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Confessions of a (Failed) Battle of the Books Coach

Dear Reader,

I have a confession to make: I am a failed Battle of the Books coach. And I am in need of your help.

It started out with good intentions, as many things do.

In the empty days that follow the end of the school year, when our minds and sleeping schedules were still in school mode, I was eager to do something to counteract the inevitable video-game-fueled summer slump. So I signed up to coach a Battle of the Books team at my local library.

In my community, Battle of the Books (or BoB) is a book-related trivia contest hosted by the public library. Rising fourth- to sixth graders usually form their own teams of five to ten friends and read from a list of about nine books. Librarians select books for each grade level that will have a wide thematic appeal and represent a variety of reading levels and genres. (See our book list below.)

It’s an entertaining way to ensure that kids keep reading over the summer.

My team consisted of my son and six of his fourth grade friends—all boys. I’ve been teaching college-level English for over a decade, and I thought: how hard could this coaching thing be? I quickly learned, however, that coaching BoB was going to be much more of a challenge than I imagined.

For starters, some of the team members (including my son) were under the impression that the Battle was a literal one. During our first meeting, boys grabbed copies of the books, struck menacing warrior poses, and proceeded to hit one another with the books, proclaiming, “Let the battle begin!

“Boys! It’s not that kind of battle,” I shrieked. I could see the disappointment in some faces.

Our first order of business was making sure that each of the nine books had at least one reader. I assumed that most of the kids would have the same nerdy desire to read all nine books. In reality, no one wanted to read more than one or two books.

Our second order of business was choosing a team name. This part was fun. The kids settled on “The Reading Joes.” A team member’s mother, who has an embroidery machine, made shirts with the team named embroidered on the front.

Things were starting to look up for The Reading Joes. We were going to look fab in our matching shirts, but did we know our stuff?

Having such minimal coverage of our book list made our meetings lack cohesion. For example, there was no group discussion of a single book because everybody was reading different books from the master list.

To make matters worse, the person derailing my best efforts was none other than my own son. Maybe because his mama was in charge, he felt free to crack jokes and goof off while we were trying to prepare for the Battle.

How bad was it that I wanted to kick my own son off the team?

* * * * *

Despite these challenges, it wasn’t all bad. Parents enthused about how great it was to see their son read over the summer. My son not only dove into a novel longer than anything he had ever read before, but he read books with girls on the cover! And he enjoyed them. This alone was a huge accomplishment.

At the Battle, the librarian announced that that unless you were “swinging from the rafters” crazy, this event was going to be fun.

The Reading Joes, with their matching blue shirts, gathered around a rectangular table that had a red button in the center for the team to buzz in and answer questions.

Whose idea was this? A group of fourth grade boys and a red button that made sounds? We were doomed. Eager hands repeatedly grabbed for it, fighting to claim ownership.

Buzz! went The Reading Joes’ button. My Reading Joes would hear a question about a book they read and buzz in, thinking, hey, I read that book! without stopping to consider whether or not they actually knew the answer.

Will it surprise you that some of The Reading Joes were practically “swinging from the rafters”? The problem is, it’s hard to dial down the energy once it gets ramped up.

Reader, we lost. We came in last place out of six teams. The sad thing is that each child read the books he was assigned. It was just the moment (and that blasted buzzer!) that made it too exciting to think clearly.

After the Battle, a mother consoled me by saying that for these suburban middle-class kids who get trophies for just showing effort, losing might be a good lesson. “Next time, they’ll know they need to take this more seriously. Read more carefully. Put in more effort.”

I am committed to the idea of an all-boy team and have been asked by parents if I will coach another team this summer, but I am desperate for advice on how I can make this work better. What suggestions do you have for organizing productive and fun team meetings at this age level? What, in particular, would work for dealing with boys? And how on earth does a parent deal with an unruly child, especially if that child is her own?

