Willard Middle School’s sixth grade team celebrates its Battle of the Books victory. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
Willard Middle School’s sixth grade team celebrates its Battle of the Books victory. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Ten minutes before game time.

Competitors shoveled food into their mouths to fuel up.

Some players practiced off to the side.

Others pulled on their uniforms, and had teammates sign their names in permanent marker on the backs.

Their sport? Reading.

Forget a piddling spelling bee — in Berkeley, kids compete with entire books.

“I joined Battle of the Books because all my friends were in it and I love to read,” said Ash Dodge, 13, as competitors filed into the Berkeley Adult School auditorium on Thursday evening. “You get to have a nerd competition. Honestly this is my dream.”

Later that night, the Longfellow student’s team would triumph in the eighth grade category.

“You get to have a nerd competition. Honestly this is my dream.”

The annual event, in which teams from all three Berkeley middle schools compete against each other to prove who has read and internalized the most books, is in its fourth year. Many schools across the country have long held such book “battles.” When Jessica Lee, then Willard’s librarian, went to a conference several years back, she learned more about statewide competitions in Oregon and North Carolina. She and a school librarian from San Francisco got the idea to bring the tradition to the Bay Area.

“We were like, ‘This looks like fun,’” said Lee, now a district-level librarian with BUSD. “That’s the main thing — it’s really about this enthusiastic, fun way of reading that’s a little bit different. There’s not a lot of competition in libraries.”

Three tween girls sit at a table. Two have plates of food. One is holding an open book.
King Middle School students do some last-minute reading and eating before the competition begins. Their seventh grade team ultimately won in that grade level. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The big contest, the climax of a year-long reading program, is supported by the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, which provides funding for customized team t-shirts and dinner. Students in Willard’s Growing Leaders cooking program make the actual food. This year’s menu included pesto pasta, salad, garlic bread and cookies. Local bookstores like Mrs. Dalloway’s and Books Inc. have supported the program too.

As they prepared for “battle” Thursday, some students flipped through books or quizzed one another until the last minute. Each kid had spent the preceding months reading as many books as they could from a provided list of 21 titles. Some proudly reported they’d completed them all.

Around 7 p.m. the teams of three or four took their places at a row of tables below the stage.

Sixth graders were up first. (Some later headed home and to bed before the older kids competed.)

For the first round, one of the teacher-librarians read aloud questions, and each team got some time to write the answer — a book title and author — on a white board.

Question: Which books ends with a girl walking into the sky?Answer: The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman. 

Then came the “buzzer round.” Like in Jeopardy!, whichever group hit a (digital, in this case) buzzer quickest got the first chance to answer the question. If the students got it wrong, the team lost points.

That round brought with it considerably more tension and anxiety.

Legs jiggled, hands clasped, brows furrowed.

And it wasn’t just the students — some parents in the audience looked like they were watching the fourth quarter of a neck-and-neck Warriors finals game.

Other students kept their calm throughout the evening.

“I’m also in drama,” said Hannah Toch, 13, before the event. “And I just came from a dress rehearsal, so that kind of took the nervousness out of me.”

The final round was a multiple choice quiz, conducted on the digital education platform Kahoot.

Question: In which book does a woman dance in a record shop?Answer: The Distance Between Us by Reyna Grande.

In the end, each school shined. Willard won the sixth grade category, King’s seventh graders came out ahead, and Longfellow took first place in the eighth grade group.

When the winners were revealed, students screamed, hugged and jumped up and down, all adrenaline and sugar rushes. Victorious kids got medals, and everyone who competed got to take home an advance copy of a young adult book.

Amid all the flurry, one competitor approached a winner from another school and introduced herself. She said she was so-and-so’s friend and had “heard so much” about the other student. Next year, they’ll likely all be classmates. That sort of cross-school socializing is part of the point of Battle of the Books, the organizers said.

“This is a great opportunity for them to see each other, before they see each other next year at Berkeley High and get lost in the largeness of it,” said Becca Todd, the district’s library coordinator.

The big event that took place Thursday is just one aspect of the months-long program. The competing teams were filtered down from much larger groups that participated in Battle of the Books at each school. The students would meet during lunch or during an advisory period.

“As much as this final thing is the competition, what we’re doing is getting them to know these books,” Lee said. “At each meeting the librarian has some prepared information about the books. They’re talking about some of the big ideas. If it’s historical fiction, they talk about the context of where the book is set.”

A number of books are displayed below a big sign that says READ.
The 21 books on this year’s battle list were displayed during the competition. Photo: Natalie Orenstein
The 21 books on this year’s battle list were displayed during the competition. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

It’s all opt-in, meaning many kids will choose to spend lunchtime running around on the yard, or doing anything but reading, instead.

Berkeley Unified’s broader approach to reading instruction has been in the spotlight in recent years. The district recently adopted a phonics-based curriculum, which advocates said was overdue, for elementary school students. The year before, the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund sued BUSD on behalf of families claiming the district failed to identify kids with dyslexia or provide them with legally mandated accommodations. The ongoing lawsuit reflects advocacy occurring throughout the country.

Recent district data also revealed significant progress, but wide disparities, in reading proficiency among student groups, according to state test scores. In  2017-18, 93% of BUSD’s white third graders were deemed reading-proficient, compared to 80% of Latino students and 65% of black students. (Third grade reading levels are strong predictors of later success, studies have shown.) The district’s scores for its students of color have improved notably in recent years, but still leave a big achievement, or equity, gap.

Lee said she and her colleagues intentionally curate Battle of the Books lists so they include titles appropriate for a variety of reading levels and backgrounds. This year’s range ran from the Canadian classic Anne of Green Gables to The 57 Bus, the true story of an agender teenager who was set on fire while riding an AC Transit bus in 2013.

Not every student on every team has to read every book. Some audio books are available for students who feel more comfortable listening as well.

“I’ve had students who read one book but came to every meeting. They loved participating,” Lee said. But, “it is a supplemental program. In other words, it’s not something that for a kid who’s never read a book, this is going to turn them around. We do have those kinds of programs too.”

Falk Meissner, father of Willard competitor Melina, said his daughter has always been a reader. But he embraces a program that has made her and her peers even more “conscious and engaged in reading.”

“Even,” he said with faux concern, “to the detriment of screen time.”

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...