Behind the scenes at the International Kids' Lit Quiz
Harry Hampton is 11. His favourite subjects are English and maths. He will, without much prompting, reveal that "I can spell the longest word to appear in a major dictionary for you", though when his mother tried to sign him up for the Spelling Bee they were told that he was too young. He speaks slowly, and with such careful, precise, articulation you can hear the semicolons and Oxford commas.
He likes to read – a lot."Instead of playing on the computer, for example, I read. When I want something to do? I read. If have some spare time? I read!"
He'll reach for his book while on the ferry across Wellington Harbour to school; he reads a bit more at school, and a couple of hours more again after school ("I really like my evening reading session!"), plus weekends, and in the holidays. He is loath to name a single favourite book, but he recently read Holes by Louis Sachar in a single sitting, "and I'm rather fond of the Sherlock Holmes stories".
All of which precocity and focus made him nothing special at all when, late last month, he spent half a week in the company of 31 other monumentally well-read 11- to 14-year-olds from around the world, who'd gathered in Auckland for the 2016 final of the annual international Kids' Lit Quiz.
Nearly 2000 teams entered, and these were the last kids standing – eight teams of four, each of which had won a national final. They had come from Connecticut and Glasgow, Toronto and Singapore, Johannesburg and Hong Kong, New South Wales and Wellington, and they were all too pumped up with crammed facts and adrenalin to remember that they should, mostly, have been suffering from jetlag.
Thirty-odd clever kids, plus assorted national quiz conveners, teachers, proud parents and the occasional sibling along for the ride, bunking together in a central Auckland youth hostel, dining together at Merge café in Mt Eden, sightseeing together, swotting together, then crowding onto the stage at the Aotea Centre for a world-title clash. This could, perhaps, all get a bit Hunger Games.
They were smart kids. They were privileged kids – only the US team was from a free public school, and the annual fees at the other seven averaged $20,000. They were braces-laden and in many cases bespectacled. They were quirky, surprising and mostly charming. They were at the tender age – 11, 12, 13, 14 – where you haven't yet had the stuffing knocked out of you; the age where as a brainy kid you might notice that you know longer words than most of the adults you meet, but haven't yet realised it might be socially prudent not to use them. They were at the age where you slide down a banister without thinking twice, and pack a soft toy when travelling but don't let anyone see it.
Their favourite authors were JK Rowling or Suzanne Collins or JRR Tolkien, but also Agatha Christie, Jane Austen, Harper Lee. They thought they might be lawyers or doctors or politicians or authors when they grew up. Or, in Harry's case, something involving planes. "I like the idea of flying," he said. "Drawing aeroplanes; designing aeroplanes; writing about aeroplanes. I know lots of facts about aeroplanes."
Harry and his team-mates – Tom Adams and twins William and Archie Chandler – were from Wellesley College, a private Year 1 to 8 boys' school. When the school set a test to find the most promising competitors, Harry got the highest score, so he really should have been team captain, but he was 11 years old and in Year 7, while the others were in Year 8 and unwilling to cede status, so there was no captain this year.
The world final was on a Friday. The competitors' planes landed on the Tuesday, leaving time for de-jetlagging, eyeing up the competition and a little light tourism: Kelly Tarlton's for the fluffy penguin chicks and stingrays; Crystal Mountain; a night at the ATC production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time; an afternoon tour of the night sky at the Cornwall Park Stardome; a visit to Takapuna Normal Intermediate School (the 2013 New Zealand finalist) to see what a New Zealand state school looked like. In the few remaining moments, last-minute cramming of book-related trivia and some brief interviews.
Disappointingly, if tooth-and-claw rivalry was at play, it was well hidden. Rather than The Hunger Games, said Carlos Seade-Cabrera of Hong Kong, it felt more like inhabiting the pages of Diary of a Wimpy Kid. "We've all gone a bit Matilda with all the books we've been reading," said Hannah Ord, from the UK.
Without a captain, said William from Wellington, their team was practically a communist society, so you could say it was a bit like Animal Farm.