Yours Truly,

A (Failed) Battle of the Books Coach

Our Battle of the Books reading list

Benson, Kathleen, and Benny Andrews. Draw What You See: The Life and Art of Benny Andrews. (Clarion, 2015)

Chilton, Andrew S., The Goblin’s Puzzle: Being the Adventures of a Boy with No Name and Two Girls Called Alice. (Knopf, 2016)

Davis, Kathryn Gibbs, and Gilbert Ford. Mr. Ferris and His Wheel. (Houghton, 2014)

Fern, Tracey, and Boris Kulikov. W Is for Webster: Noah Webster and His American Dictionary. (Farrar, 2015)

Hannigan, Kate. The Detective’s Assistant. (Little, Brown, 2015)

Jones, Kelly, and Katie Kath. Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer. (Knopf, 2015)

Nilsson, Ulf, and Gitte Spee. Detective Gordon: The First Case. (Gecko Press, 2015)

Torres, J., and Faith Erin Hicks. Bigfoot Boy: Into the Woods. (Kids Can Press, 2012)

Vernick, Audrey, and Steven Salerno. The Kid from Diamond Street: The Extraordinary Story of Baseball Legend Edith Haughton. (Clarion, 2016)


Julie Hakim Azzam About Julie Hakim Azzam

Julie Hakim Azzam teaches in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh. While her academic specialization is on literature from Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, she has a passion for children’s literature and has been interviewing children’s authors for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for many years.



  1. I’m gonna be honest here: I used to assist my library with putting on Battle of the Books but there were things I didn’t like about the rules and the way there was so much work put in by the kids all year, only to get eliminated on the day of the battle and that’s that. When I changed libraries, I created my own program called Lucha Libros. (It’s bilingual too.) Learn more at

  2. It’s hard if you don’t have the kids read multiple books, because then they can’t partner to ask each other questions. You definitely need more “coverage” on each title. My kids loved creating quizzes on Kahoot (website) for each other (or even just finding already existing ones for our books) and playing them at meetings. Sure, our meetings were boisterous. There was trash talking and shouting and popcorn dropped on the floor (snacks were a must). But the kids loved competing and were quite productive!

  3. Julie Azzam says:

    I agree, Alicia! I’m thinking of making certain titles “mandatory reads” for everybody. Then they can choose a few “electives” from the list. I will have to check out Kahoot for making quizzes. Anything to bring technology in at this age is, I think, a bonus. AnnMarie, your program sounds great! I love the idea of an ongoing “battle” with the focus on a single title. Thanks for reading!

  4. Katie Bircher Katie Bircher says:

    LUCHA LIBROS! I love it! (And the fact that it’s bilingual!)

  5. I’m thinking you need your own buzzer to use during practices. Desensitization may be the key. : )

  6. As a participant of the Battle of the Books competition, we regularly hold practice meetings (every week), and we are expected to read all twenty books in our free time. The format is slightly different, where each school up against each other takes turns answering, with the school sending a team to participate. There are 20 seconds to discuss before answering.
    I believe the main problem here is the lack of motivation.
    To encourage people, we often had challenges like the “Bean Boozled Challenge”, where if we answered a question wrongly, we had to eat a jelly bean and hoped it tasted good, or maybe treating the winning team in practice matches with snacks and the other team without. When we got all the questions correct, we celebrated with pizza.
    Of course, our team had 20 people so we often went against each other for more practice.
    Hope this helps!

  7. In Oregon’s battle of the books there are clear rules that teams have to follow and no buzzers! Questions are asked to one team at a time. That team has 15 seconds to quietly discuss and only their spokesperson can speak to answer. If they don’t know the answer or get it wrong, the other team gets 15 seconds to take a crack at it. You might want to share Oregon’s BOB handbook (available online) with your library to consider a similar format!

    If you are stuck with the same format, how about practicing battles with a buzzer at home until the boys understand the format and how they should conduct themselves in the real battle?

