The Kids Lit Quiz is a literary quiz aimed at 12-13 year olds. It rewards readers whilst challenging them through questions that range from basic to interpretative and expands their horizons culturally.
The above quote from a South African pupil sums up the depth of feeling towards this highly motivating, literature quiz. The Kids' Lit Quiz, known in South Africa (SA) as the Kalahari Kids Lit Quiz, was introduced to South Africa three years ago. The author had a brief sojourn in the United Kingdom (UK) and was fortunate enough to land a job running a high school library in the North of Yorkshire. She was attracted to a newspaper article that read "Readers win in Wayne's World". A regional heat of the quiz was to be held in Newcastle, in about a fortnight's time and having been informed that it was a general knowledge quiz on literature, she hurriedly entered a team. The excitement in the room was palpable with children from about 14 schools hanging on the words of the quizmaster, pitching their wits against each other to answer questions about literature ranging from the classics to comics to contemporary novels. The author asked Wayne Mills, the quizmaster, if he would consider coming to SA if sufficient prizes and teams could be gathered; he was very willing and the SA Kids' Lit Quiz was born. A year later, sponsorship from Kalahari.net was obtained and the quiz is now a viable concern.
Aimed at 10-13 year olds (in South Africa, pupils from grades 6 and 7),teams consist of four students who work together to answer wide-ranging literary questions. The teams are asked 100 questions in 10 categories, which vary from year to year. Contestants ponder questions from almost any genre including comics, poetry, nursery rhymes, classics and contemporary fiction, and questions may range from who said "Oh, dear! Oh, dear! I shall be too late!" to which novel begins, "In a hole in the ground lived...".
The Kids' Lit Quiz is the brainchild of Wayne Mills, senior lecturer in the Faculty of Education at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Mills calls the quiz the 'sport of reading' and he developed the quiz because he so often saw at school prize-giving, children who were good at sport being rewarded, but he seldom saw good readers being rewarded. Therefore in 1991 he commenced the quiz in Hamilton (at this time he was with the University of Waikato) to reward readers. In that first year 14 teams took part. Today it has grown into a hugely popular annual event spanning three continents.
Mills, who lectures on children's literature, phrases his questions carefully, ensuring that at a regional level, there are questions which are straight forward, whilst at a national level, the questions become more interpretative. At an international level, questions may include identifying a traditional tale by its moral, or identifying nursery rhymes by a description of their history and origin. He's very keen to ensure that his questions are 'organic'. By that term he means that a listener ought to feel inspired by the question to go and read the book particularly if it was one that the child was unaware of. For instance: In what book do we read about a nine year-old German boy slipping under the perimeter fence at Auschwitz to join a group of Jewish prisoners? If the listener hasn't read this book then (s)he is inspired or encouraged to read it. This often applies for the school librarian or the parent listening in the audience.
The quiz includes books in English by authors from many countries, thus exposing children to the international richness of reading. Mills is often asked why he, a Kiwi, is the one travelling the world asking the questions. "In my country about 130 kids' trade books are published annually. This compares for example, with 18,500 in the UK in 2005. Kiwi kids need to supplement their literary diets with books from all over the world hence my interest in international children's literature," Mills says.
The quiz has traditionally had about two thirds of the teams comprising of females. Over the last few years, the numbers of boys participating in New Zealand (NZ) has increased. In SA, the ratio of girls to boys has been fairly even. The first team to win in South Africa had three girls and one boy, although in 2005 an all girls' team won the SA finals and they went onto come second in the international finals. The world finalists that year were also an all girls' team.
Mills, a good male role model himself in a world of predominately female librarians, feels it is crucial for male authors to inspire boys who love to read and are often spurned by the 'jocks' in the class. In the NZ finals last year, David Hill, a male author, addressed the teams from all over NZ. He spoke of the fact that reading helps children express themselves and hopefully for boys, will assist them to solve differences with words instead of fists.
Every year an international dinner is hosted by the NZ sponsors - Paper Plus Ltd - where contestants gather informally, usually the night before the quiz, to talk about books and to listen to an after-dinner speaker. For many boys this will often be the first time they have ever seen so many avid boy readers, gathered in one room. One can almost sense the incredulity of the boys as they look around the room and feel that they are not alone. Because reading is a solitary activity one may feel isolated when in fact each of us is part of a worldwide network of readers. Throughout the three-course dinner one member from each of the teams is asked to talk about his or her best book for one minute. At this time one can hear a pin drop. Kids listen enraptured as peers share their all-time favourites. In 2006 the after dinner speaker was the world-renowned Margaret Mahy who won the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in April. She reminded the contestants that they were as creative as the authors when they interpreted the words on the page and imbued them with meaning.
