loves to read so this gave her a reason to read books."
For Zion, the competition isn't so much about winning as it is just having a good time.
"We really want to win this year but we're also like really don't care if we win or not becasue it's for fun," she said.
Watson said the children learn a great deal from participating in the battle. Studying the books so closely makes them consider more than just the words on the page, she said.
"I'm really amazed at the short amount of time the girls have to read 10 books between the five of them and have been able to share the information and regurgitate the information," she said. "I'm also impressed with how they encourage each other."
Cooley said she's always impressed by what they all have learned.
"They're definitely knowledgeable about the books, they get some team building experience," she said. "I think it's definitely a good experience for the kids to have. I think every student and every team comes out with different things that they've learned but I think everybody has come away from the experience with a positive experience."
If you go:
What: Reisterstown Battle of the Books
When: 6:30 to 9 p.m. April 20
Where: Franklin Elementary School, 33 Cockeys Mill Road, Reisterstown
For more information: Contact the Reisterstown branch of the Baltimore County Public Library at 410-887-1165.