    In our OBOB club we ask every team member to read four (of the sixteen) books but then we give incentives for reading more. The prizes are small but it definitely motivates the kids. What about offering something for your boys as a little prize for each additional book they read? We also offer a “grand prize” to students who read all 16 books. Last year half our kids read all 16! The grand prize? A copy of their favorite OBOB book and a book light from the dollar tree! Small incentives work wonders.

    Good luck! It’s great that the boys in your group are reading. I’ll be they will be motivated to do even better the next time around, now that they have experienced it.

  8. Great Article! I loved reading it because I too have son on a all male team so I know what it’s like attempt to coral boy energy to focus on academics. First let me say that it sounds like you were a great coach and the boys were lucky to have you! I agree with the person that told you that it’s good that they lost because they need to realize to take it more seriously and if boys on your team sign up next year, they know the expectations. I think Battle of the Books is a fantastic program and I love hearing about teams that get really into it.

    But having said that, OBOB has been a dark cloud hanging over this family because it’s a daily struggle to get my son to read the books. It’s an activity he has to do, not something he wants to do & I have to force him to do because he has an obligation to his team mates.

    In Oregon, the division is for 3-5 graders and my son is in 3rd grade. I was so excited the day he came home and said he’s on an OBOB team even though he’s not into reading (would rather play sports and with his friends) and he needs to improve on his reading skills. I thought this program would motivate him to read and improve his skills. It’s had the opposite effect because the books chosen this year are advanced books for his reading level, (most of the books are for 5 grade & up) and the books don’t hold his interest. He was so caught up on being asked to be on a team that he didn’t stop and think the work that would be involved. I think this is the case for most 3rd grade boys – it’s about being picked and on a team than doing the actual work. Things started to go down hill when we started reading the 1st book that didn’t hold his interest and he didn’t want to read it. That’s when the true battle began – getting my child to read a OBOB book. Every day I would say we have to read 2-3 chapters and every day he would whine about it – “Why did I sign up?, I hate OBOB!, I’m not doing this again this year!” I don’t want to let his teammates down and that’s why I force him to read every night but my husband says we should just quit because he’s not retaining any of the book content. My husband’s opinion is that the books are too advanced and it’s a waste of time for our son.

    I’m hoping he doesn’t sign up next year because it’s had a negative effect on his reading. This has been a valuable lessen for my son about signing up for activities and knowing what the expectations are. Next year I told him, if he wants to sign up, its his responsibility – no more hand holding from mom!

  9. It is interesting to read the different experiences from the various types of BOB programs around the country. Here in NC we have a similar BOB format to Oregon. Each elementary school fields a team of up to twelve 4th and 5th grade students. We get the new list of 15 books in April, share it with anyone who thinks they might be interested and seriously encourage all of them to read as many of the books on the list as possible over the summer break.

    When the students return in August we start talking to the students about the program and hold our first meeting in September with their parents in attendance. We do this not only so that the parents can be part of the process from the beginning but also so they can be made aware of the very large commitment trying out for the team is. We generally begin the “year” with around 12-18 students.

    We make sure students understand, way back when we talk to them in April and again in September, that every student is responsible for reading every single book. We also ensure they understand that we can make cuts to the team at any point and definitely have to cut the team down to 12 or less by mid-December when our rosters are due. There are some schools in our region who allow every student who wants to be on the team, to be on the team. We don’t. You have to prove you want to be on it through your hard work, quiz scores, practice behavior, and book knowledge. We generally end up with between 6 and 12 students. We typically win our District Battle and many years also win our Regional Battle.

    Like Alicia, we use Kahoots for practice. We send Coach-made Kahoots to the kids a few times per week and we encourage the kids to make their own as well. We also practice one afternoon per week starting in late September and our District Battle (where we battle other schools in our District) is held in March. The teams that win their District Battles go to a much larger, all day Regional Battle. That is a lot of fun for everyone.

    We also try and Skype battle with teams outside of our District who are using the same books we are that year once or twice during the season, for practice. In addition, we team up with our local library each year to try and provide some sort of Author Experience for the students; a meet-greet, a book reading, a Skype session, etc. If we have time during the season we will also hold a Mock Battle at our school. This is a great recruiting tool for the following years team!

