In what book do a group of boys with a meat hook chase the main character?

Give up? It’s “Falconmaster” by Robin “R. L.” LaFevers, who was guest author at the Santa Barbara County Education Office’s “Battle of the Books.” Held on April 21, more than 200 fourth through sixth grade students from public schools all over the county participated in this contest of book knowledge.

Preparation started a year earlier with the distribution of a list of 30 books. Catering to a diversity of interests, the 2006 Booklist ranged in difficulty from Jan Brett’s illustrated book, “Town Mouse, Country Mouse,” to “A Wrinkle in Time,” Madeleine L’Engle’s 1963 Newbery Medal Winner. In between were books off the “Who’s Who” list like “Dear Mr. Henshaw” (Beverly Cleary), “James and the Giant Peach” (Roald Dahl), “Harriet the Spy” (Louise Fitzhugh), and “The Fledgling” (Jane Langton). Newer hits included Kate DiCamillo’s “Because of Winn Dixie” and Gail Carson Levine’s retake on Cinderella – “Ella Enchanted.”

Also on the list was a book selected by “Battle of the Books” 2005 participants – “Hoot” by Carl Hiaasen. In this story, three middle-school-aged youth manage to thwart a shady developer’s attempt to destroy a burrowing owl’s habitat, and learn the better ways to respond to social injustices.

Students competed at their schools in tests or school-wide “battles” for an opportunity to be on the five-member representative team. The Instructional Media Services staff, which organized the event, then assigned each student to a six-member team, with a balanced combination of ability and expertise (number of books read), and mixing of students from different schools. This reorganization of teams ensures that the focus of this competition is on teamwork, having fun and meeting other students with a similar interest – reading.

Let the Games Begin

To this end, the first activity for each team was to create a team name and design a shield. Aluminum pizza pans with paper circles on the back served as the basis for the shields.

Then the rules were discussed:

1. Teams 1 through 15 would stay at their stations; Teams 16 through 30 would rotate for the four rounds.

2. Each team was to select a team captain, who would be the only one to answer the questions; however, the captain was to consult with his or her teammates before answering. A different captain could be selected for each round (and most teams opted to do this).

3. Twenty questions would be asked for each round. Teams had 30 seconds to answer with the title of the book, which would count 5 points. The team had an additional 10 seconds to give the name of the author of the book for 2 more points. If one team could not answer the question or answered incorrectly, the other team had 10 seconds to try and answer the question, thereby stealing the points. At the end of four rounds, the two teams with the highest number of total points would compete against each other.

Adult volunteers, consisting of members of the Library Media Board, Library Media Specialists, school volunteers and teachers, served as judges and timekeepers. Questions were written on slips of paper that had been put in paper bags. The judge drew a question and read it aloud. The timekeeper started the stopwatch and heads of each team bounced together as they whispered their discussion before an answer was given. Because of the proximity of other battles going on, the need for quiet was necessary – teams did not want to give anything away.

At the first break, a member of the “Tigons” explained that the team’s name was a combination of “tigers” and “lions” (a delightful variation on the more commonly used “liger”). And, she added, her team was doing really well. She was right; the “Tigons” were leading with 154 points. The “Six Musketeers” and the “Squiggly Worms” were tied in second place at 147.

Matching in red, four female teammates from Cold Spring School eagerly talked about the competition. Friends since kindergarten, they were thrilled all of them scored in the top five of their school’s test and got on the team. Reading the books over the summer, two of the girls had read 13 of the books, one had read 23, and the fourth had read all 30 books. Really starting work in January, they studied together at recess and re-read the books. While they agreed reading the books was the best part of the experience, they also enjoyed meeting new people. One girl added it was good there was “a little competition, but at the same time we’re having fun.”

After the lunch break, it was time for the finalists to compete, and no one was really surprised when it turned out to be the “Tigons” and “Squiggly Worms.” Robin LaFevers served as reader for these tough questions. It was close, but in the end, the “Squiggly Worms” won by one question to thunderous applause.

The Champions each received a bag of goodies, including a “Battle of the Books” tee shirt, an autographed book by LaFevers and coupons to the Museum of Natural History. The Finalists received maps, zoo coupons, and a book/activity set. An award for Best Sportsmanship was given to the “Blue Bears,” and the “Purple Flying Pigs” won the “Best Shield” award.

As for next year’s battle, the booklist is already available. It includes Carl Hiaasen’s latest book, “Flush,” (selected by this year’s participants), and the latest book by local writer Valerie Hobbs, who is guest author for “Battle of the Books” in 2007.

Champions: Squiggly Worms: Josh Calvillo, Rice School; Bella Demachkie, Summerland School; Daniel Foster, Ellwood School; Alex Perez, Ellwood School; Katie Spieler, Hope School; Camille Stout, Main School.

Finalists: Tigons: Trevor Bellefeuille, Hope School; Lacey Kaelani, Mountain View School; Sabrina Lichtenberg, Peabody Charter School; Andie O’Donnell, Foothill School; Taizsha Robinson, Los Padres School; Lindsey Suarez, Solvang School.