After running the quiz for 16 years in NZ, Mills expanded it to the UK five years ago and now 211 schools take part over 15 regions. In NZ, 279 schools took part, which represented a 15% increase over the previous year. The regional finals are firmly fixed as events on the schools' literary calendars.
For SA, this is a hard act to follow. Resources in school and public libraries are often low and many schools do not have English as a first language. The quiz does not aim to solve these problems although Mills is very aware that these need attention. Like sport, whilst there is a need to train and build up poorly resourced areas, there needs to be a goal to work towards, some successful incentives and standards of excellence, lest mediocrity becomes the order of the day due to a sense of overwhelming need. The problems need to be tackled at both ends: literacy needs to be tackled as well as literary excellence aimed for. The UK expended enormous amounts of money into a curriculum programme that included a literacy and numeracy hour in every primary school. Recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development research has shown that the UK scores highly in technical reading skills, but a study produced by the National Foundation for Educational Research showed that actual enthusiasm for reading among young people was almost the lowest in the world (Armstrong, 2004).
Watching the children's enthusiasm during the quiz, one can see how such an incentive and the accolade of winning prizes, and the fun of teamwork, could change all that. Children work in teams of four and it is like watching the Mexican wave: heads come up, hear the question and then all four heads dive down as the members consult each other in hushed whispers. Answers are written down - ten per theme. While these are being marked, Mills walks around and asks spot questions for a 5 rand spot prize and asks parents and teachers a theme based question as well. He feels that in this way the kids see the teachers and parents involved and part of reading too.There have been occasional instances where no adult has been able to answer the adult question that he's posed yet one of the kids has. An example was when after the horse category Mills turned to the adults and asked them to supply the name of the horse in Nicholas Evans' book The Horse Whisperer. No adult was able to but there behind him was a twelve-year old girl fit to bust with the correct answer of Pilgrim.
In the UK, students are treated to authors visiting regional rounds and forming a team with their publishers to take on the kids. In 2006 in Oxford, for the first time ever, an authors' team lead by publisher David Fickling 'won' the Oxford regional heat. What a bonus this is for kids being able to meet the likes of Gillian Cross or the late Jan Mark and proving yourself against them. In South Africa, we have a long way to go for this to happen. The nature of our literature is changing and as more and more South African novels are published and become internationally known, so too may our authors be part of this process of enthusing young readers.
In June of each year, the winning national team is invited to NZ to take part in the World Final. [Editorial update, 2015: the World Final now takes place in a different country each year.] In June of 2005 the first South African team, from De La Salle Holy Cross College attended this final in Auckland. There had been forty teams in total taking place in SA the previous year. This was a small beginning, but one that will hopefully lead to increased growth in the next few years (in 2006, approximately 100 teams will take part in the quiz). They faced teams from NZ whose schools had participated for possibly over a decade, and a team from Oxford in the UK that had come up against fifteen other winning regional teams in that country. It would have been hard for the subtle knife to cut through the atmosphere of tension hovering over the stage in the ASB Auditorium at the Aotea Centre in Auckland.Tables of four children huddled together, to pitch their wits against each other. All these children would have imbibed literature for months prior to the world final because they love reading and because they were broadening their normal reading base, in an attempt to cover whatever topics the 'Wizard of Words' (Wayne Mills), (in SA we would call him the Sangoma of Stories) could conjure up.
The World Final is unlike the regional heats because teams are not asked to write their answers. Instead they respond by pushing a buzzer, which is accurate to within 1/10000th of a second. The questions at the final are answered orally and Mills peels each one like an onion. As clues for each question get progressively easier teams can interrupt whenever they wish. A correct response gains two points; an incorrect one loses one point.
In 2006, the South African national team from Springfield Convent came second in the world finals - a major achievement - and a team from Beijing competed for the first time. The desire for books in English coupled with fervour to speak English fuelled the fires for a Chinese team to compete in the World Final. That this team gained a credible seventh in their first year augurs well for the future.
SA children tend to be exposed to and read books from all over the world. However, while books from the UK, United States (USA), Australia, and so forth are available from major book dealers here, they do come at a price and often public libraries battle to keep abreast of new stock for financial reasons. It is to the credit of the SA teams that they have managed to compete successfully with international teams.