    The way our “Battles” work is similar to the way described above but very different from what you experienced Julie. We don’t have buzzers and don’t have all of the children in the same room answering the same questions at the same time. I can see the benefit of that but I can also see how some teams would end up very chaotic or thrive on the chaos. It would take some strong hands, and voices, to keep that under control, ha ha.

    We have teams meet head-to-head in a round robin format. They end up playing every other team once (District Battle) or twice (Regional Battle). Each team can have up to six members or as few as one. Each round consists of twelve questions, each team gets asked six of them.

    Each team has 20 seconds to answer the question. If you answer correctly, naming the title of the book AND the Author, you receive 3 points. If you miss it then your opponent gets a chance at the “rebound”; 10 seconds for 2 points having only to name the Title of the book. These “steals” usually determine the outcome of matches and can make for exciting games.

    As far as what can you do Julie to increase success? I think, as others have said, you need to find a way to help the boys, or whomever joins, understand that being on the team is special. Maybe things like waiting to give them a shirt until you are closer to the competition and showing it as something to be earned not simply given to anyone. One thing we do in the first few months is take 15 minutes out of each practice and work on team-building or leadership. You can do this with the hundreds of games/exercise on the Internet. We have a snack at the beginning of each practice tied in to that weeks book, we ask the kids to pick next weeks snack. Mostly we promote a love of reading.

    I think you do need to require everyone to read all of the books though. Our kids don’t seem to have a problem reading 200-300 pages per week. That is usually one book per week. That allows us to discuss the same book the next week, together! We dissect it, tear it apart, characters, plot, Author motivation, etc. if they understand the book they will remember it better. I know it sounds like work but when they win, boy, they surely do love it. They have to walk by those previous trophies every week in practice. They learn what it takes when we bring past participants in to talk with them.

    You can’t force them to read. You will end up with less students probably in the end but typically the ones that are left all want to work, want to have fun reading, and want to help their teammates achieve their goals.

    Feel free to contact me if I can be of any help. We have been doing this for decades now. Love it!

  10. Susan Coleman says:

    I’m a teacher (and a parent of kids who participated inOBOB)… and I have mixed feelings about Battle of the Books. I understand it’s a motivational program, but I worry that it emphasizes surface level recall of trivia rather than encouraging a deeper engagement with a text. I also worry that the students who end up “winning” are in general the more high achieving students.

    Just another perspective!

  11. I’m with Keith. We’re lso NC Region one, and our school at district level has never gotten less than silver, The past three years we have advanced to Regionals. We are a small elementary on Hatteras Island with 300 students, 2 classes at each grade level . We let the kids choose their own teams, then compete in February .

    I believe the key to our success is that we have 70-80 kids reading June through February, and yes, they do read all the books. When you have 75 kids from four classes, you get all kinds of kids; not just the gifted kids. That was my problem with the program when i was on the State Board to organize and plan. To get kids reading you can have read alouds, Literature circles, friends working with friends.

    We haven’t selected our final team this year because 4 kids tied . for the position! A nice problem to have. All in all, we make the excitement at the SCHOOL level, and get quieter when the team of 12 is selected. But they are all very much a part of the battle when that team steps off the bus with the District or Regional trophy! Good luck to all!

  12. Katie Millar says:

    Keith I am starting this in my school and would like to get more information from you. Please let me know how to best contact you.

  13. Katie;
    Fantastic! You can email me and I would be happy to share what we have learned.

    We won district again this year, our kids didn’t miss one question or redirect the entire competition. However, it gets tighter and tougher every year. All of the teams were great this year.

    We placed 3rd in regionals, missed 2 Questions, 2 re-directs. First place team beat us by 5 points. We beat them by 2 points last year I believe. Great competition, all of the children work so hard. We make sure every team-member gets to play multiple times.

  14. Keith Orsini says:


    That email didn’t type correctly and I didn’t notice it until now. I apologize.

