Battle of the books

I was really interested by Loertscher’s article, Flip This Library (Loertscher, 2008). According to Loertscher, “we don’t need a revision. We need a reinvention.” The participatory library is about new models of doing things, which means letting go of a lot of “shoulds” and “can’ts.”

One of the extracurricular activities that they do at my kids’ elementary school is called Battle of the Books , for the 3rd through 5th graders. The kids read from a selection of books over the course of the school  year, attend book discussions, and then participate in a “battle”—i.e., a trivia contest in teams.

At one flag assembly, my younger son (in 2nd grade then) heard them announcing and promoting this program and his eyes lit up. With great excitement he said to me, “Mom, what is Battle of the Books? Do we dress as our favorite book characters and have a play battle?

I thought to myself, “Sadly no, because that would be MUCH TOO AWESOME for the district lawyers to let us do it.” My son was disappointed when I explained to him that the “battle” was a little bit less exciting that he had envisioned.

After I heard my 8 year old’s idea for a “Battle of the Books,” the one in reality sounded pretty dull by comparison. OK, so maybe you might run into a few snags by having a bunch of little Harrys and Hermiones with wands, and hobbits with swords running around (not to mention violating the “no toy weapons at school” rule), but gosh, it sounds fun.

Aragorn, Galadriel and Frodo

Not that I have a warg in this fight or anything.

Battle of the Books is a good program. Many of the kids love it, but there are also many of them—some who love reading very much, like my son—who fail to see the point. You read some Great Books For Children. You attend teacher-led discussions where the teachers talk to you about the books and a little bit of discussion occurs. And in the end you win points if you can memorize facts about the book and answer questions correctly.

Loertscher writes, “Here’s another 180-degree flip: a typical classroom assignment and library Web site are examples of one-way communication. Adults tell learners what to do, how to do it, and where to find information. But in the new learning commons, homework assignments and library Web sites offer two-way communication” (Loertscher, 2008).

Battle of the Books is not two-way communication, it is not participatory at the level we’ve been learning about in this class. It’s primarily one-way communication, from book to student and teacher to student, with some space at the end for students to dutifully demonstrate that they have absorbed what the books and the teachers have communicated. Yes, Battle of the Books is cast in game form to appeal to children, but it’s not nearly as engaging a game as my son thought of just in the first few seconds he heard the term.

It’s well known that children learn best through play. What do children do with the books they really love? They don’t just want to read a book and memorize facts or receive learned opinions about them. When they love books they immerse themselves in them, they play them, they live them.

Superhero "Mutant Fall"

Superhero mashup, you’re doing it right

This brings me to another one of the readings, about Finding the Future (Danforth, 2011). Like a real life Da Vinci Code, the Find the Future game designed by Jane McGonigal broke boundaries in order to try and engage people deeply, through a game. Jane McGonigal might say that everyone, and not just children, learns best through play. In an interview, McGonigal says, “games do a better job of provoking our most powerful positive emotions — like curiosity, optimism, pride, and a desire to join forces with others. Games are fulfilling genuine human needs the real world is unable to satisfy” (Hohmann, 2011).

Several months ago I read a very eye-opening article (Gray, 2013) about the deficit of creative play for children. (I’d thought many of these things but hadn’t seen them expressed so well before). An emphasis on testing, homework, and structured extracurriculars are making children’s upbringing today less “participatory.” Gray writes, “Children today are cossetted and pressured in equal measure.” They are cossetted—it is too dangerous to let them have a play battle or play with toy weapons, we must shield them from violence and chaos and boo-boos. On the other hand they are pressured—we must get them to read, we must get them to read Important Books, we must get them to the learn the Important Things from the Important Books, and we have to have adult-led discussions and an adult-led structured game on the Important Books so that they are learning the Correct Important Things.