For the international finals in 2005, the NZ and UK team members had read as many SA books as they had been able to lay their hands on, thinking they would have lots of questions on South African books. In fact, Mills asked a great number of questions about authors and books from the USA. His reasoning was that this was neutral territory, as the USA does not yet participate in the quiz. However in 2006 his categories were diverse from settings, to myths and legends, to authors, to identifying characters, to comic books made into films and recognising opening chapters from novels.
After the finals, the contestants were part of the annual Storylines Festival in NZ, where they had a chance to meet famous NZ authors and to get their books signed. The offshoot of this was a sense of being stretched culturally. The students each brought back books from about five authors that they had never encountered in SA, but now had met. The Storylines Festival is the world's largest literary festival for children and spread out over five floors the choices and opportunities for kids are boundless.This free day is a literary feast or authors, illustrators and storytellers that attracts in excess of 25 000 people.
As part of their World Final prize package the international teams toured around the central North Island of New Zealand courtesy of Paper Plus NZ Ltd. Together for a week in a bus the international teams bond and form friendships because they have reading in common.
Up until now, the World Final has always been in New Zealand, but Mills is keen to have the final elsewhere from 2010. This will further cross-pollinate the reading habits of the children who have the privilege of attending the finals in different countries. These children, too, will have the chance to scour the bookshops in a foreign country and be exposed to new authors. In 2005 the Kids' Lit Quiz was launched in China. The quiz will take part in Northern Ireland in 2006 and there are moves to launch it in Canada, the USA and Australia.
As the status of the quiz is raised in the school, being chosen for the team becomes a sought after goal. There are pre-test questions, children borrow more books and librarians sense the excitement of the heats. In some schools, librarians start coaching pupils early by encouraging them to read widely, look back at old books, read and to re-read the classics, and so forth. In SA, teams are beginning to prepare for the quiz quite a bit ahead of time. In Cape Town for instance there is a school that holds regular Nib meetings (nose-in-books) where the children attend sessions to discuss and enthuse about books. Although the quiz is general knowledge and impossible to study for, pupils who have watched the quiz now pay more attention to opening lines of books, read more poetry, go back to old fairy tales and nursery rhymes and find out a bit more about their favourite authors.
For others, the sheer joy of reading is paramount and teams are chosen at short notice from children who read widely. Some librarians choose children who read different kinds of books as Mills includes questions from popular culture such as comics as much as he questions children on the classics.Visual literacy is also an important component of the quiz, and one category will invariably be a visual one - ranging from pictures of mythical beasts to publishers' logos or famous book characters.
For children who love reading, having this competitive focus is a wonderful way for their talents and knowledge to receive the spotlight, even if they read for pure enjoyment. Besides this it challenges them to be more attentive of characters, draws them into the world of the author whose books they have read and why the author wrote such stories. For children who are good readers but may be stuck within a particular genre, it entices them to read beyond this and in the process discover other worlds of literature that are as fulfilling or delighting. The fact that the Kids' Lit Quiz is becoming more international means that children are encouraged to look at authors from an increasing number of countries. This heightens children's sensitivities to people's issues around the globe and makes them better citizens of the world.
The excitement of the quiz provides a catalyst for librarians to be more proactive in their promotion of a wide range of literature and gives the classes they run more incentive to read. During the quiz, Mills will promote some literature that the children or librarians may not yet have encountered. This acts as a catalyst for further reading on a wider and deeper scale. The book prizes awarded in South Africa by Kalahari.net are usually 'hot off the press' meaning that kids are being exposed to the very latest in new titles.
The quote below from a school in New Zealand that reached the final in 2006, underscores the excitement felt by all who participate in this literary experience:
Armstrong, E. 2004. The Kids' Lit Quiz: a pub quiz without the beer. The School Librarian 52(2): page numbers 70-71.
Harper, J. 2001. The Kids' Lit Quiz. Magpies 16 (4).
Poplak, C. 2006. Fiction publishing in the 21st century. Books For Keeps 158 (May)
Mills, W. 2004. The sport of reading. Bookbird, A Journal of International Children's Literature 42(2).
West, E. 2004. The tsar of children's books. New Zealand Education Gazette 83(3).
Williams, E. 2003. Readers win in Wayne's World. Times Educational Supplement April 18.