Gurney's Inn
August 23, 2006

East End Kids Battle Over Books

For many parents, the very words "summer reading" conjure up a collective sense of dread as they cajole, demand and sometimes even bribe their kids to crack open a book during their school break.

But for the scores of East End students who participated in the 2006 Suffolk County Battle of the Books last Saturday, summer reading is another ball game altogether. Rather than reject books, they embrace them: One of the rules of entering the summer program, offered by a host of East End libraries, is that kids entering grades 7 - 9 read a total of 12 assigned books and then attend a series of library meetings where they practice answering questions on each of the titles, getting ready for the big day, when they'll face off with like-minded literary enthusiasts on the county level.

Dave Jones, head of Young Adult Services at Westhampton Free Library, has been involved with Battle of the Books since 1998, when he was employed at the Patchogue-Medford Library. The competition has grown since its first year when the festivities were held in a barn without air conditioning.

Today, over 30 libraries compete from both the northern and southern shores of Suffolk County. This year, the event was held at The Huntington Townhouse, and the day was divided into both a morning and afternoon regional battle. During each battle, four rounds were held during which kids were quizzed on questions from the books they'd read, with five seconds to answer each question, 80 overall. The team to answer the most questions correctly overall for their regional battle wins; first and second place winners were scheduled to return on Monday to face off in a final battle.

According to Jones, the event is a crucial way of keeping kids interested in the library at the very age when they're at risk of turning away forever. After elementary school, said Jones, of the children who stop attending the library during middle and high school year, only 30% return as adult members, "a significant drop off," he said. "But if you can keep kids coming, almost 100% continue as adults."

It's only in the last 25 years, said Jones, that young adult services have evolved as a separate library division; beforehand, teens were often resistant to remaining in the children's section "as they reached a certain maturity level," and were often just grouped in the adult department, with no services of their own.

Those days are over, however; the Battle of the Books is just one example of flourishing library programs that cater to kids with contests, parties and summer reading clubs, where prizes are given based on the number of books read.

And the experience, while studious, is also fun: Contestants at the Battle of the Books came in costumes and decorated T-shirts; each team sported clever names such as the Hampton Library in Bridgehampton, who dubbed themselves "Van Gogh's Ear," Rogers Memorial Library in Southampton, named "ToyBoat ToyBoat ToyBoat ToyBoat ToyBoat ToyBoat ToyBoat," the Shelter Island contingent, "The Oompa Loompas who say Ni," and the Westhampton Free Library's "The Westhampton Wallydoodles — Whoop! Whoop!"

Westhampton team member Subi Chockalingam said the ice cream field trips and pizza parties were part of the fun; contestant Rachel Boehl said the best part "was the learning experience and reading all the books," as well as the competition itself.

Certificates were awarded for most creative uniform; this year, the winner in the Southern Suffolk Regional Battle was the "We're Mostly In It For the Food" Patchogue-Medford Library Team, who came in chef's garb, brandishing utensils.

A Team Choice Award was given to the Hauppauge Public Library's "Psychedelic Couch Potato Readers" whose tie-dyed outfits would have made Jerry Garcia proud.

The East End came in with a strong finish, with the Hampton Bays Public Library's team, The Wuthenow Warriors, coming in second under coach Matthew Wuthenow, with a total score of 58 out of 80; first place went to the Patchogue-Medford team, who scored 62.

But, as each contestant filed out of the Huntington Townhouse, wearing the medals and ribbons each entrant received and big smiles, it was clear that in the Battle of the Books, everyone emerged a winner.

And that, along with providing structure to kids' summer schedules, is the goal, said Jones: "Coming to the library is something for kids to do on a weekly basis. They're not out on the street, getting into trouble."

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