Children, left to themselves, naturally come up with vast amounts of creative elaboration; they have so much to contribute to the participatory library because of their natural joy in developing their most beloved ideas. The more I read about the participatory library, the more I see that listening to the users (children or adult) can lead us to where the energy and passion and real learning is.

Here is a passage from Gray that I found very powerful:

In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live (Gray, 2013).

Let’s conjure some information from the chaos of the universe (Harris, 2006).


An infomancer


Danforth, L. (2011, April 2). Finding the future [Web log post]. Library Journal. Retrieved from

Gray, Peter. (2013, September 18). The play deficit. Aeon. Retrieved from:

Harris, C. (2006, January 10). SL2.0: Synthesis 2.0  [Web log post]. Infomancy. Retrieved from

Hohmann, Rebecca (2011, April 1). Jane McGonigal and NYPL present Find the future: The game. [Web log post]. New York Public Library. Retrieved from:

Loertscher, D. (2008, November 1). Flip this library: School libraries need a revolution [Web log post]. School Library Journal. Retrieved from


About mollificence

library student, writer, mom, Kindle addict View all posts by mollificence

11 responses to “Battle of the books

  • Michael Stephens

    The play deficit piece always makes me sad. We have some very cool young people in our neighborhood and in the summer I love to see/hear them play. I hope they keep it up as long as possible!

    • Molly McKinney

      @michael So do I! We’re trying to buck the trend, protecting our children’s free time, and in our community there are many families trying to do this as well. I realize of course that we’re very fortunate to have a number of families with a full time parent or parents who can work from home, thus allowing kids more free range flexibility with a ‘home base’ to range from. Not everyone who wants to can embrace that option. I hope work like Gray’s help wake people up to the fact that kids need play!

  • Michael Stephens

    @mollymckinney I think that’s a good thing. I see some families that rush their kids from one thing to the next…

  • Paul Barrows

    Hi Molly,
    Thanks for sharing this great illustration from your and your son’s experience. I suspect these kinds of disappointments go a long way toward eroding children’s creativity. The next time your son (or another child in his school) hears about a fun-sounding program, will they even bother to imagine what it might be (create it in their minds), or will they now assume it will be boring and just wait to be told what it is?

    • Molly McKinney

      Yep. Sometimes I think we should just let them have fun at fun times, and admit that work is work. Rather than trying to clothe everything in fun language (battle of the books) just call it a reading program or something. On the one hand, we grownups have to make kids do a lot of stuff they don’t want to do (learn non-favorite subjects, pick up their rooms, wash–SIGH), but then we feel guilty and try to make everything sound like fun when it’s really not.

      • Wendy Derman

        According to the book I just read for my report, you can make most non-fun tasks fun by making them into a game. I have not tried this yet myself, but apparently has become wildly popular for getting household chores done.

  • Stephenie Springer

    Your son’s vision of the Battle of the Books sounds way more fun! And you’re so right about how “listening to the users (children or adult) can lead us to where the energy and passion and real learning is.” I don’t often think about it because I don’t have kids and I’m constantly thinking with an adult mindset, but some of the greatest ideas come from children who have big imaginations and none of the societal expectations about how things should be. They don’t think about the fact that adults might frown upon children dressing up with toy weapons to act out characters from their favorite books. I feel that, as adults, we are often constrained by all of the “rules” that we create as a society and that often stifles creativity. But kids, on the other hand, they’re bursting with creativity and all we need to do is listen to them.

    • Molly McKinney

      You are so right! They’re way ahead of most grownups at thinking outside the box, because they haven’t learned the box yet!

      Of course, you do need grownups to think through some limitations–50 kids with play swords could get WAY out of hand. But I think we can learn from the core of the ideas they offer. Like the play battle idea–the main idea is that kids don’t engage beloved literature by memorizing trivia or sipping tea while discussing a book. Role play, writing plays based on characters (what grownups would call “fanfic” and kids would call playing), acting them out (cosplay), things like that–are all possible ways to engage their hearts in literacy.

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