The Kids’ Lit Quiz

Report on the Kids’ Lit World Final, aka the “Olympics of Reading”

Wayne Mills and the 2008 Kids’ Lit Quiz national team from New Zealand.

Wayne Mills objects to any comparisons between America’s National Spelling Bee and his own New Zealand-based “Kids’ Lit Quiz.” He sees the American contest as eccentric: “Kids are asked to spell an obscure word they’ll never use again.” In 2008, the Bee’s winning word was “guerdon.”

In the Mills’ Kids’ Lit Quiz, youngsters are asked about children’s literature:

  • “Who stole vegetables in Mr. McGregor’s garden?”
  • “Who had a mother called Mrs. Coulter?”

[Answers: Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit and Phillip Pullman’s Lyra in “The Golden Compass”].

There’s an important difference there, Mills insists. To do well in the Spelling Bee, young Americans read a dictionary. To prepare for the Kids’ Lit Quiz, youngsters read hundreds of novels and literary works. The Spelling Bee is an affirmation of American individualism since it predictably features the triumph of a bespectacled autodidact. The Kids’ Lit Quiz, on the other hand, fosters teamwork since seventh and eighth graders form into reading groups of four that compete to get the best score by answering the 100 questions they are given.

“Born in 1965 . . . .” Buzz! “J.K. Rowling.”

In 2008, some 4000 kids earned places on teams from seven countries: China, New Zealand, South Africa, England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. By means of local rounds, followed by regionals and then nationals, eight teams were finally selected to travel (expense-paid) to the international competition in Oxford. Excitement was high. Cash awards were offered. At the heats, it was not unusual for team members to hammer their buzzer before Mills even completed a question: “Born in 1965 . . . .” Buzz! “J.K. Rowling.”

2008 marked a first. Previously, world champions have been all-girl or mixed teams. On July 10, an all-boy team from London’s Arnold House won the trophy. It was a special moment in Mills’ effort to use the Quiz to woo reluctant readers: “Their win was a powerful statement about boys and reading and in particular about how the combination of reading and competition appeals to boys. The competition brings boys out into the open and reaffirms for them that reading is cool.”

All-boy team from London’s Arnold House won the 2008 trophy in an international competition at Oxford.

That was the original thinking behind Mills’ creation of the Quiz in 1991. Talking with me in New Zealand, he said, “We live in a sports-mad country where achievement in school was only recognized on the playing field and at science fairs. There was nothing for our passionate young readers. The competitive side to the quiz was a real draw.”

Among those believing in Mills’ vision is writer Philip Pullman, who subsidized the 2006 and 2007 World Finals out of his own pocket. In 2008, corporate sponsors like Scholastic Books and Oxford University Press stepped up. Looking ahead, Mills hopes that twenty countries will be competing by 2020. The Land of the Spelling Bee, alas, has yet to field a team.

I met Wayne Mills when I traveled to New Zealand in 2008. An essay arising from the trip appears here: “New Zealand YA Novels.” Information on the Kids’ Lit Quiz can be found here:

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02. November 2016 by
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