Or, said Erin Chan, from Singapore, Mr Lemoncello's Library, which is about a bunch of kids who are trapped in a library and have to solve puzzles to escape. Or, said Australia's Lila Pearce, the Triwizard Tournament in Harry Potter, because they were all friends but still competing. "We've been sharing notes on the bus even though it's a competition," said South Africa's James Hoole. "We're making friends. You forget about the quiz."
This was possibly not what Kids' Lit Quiz founder and quizmaster Wayne Mills had in mind. When the now-retired education lecturer got the ball rolling in Hamilton in 1991 with just one country and 14 teams, the idea was to encourage readers in the same way you reward budding rugby players or netballers – let the best of them compete and make a big fuss of whoever wins. It's grown since then, and is now bolstered by sponsorship from Whitcoulls, the philanthropic Wright Family Foundation and others.
The global spread hasn't always been smooth. There was the time in Napier where a parent was caught standing outside signalling answers to his child. In 2011 Mills flew around the world to preside over Hong Kong's first national final only to discover, as quizzing hour approached, that the local convener had suffered some sort of breakdown and for months had been fabricating names and results from imaginary pre-final heats. Hong Kong rejoined with the help of another convener in 2013 and has been competing ever since.
The teams' preparations, on top of a lifetime of compulsive reading, were heroic. They lugged around fat ring-binders of writer biographies and plot summaries. They had printouts and dog-eared sheafs of cryptic notes.
Madeleine Levesque, 13, from Connecticut's Sedgwick Middle School, reckoned the toughest book she'd read in preparation was Moby Dick.
Really? Did you get all the way through it?"I tried."
South Africa's Ydhan Naidoo, 12, had recently abandoned actual books in favour of the 704-page Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, which he'd got through twice. It was, he said, "a very big book".
Reading is relaxing, said Ydhan. Also, "it's very interactive, very engaging. It's a great kind of hobby. To play basketball you need a ball and a basket, you need a court, and you hope it isn't raining. But to read you just need a book. I read anywhere. I've read on bridges, in cars. In helicopters even."
He was a serious child of sober views. He suggested that the book that captured the essence of the quiz was All Quiet on the Western Front. He said since arriving he'd found New Zealand to be "a very world-class country. Very eclectic. Very modern. Very nice."
His team, all boys, pondered which fictional character they most closely related to."Greg Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid," said Khelan Desai.
"Hmm," said Ydhan. "Someone who's a genius."
"Spock!" suggested James.
"No," said Ydhan, "I don't relate to being Spock."
Outside the Stardome projection room, Canada's Cate Balasubramanian mentioned that she knew how to navigate using the stars and a sextant. A few years ago her family took the year off to sail to the Caribbean and she was home-schooled. When she came back she was so far ahead of her grade she switched schools.
Cate said she'd been practising with the 300 flashcards she'd made of opening lines. For the plane journey she'd filled her Kobo with Wikipedia articles about authors. Since arriving she'd been FaceTiming a friend at home who was asking her mock questions. Her teammates Jerry Hu, Cameron Miranda-Radbord and David Kanter-Eivin, meanwhile, were binge-watching an anime series. They didn't expect this to be of any benefit during the quiz.
The four of them had a lovely teasing rapport. Cate reckoned the autistic character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time reminded her of Cameron, "because the kid was really awkward."
Jerry said during quizzes Cameron and Cate always reckoned they knew the answer while David would be the voice of reason, whispering "Don't be trigger happy!" and he, Jerry, would just sit quietly, ignoring the fuss and trying to find the answer.
Cate wanted to be marine biologist; Jerry was interested in law; David said he liked the look of medicine. Cameron was interested in politics, which started an argument about the relative merits of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Taking part in the quiz, said Cameron, was like being in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: "You have all of your interesting comrades going in, there are so many good things inside, but you're kind of freaked out."
By Friday afternoon, during a photocall in Aotea Square, the parents and teachers were looking anxious enough, but the competitors were still skipping up and down the theatre steps, throttling each other and generally yahooing.
