Newport-Mesa elementary schools go head to head in sixth annual Battle of the Books

Andersen fifth-grader James Phan gives his team's answer.
Andersen Elementary fifth-grader James Phan, left, gives his team’s answer to a question as they compete in Round 1 against Sonora’s second team during Battle of the Books on Wednesday at Newport Beach City Hall.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

It was tense in the Newport Beach community room.

On an otherwise peaceful Wednesday morning, kids who’d gathered inside for the fierce competition peered at each other from across the room as the contest got underway. Judges paid close attention, tallying points. Onlookers leaned forward on the edge of their seats.

In the end, only one of the eight competing teams could emerge victorious from the storied tourney that was Newport-Mesa’s sixth annual Battle of the Books.

The competition is part of a larger, national reading incentive program called America’s Battle of the Books for students in grades three through 12. The students who choose to participate in an extracurricular book club on their respective campuses are provided a list of books to read throughout the year and demonstrate what they know of them at the end of that year. The official list is released each June.

The local Battle of the Books is typically held at Eastbluff Elementary. During the first two years of the pandemic, 2020 and 2021, the competition was forced to move to a Zoom format, according to parent volunteer and competition moderator Lindsey Coombe.

Team members of Sonora 2 huddle together for an answer.
Team members of Sonora 2 huddle together for an answer in Round 1 against Andersen 1 during Battle of the Books on Wednesday at Newport Beach City Hall.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

“The kids really wanted to have an in-person competition,” said Coombe. “We only offer it to fourth and fifth graders. So once they [age] through that, they’re finished. I said, ‘I’ll do what I can.’ So, what happened was we had a general PTA meeting in January and our representative, Carol Crane, was at our meeting. Omicron was surging at that point.

“She said, ‘Hey, let’s talk.’ She called me after because I was right in the midst of how we were going to get this group of kids in an auditorium all together at Newport-Mesa, and she said, ‘I think that’s going to be tough.’ In January, we just couldn’t think about [having it in-person].”

Coombe said she then reached out to Newport Beach City Councilman Will O'Neill, who offered up the city’s community room to host the competition.

“At that point, the Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic School [which participates in the competition along with Eastbluff, Sonora and Andersen], said, ‘We have a new auditorium that might be ready in time’ but the kids were excited at the possibility of going to the civic center, which is also by the public library. We thought, ‘What a perfect tie-in for the kids to be able to compete in person,’” Coombe said.

Andersen Elementary students pose with the trophy for the Battle of the Books on Wednesday, March 24.
(Courtesy of Lindsey Coombe)

Questions posed to the competitors focused on direct quotes or narrative details from the list of books that the students had read. Ten questions were asked of each team of six students. Each team was given time to discuss among its members to decide on an answer before the team captain replied.

Scores were verified at the end of each round.

According to Sonora Elementary teacher Hilary Fenn, her students who are members of the book club have been reading from the competition’s list since the first week of school.

Fenn said books are usually donated through donorschoose, a crowdfunding platform for public school classrooms. Teachers try to generate interest among their students and get former participants to come to encourage incoming fourth and fifth graders to enter.

“We make our teams. The kids start reading from August to January,” said Fenn. “We just focus on reading and we meet every week and kind of take progress, monitoring how they’re doing and then we start getting really serious with our practices, where we do mock battles and we quiz them on authors. The kids give up their lunch once a week to come and practice.”

As far as the students are concerned, Battle of the Books is no joke.

Quinn Pedersen, who attends Eastbluff Elementary, said this was his second year participating. He had tried out Battle of the Books last year and thought it was fun. He said he was hoping that he and his team would win, but he was still pretty nervous going into the competition.

He said he spent at least 30 minutes every day, five days a week for the last few months preparing. His favorite book from this year’s list was “Bridge Home” by Padma Venkatraman.

Ten-year-old Emma Backlund said this is the second year she’s been involved in BOB — the acronym the kids use for Battle of the Books. Emma said she was nervous and excited to compete, but she really wanted to show how much she knew about the books. She said she read about half an hour every night.

She chose “Midnight Rider” by Joan Hiatt Harlow as her pick of the year.

“It was about our American history, and it has settings, full of detail — characters that you’ll love and relate to,” Emma said.

Team members of OLQA 1 think of an answer in Round 1 against Eastbluff 2.
Team members of Our Lady Queen of Angels 1 think of an answer in Round 1 against Eastbluff 2 during Battle of the Books on Wednesday at Newport Beach City Hall.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Andersen fifth-grader Aaron Chiaverini said he decided to participate because he loved reading and needed an after-school activity.

Aaron said it didn’t hit him until he arrived at the Newport Beach Civic Center Wednesday morning that he was there to compete.

“I was like, ‘Oh, it’s Battle of the Books.’ I got here and I was like, ‘OK. It’s time.’ I was not ready when I got here,” said Aaron, laughing.

Sawyer Seaton, 11, said this was his second year participating in the competition. He said he was excited to come back for an in-person contest after last year’s Zoom experience.

Sawyer said he said he got involved because he loves reading and he loves competing and BOB is a happy combination of the two.

Sawyer said he was pretty nervous because his school, Andersen, didn’t do well last year but that he was pretty excited to participate because the team was determined to clinch a victory, which later proved to be the case.

The final round was between Andersen and Eastbluff and resulted in a tie. The judges and scorekeeper had to tally the total score from the entire competition to determine the winner. Ultimately, Anderson came out on top.

Eastbluff 2 fifth-grader Morgan Pham, right, gives her team's answer.
Eastbluff 2 fifth-grader Morgan Pham, right, gives her team’s answer to a question as they compete in Round 1 against Our Lady Queen of Angels 10.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

Fenn said it was exciting to have Battle of the Books as a common interest for students, especially when they were students from different campuses. She said the quality of the books chosen for the competition also helped create great dialogue between students and teachers.

The day’s moderator, Coombe, praised the extracurricular activity.

“They are not required to read any of the books, however I feel like this club was so instrumental in getting kids to be interested in reading. I think it expanded [my daughter’s] horizons so much,” she said. “These characters ... I think you can learn kindness, bravery and empathy from them and the stories.

“The kids relate to the stories. What I see as a parent is that my child connects with a character or a story and it takes them on a journey that will stay with her forever.”

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