The remarkable sport of reading

2013-07-10 00:00

THE teams took their positions. The crowd hushed.

“This is as important as a rugby match,” said Marj Brown, introducing the world finals of the Kids’ Lit Quiz (KLQ) held at Durban Girls College last week.

Reading as rugby? Why not? It made perfect sense to New Zealander and KLQ founder, Wayne Mills

“Living in New Zealand, there is an emphasis on sport,” says Mills, senior lecturer at the University of Auckland in the Faculty of Education.

“When my kids were the age the quiz is aimed at — 11 to 13 — I was going to a lot of school prize givings and I realised that no kid was recognised for being a good reader. There would be medals for rugby and cricket, and maybe for maths or music, but nothing for literary knowledge or reading.”

Mills decided to remedy the situation — “initially, I envisaged something along the lines of Trivial Pursuit, but with all the wedges being literary genres” — and so began what Mills dubbs “the sport of reading”.

The first KLQ took place in New Zealand in 1991 with just 14 participating schools. It has gone global since then, spreading to the United Kingdom, Canada, United States, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand, with Singapore and Hong Kong coming aboard later this year.

Every year, thousands of children compete in national heats and the best team from each country heads for the world final.

The real aim of KLQ is to get children to read. Its runaway success in that regard saw Mills awarded the New Zealand Margaret Mahy Medal in 2008 for his contribution to literature and literacy, while in 2011 he was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for service to children’s literature.

“You need to get the kids at this age because after this, they will be reading for knowledge for the next six years,” says Mills. “This will be the last time they read purely for pleasure. But, hopefully, this experience will make them readers for life.”

Mills says KLQ has become so popular “because there is nothing at the top end of the reading world, so much is poured into the bottom end”.

“There needs to be more acknowledgment of good readers. And this is a genuine competition. It’s not dumbed down — it’s a genuine challenge. They have to have read every book written for kids. But the prize is just the cherry on the top — the real winner is reading.”

For KLQ to take off in a country, it just needs one “charismatic, dynamic person to make it work”, says Mills. “In South Africa, it’s Marj Brown.”

Brown taught in the UK for two years and saw KLQ in action.

“The kids were so fired up and excited. So I approached Wayne and asked him if I could set it up here when I got back to South Africa.”

Brown introduced KLQ to this country in 2003 and the initial handful of schools involved has grown to well over 100. Like Mills, she is emphatic about the importance of reading.

“The critical thinkers in a school are the readers,” she says. “Reading builds critical thinking, citizenship and tolerance. Literacy is far more than understanding words on a page.”

Seeing the positive impact of KLQ on reading, Brown wanted to extend its benefits — “we live in a country where 90% of schools don’t have libraries” — so she tapped into the resources of the KLQ-participating schools. In 2009, with help from Exclusive Books and the Publishers Association of South Africa, she launched Phendulani (Answer Everybody).

Every year a book list consisting of 24 popular children’s books is created, and KLQ-participating schools raise the money to purchase them and then donate them to a Phendulani “buddy” school. Grade 6 and Grade 7 pupils then read the books in groups of six, and regional quizzes are held around the country in October. Pietermaritzburg schools taking part in Phendulani this year are Alston Primary, Woodlands Primary and Gateway Christian School.

When it comes to the sport of reading, South Africa has, as they say, “form”. Durban government school Manor Gardens won the KLQ world finals held in Hamilton, New Zealand, in 2011 and Roedean Junior School came second in last year’s finals held in Auckland, New Zealand. Roedean were fielding a team again at this year’s final, where they found themselves up against Australia’s Canberra Grammar School, Canada’s University of Toronto Schools, New Zealand’s Takapuna Normal Intermediate, UK’s Cockermouth School and Squadron Line Elementary School from the U.S.

Some of the schools were co-ed, others single sex, and, overall, the ratio of boys to girls was fairly even. Each school fielded a team of four, although illness saw Canada one down.

As the audience settled, the teams grouped around their allotted table, complete with a microphone, a buzzer, the school’s name and their national flag.

“This will be the toughest, most gruelling final we have ever seen,” said quizmaster Mills, wearing his distinctive floppy black-felt top hat — echoes of Dr Seuss’s Cat in a Hat? He was right. There were 10 rounds of questions to come — two points for a correct answer, a minus point for getting it wrong.

The first half saw questions in five categories: authors, dystopian fiction, folk tales, enemies and music featuring themes from films based on books.

In-between categories, adults in the audience were also quizzed.

“Adults get the same sort of questions as the kids, but about adult books,” according to Mills. “By involving them, the kids get to see their parents as readers.”

There was no clear lead by half-time, although Canada, South Africa and the UK were beginning to look like the serious contenders. When play resumed, the tension ratcheted up further, as the categories were unknown in advance. They turned out to be mythology, titles, opening lines and “One and Only — this is a killer of a round,” declared Mills.

“I’m going to ask a question about a book that comes from each of the participating countries, although they will be books that everyone should have come across.”

By the time of the final round — settings of books — New Zealand was ahead by one point, followed by South Africa and Canada. The final question involved a school in Arizona.

Buzz from Roedean. “Stargirl!” “Is the correct answer.”

Stargirl is a young adult novel by Jerry Spinelli. And the star girls of Roedean — Katie Duvenage, Shreeya Khoosal, Julia Kinghorn and Jessica Wise — were this year’s KLQ world champions by one point. They had snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Just like in a book.

“This was the best world finals we have seen yet. The tightest, closest world final ever — not one team dominated,”said Mills

The function saw the competitors mixing with a host of local authors, including Marguerite Poland, James Hendry, Gcina Mhlophe, Rachel Morgan, Margaret von Klemperer and Elana Bregin.

“This is another special thing about KLQ,” says Mills, “authors coming to a kids’ event — it’s usually the other way around.”

The authors listened as a contestant from each team described their favourite book. Roedean’s Julia Kinghorn selected Noughts and Crosses, the first in a series of highly regarded dystopian novels by British Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman set in a racist world of reverse apartheid where blacks dominate whites.

“For a young South African, it had a deeper meaning for me,” said Kinghorn. “I live in a country that has a terrible history of discrimination and injustice.

“Although I was born in 2000, after apartheid, I can still see how deep the impact was and it will take a long time for the scares to heal. Noughts and Crosses make us think about what it is that makes us human.”

“Next year’s final will be in Truro in Cornwall,” announced Mills, rounding off the evening. “The reading goes on.”

• For more information about Kids’ Lit Quiz, visit www.kidslitquiz. com For more information about Phendulani, contact Brenda Wepener at wepener@fut


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