By evening, though, back from dinner and dressed for battle, mostly in the blazers-and-tie signifiers of posh education, they finally looked serious. And by the time the MC had summoned the teams on stage and cracked some jokes about their schools' alumni (Winston Churchill, Jock Hobbs, some Nobel prizewinners, a famous Singaporean magician and the actor who played Harry Potter's love interest Cho Chang) the tension was real.
It was, essentially, a really hard 10-round pub quiz with buzzers, only all 10 rounds were literary categories such as author names, opening lines, female comic characters, graphic novels, movie adaptations and Hans Christian Andersen folk tales. Mills' painstakingly crafted questions each started impossibly hard but progressively added clues until a team felt brave enough to buzz in. A correct answer earned two points; a wrong answer lost one.
The South African boys stacked their buzzer hands in a single, democratic tower; the Canadians hovered in anarchic mid-air holding patterns; the Kiwi boys rested a proprietary finger each on the buzzer base. Whenever someone was confident or reckless enough to press it, a loud electronic trill sounded, just like the noise triggered when you walk through the door of a dairy.
Mills was five words into the very first clue – "This author is 100 years old …" – when the UK team buzzed in. Roald Dahl was the wrong answer so they lost a point. Mills continued until South Africa buzzed in and answered.
"Yes!" roared Mills. "Beverly Cleary."
From there it was a blur of questions and buzzes and tentative answers into the stage assistant's roving mic: Charles Dickens and Batgirl; The Tinder Box and Lassie; Matilda and The Borrowers and Baba Yaga. Mostly, the contestants sat tense and silent, though there were outbreaks of panicked whispering and hand-wringing, of air-punching and high-fives and, at times, hanging heads and welling tears.
There was controversy when Mills thought Hong Kong had correctly answered "The Emperor's New Clothes" when in fact they'd said "The Emperor's New Groove", but then the adjudicator crept on stage and whispered in his ear and the murmurs of polite outrage from the audience subsided as Mills spiked the question and asked a backup.
The lead jumped around, but by half-time it was clear the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa were the top contenders. Out in the lobby Hong Kong's teachers urged their team to fight to the end, and the Australian coach handed round performance-enhancing Starburst lollies. And then, in the end, it all came down to the final question.
The Wellington boys began round 10 with a comfortable five-point lead – two-and-a-half questions' worth – over the UK girls. Australia and South Africa were tied three points behind that. But the category was poets, and the Kiwis clearly knew squat about poetry.
"Shel Silverstein," said Canada.
"Christina Rossetti," said the UK.
"Robert Burns," said the UK just a few words into the question (though it would have been a bit embarrassing for the Glasgow schoolgirls if they hadn't).
Singapore got Edward Lear. America got Emily Dickinson. Australia got AA Milne.
Final question. If the UK got it, they'd overtake New Zealand. The Wellington boys looked skyward. The audience held its breath.
"This widely read man," said Mills, "was a gifted comic poet."
No one buzzed.
"His books for children often included songs and poetry, but he did write three books in the 1980s devoted to poetry."
No one buzzed.
"All three books of poetry were based on well-known nursery rhymes such as Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella and they were meant to be read aloud."
No one buzzed.
"These poems were wacky, darkly …"
The dairy-door warble rang out, then a long hush as the microphone was carried to Singapore's table. They gave an answer. Mills roared. The audience roared. The Wellington boys breathed for the first time in five minutes, and then roared. The answer was Roald Dahl, which meant two points for Singapore and none for the UK, and thus a one-point victory for New Zealand. Australia came third, and Canada was just one point behind them.
After the speeches and trophies half of the audience rushed the stage to congratulate, hug or ruffle the hair of the competitors.
"Just one point!" said an upset Cate from Canada. "One point!"
"I just can't even...," said Lila from Australia, as the mixed blessing of losing to New Zealand but still making the top three sunk in.
"I was scared as in that last round," said Tom from Wellington. "We had no idea about poetry."
"I'm really pleased!" said his teammate Harry, then quickly added: "But it could have been anyone really. It was so close."
Harry had a grin almost too wide for his face. He looked even more delighted than when he'd successfully spelt out the longest word to appear in a major dictionary, which is, of course, pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.
* This article was corrected on September 20 2016. The participating Singapore school was in fact public, not private.