    My email is keeths at

    For some reason it wouldn’t copy the address with the @ sign after Keeths but I think you can figure out how to put it together 😉

    Feel free to pick my brain. How exciting that you will be starting a whole new program!

    Where in NC is your school located? I am hoping to do some traveling during the upcoming year to various schools to meet with coaches regarding their BOB programs, all across NC. Share some knowledge, learn some new things, help children have some fun!

  15. Ashley Karkkainen says:

    I do scaled down version of BOB in my 6th grade classroom. I used Kahoot to make the questions, play in team mode, and the kids have to read the question and have time to discuss it before the “buzzer” is available for pushing. I’ve had great success with that. I also make all the teams use a number team name, after each round and teams are eliminated, the teams that go on keep their numerical team name, and those that are no longer in the running for the championship title can still play but with a new name so I know who is “in” and who is just playing for fun. The students all seem to like continuing play.

  16. HI! I was wondering where you got the questions for the books? Thanks!

  17. Julie Azzam says:

    Hi Jane- The questions came from the participants. Librarians distributed question forms to each Battle of the Books coaches, with the intention that the kids would write a few questions for each book they read. They collected all questions a few days before the battle and used those questions to seed the competition. It was amazing to see the kids come up with questions, and to work with them on writing questions that would not be too hard or too easy, but doable for the contest.

  18. This post and all these comments are super helpful. I’m in Canada and my daughter just transferred from a private school that participated in Battle of the Books run by the private school board to a public school in a city that doesn’t do BoB, so I’ve partnered with the school librarian to bring BoB to the school and I’m hoping to grow it to the surrounding schools and the local libraries. Ambitious, I know, but BoB was so much fun and such a great way to inspire kids to read and absorb stories that I just have to try to get it off the ground at the school we’re at now. My son will be going there in three years, so I’ll have a few years to work out the kinks. 🙂 Keith Orsini, may I contact you directly? You’ve provided great detail here, but I have a few questions.

  19. A few tips you may find helpful:
    – Set expectations that each kid will read 2-3 books but clue them in that they will do better as a team if they read more than that.
    – Have snacks and do games to burn off energy at the beginning of practices esp, for boys
    – Have matching games like book with author or book with main character or book with setting so that they all learn key facts about all the books
    – Ask kids or their parents to write questions themselves about the books. As you get closer to battle quiz each. Try to set up scrimmage games with other teams.
    – Practice with buzzer! Practice team behavior like if you haven’t read that book, lean back.
    – Celebrate when all kids have read first book. Have them share the story and key details with the group. Celebrate again when team has read all the titles. Celebrate when you have at least two kids that have read every book. How to celebrate? Candy, certificates, little toys, mini confetti.
    – Don’t make them read a book they don’t want to. Let them “trade it in” for another choice on the list. If no one wants to read a book, then just read it yourself as coach and prep them with what it is about and create question. Incentivize them to read less popular books with a special prize (candy bar, water bottle, small toy).
    – Remember that the goal of the program is to have fun with reading…so have fun with reading!! If there is a movie connected with the book! Have pizza! Make a costume! Have a slogan! Most teams don’t win so how will you handle that day like an awesome coach would?

  20. My wife and I are both Battle of the Books coaches in North Carolina; she’s coaches at the middle school level and I coach at the elementary level. Back in 2012, we started a support program via a website at There you’ll find thousands of questions that automatically generate into quizzes and games that motivate kids to read, discuss, and most importantly have fun and encourage voracious reading. Keith Orsini has worked with us and we’ve even battled online via our multiplayer battle platform on (Sadly, for us, his team creamed us.) Battle of the Books is a great motivational reading incentive program, but writing all the questions is quite labor intensive. For this reason, we created and believe that is makes the whole experience more enjoyable for all. We have over 300 books to choose from now and are overjoyed to have thousands of subscribers. See how it works at our YouTube channel. We’d love to support your BOB program. Contact us at Thanks so much to all the coaches that help to spread the love of reading.

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