Quiz whizzes top of the class

BY THE BOOK: Canberra Grammar struggling at the Auckland University final.
BY THE BOOK: Canberra Grammar struggling at the Auckland University final.

Reading books is still cool in the digital age.

"This author was born in New Jersey in 1966 ... That's enough for Katy White, who thumps the buzzer and answers (correctly) with the name of children's novelist Brian Selznick.

White also aces the next three questions, on Charles Dickens, Margaret Mahy and Gruffalo author Julie Donaldson. She's 12 years old and has the pigtails to prove it.

At the world final of the Kids' Lit Quiz – the remarkable product of an Auckland University professor's 21-year crusade to make reading cool – standards are high.

Against teams from South Africa, Canada, Australia, the US and Scotland, – including schools as exclusive as Edinburgh's $55,000-a-year George Watson's College – Katy and her team from the tiny Bay of Plenty town of Awakeri race 20 points ahead after round one.

They must traverse 10 rounds on famous authors, book titles, film adaptations, fictional machines, mythical objects, music and villains, with no limits on books covered and with long questions designed to start obscurely and become progressively easier. It doesn't always work that way.

"In a hole in the ground ..." Buzz. There's White again. "The Hobbit." Lit Quiz founder Professor Wayne Mills shakes his head. "I worked so hard to write that question."

Mills, who wears a bespoke black felt hat inscribed 'Quizmaster', launched the "pub quiz without beer" to give kids the chance to be lauded just as much for reading as for sporting prowess.

In 1991, 14 Hamilton schools took part. This year, a thousand schools in seven countries were involved, with Mills flying around the world to deliver the questions that take him months to compile (next year's topics are already planned). "I love it," he says. "I love it very much."

He's been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his efforts, and believes he's made an impact, based on a shift in the girl-boy ratio of entrants from around 66 per cent girls to nearer 50-50.

"Reading has been made cool. JK Rowling turned that around," he says. "But I see so few males who model reading, I am very aware of that in my role and position as quizmaster and literary expert."

Mills deliberately keeps questions broad and refuses to issue a reading list. The idea is to make children read widely and often.

"This is not a quiz for kids who can read, this is a quiz for kids who do read," he says.

It's all calculated: inter-round throwaway questions to the audience, on anything from Alice Walker to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, are designed to show the kids that their parents still read, and the hat is preferred to an academic gown to ensure a playful, rather than intellectually snobbish, image.

"Readers are leaders," he reckons. "These kids are going to be our future leaders, they have good general knowledge, they know how to express themselves, have good critical literacy, which a democracy needs, and that's what reading gives these kids. And if newspapers survive, these are your readers."

AWAKERI IS 15km outside Whakatane, on the confluence of State Highways 2 and 30. "It consists of a petrol station, a cafe and a takeaways ... it's a little dot," says schoolteacher Ann Petersen.

Its decile six school has 360 pupils. There's no uniform, so they had four blazers made for the final and borrowed ties from the local high school. There's a sense of satisfaction they defeated such bastions of privilege as St Cuthbert's and St Margaret's to get here.

"We're the little country school that came out and beat all the posh schools," says team member Jess Schuler.

Petersen learned of the quiz only three years ago when she attended a Reading for Boys course delivered by Mills. A nine-year-old Katy White was in her class and it sounded perfect for her. So the next year, they came fourth of 55 teams at the regional championship in Hamilton. "I went back to school on a high, and said `we could win this thing'," says Petersen.

They duly won the Bay of Plenty title in 2011, and did respectably at the nationals. That wasn't enough for Petersen and head teacher David Fitzgerald. He built the school their own set of buzzers to practise on, and she auditioned two-thirds of the eligible pupils before the top eight embarked on four hours a week of study.

They knew this year was their best chance. "We've still got Katy this year; this is her last year of primary school and she's a superstar. She is, you can tell."

She is. Next year, all four team members will be at high school, no longer able to compete. "Unless," grins Fitzgerald, "we hold them back and fail them so we can do it again."

Petersen was on a term's sabbatical to London when news reached her that Awakeri had won this year's national title. She returned early, arriving in Auckland on the eve of the final. "But isn't it worth it?" she beamed.

Awakeri are long past merely knowing author, title and main character names. They study a writer's themes, awards, biography and bibliography. They have assigned specialities, and cram Wikipedia summaries and Amazon page previews of the books they don't have time to read.

"Then you try to predict what Wayne might be thinking," says Petersen. They knew it was Dickens' 200-year anniversary and thus predicted that opening-round question.

"You read better stuff because of the competition," says Hannah van der Horst. "My mum when she was our age was reading Sweet Valley High. We don't read any of that." The other kids, says Katy, see them as a "bit nerdy, swotty". But, she says, some think it's quite cool they win money for reading.

AT THE halfway break, for tea, scones, and half-price books from the Whitcoulls store, the children are relaxed.

"We need to keep our lead and not do anything silly," says Hannah. "If anyone knows the answer, they have to be confident." Katy interjects: "Because none of us are very shy."

The South Africans begin to eat steadily into New Zealand's lead, but not quickly enough, and as the final round begins, there'a nine-point margin. South Africa need to claim every answer to win. They get the first two. The Scots get the third, and the Awakeri parents erupt; the girls look bemused (and later admit they didn't realise that meant they'd already won). The trophy is handed over to Fitzgerald, who grasps it and waves it high.

"I am pretty overwhelmed, we are such a small school and it is such a big thing," says Schuler, who looks anything but overwhelmed. Instead, she's calculating whether the $400 prize money will extend to an iPad and horse-riding lessons.

"We were laughing at all the teachers' reactions, all the teachers crying." The audience seemed more stressed than the students. "They normally are stressed," she says witheringly. "They are adults."


Sample questions (but remember, they were much harder in the final):

1. If a trilogy means three novels, what is the word for four related books?

2. What type of powder was used by wizards to travel using fireplaces?

3. What boy discovered that he was the modern-day son of the Greek god Poseidon?

4. Who was the tortured vampire who knew he shouldn't love a human girl?

5. Who popped down a large rabbit hole under a hedge in 1865?

6. What mouse featured in a story about a princess, some soup and a spool of thread?

7. Who had two nasty aunts called Spiker and Sponge?

8. What does this abbreviation mean when applied to children's literature: YA?

9. What author was awarded the first ever posthumous Carnegie Medal in 2009 for her novel Bog Child?

10. A modern-day classic book is The Cay by Theodore Taylor. What is a cay?

11. What was Sinbad's occupation?

12. The Nac Mac Feegles are small fairy folk covered with tattoos. They are better known as what men in Terry Pratchett's novels?

Answers: 1. Quartet; 2. Floo; 3. Percy Jackson; 4. Edward; 5. Alice; 6. Despereaux; 7. James (from James and the Giant Peach); 8. Young Adult; 9. Siobhan Dowd; 10. A small island; 11. Sailor; 12. Wee Free Men.

Sunday Star Times