When I became a Teen Librarian at the Farmington Community Library in 2018, I inherited our long-running annual Battle of the Books program, affectionately known as “Battle.” For the past thirty years, middle schoolers in my community have teamed up with their friends to study six books and compete against other teams to answer questions about the books. The teams go all out, wearing elaborate costumes to the culminating trivia event, which is so well-attended that the room is deafening after each correct answer is stated.
Why does this old-school program continue to be so successful?
The prizes? Teams that win first-, second-, and third-place receive $25, $15, and $10 Barnes and Noble gift cards, respectively. Though, when you consider that we host a number of programs with gift card prizes, and most of those programs require less extensive preparation than Battle, it seems doubtful that prizes alone are an incentive.
The prestige? Perhaps. The first-place team’s names are engraved on plaques, one of which hangs at the Main Library, and one of which hangs at the winning team’s school. Plus, some of the participants have older siblings who participated in prior years, which may influence their decisions.
The books? Though it may sound surprising, I think this is the main incentive for participation in Battle.
When I do school visits to promote Battle, I see countless eyes light up as I booktalk that year’s titles. During Battle, teams rate books on posters at both branches of the Library using smiley face stickers, and by the night of the trivia event, the posters are completely covered in stickers. When prompted to write book reviews at Teen Advisory Board meetings, Battle participants always write glowing reviews of the Battle books.
I firmly believe we can credit the diversity of our titles for our continued high participation rates. In the past, Battle titles were from a variety of genres, incorporating fantasy or sci fi, contemporary realistic fiction, mystery, historical, and more. I continue to believe that selecting titles from a wide range of genres and formats is the right move; in fact, starting in 2018 we have made sure to choose a graphic novel as one of our titles each year.
But the most important and most beneficial step we have made is careful consideration of character and author diversity. Our community is a diverse one, and it is essential that Battle participants see themselves reflected in the books. In addition to considering genre, we try to incorporate books with main characters from a variety of ethnicities, genders, cultures, abilities, nationalities, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Battle participants love when book characters look, act, and think like them. They also love getting a glimpse into the lives of characters who are completely different from them. Keeping our titles diverse provides an essential set of literary mirrors and windows for our middle schoolers, which ensures the continued success of this long-standing program.
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Shira Pilarski is a Teen Librarian at the Farmington Community Library outside Detroit, Michigan. Shira has worked in public libraries since 2013 serving patrons of all ages in urban and suburban settings. In past lives, Shira was a preschool teacher, indie toy store employee, and worker-owner in a pet care collective.
What a great idea! Sounds like so much fun!
We also have a wildly popular Battle of the Books!
Like you, we put a lot of time and effort into picking books with diverse characters and authors and have been including a graphic novel for several years. I’d love to hear about some of the books you’ve used in the past 5 years, I love hearing about books I might have missed!
I would be happy to send you our lists from the past few years once our 2020 Battle begins on February 28! Feel free to email me for the lists at shira.pilarski(at)farmlib(dot)org