Books and the greater share of honour*

Go Ninja Unicorns! Kick book! (Image courtesy of the Small Large Smelly Boy, 2011, color marker)By Laura Grimes

Today is the big regional competition for Oregon Battle of the Books. As we say in the Scatter household: Go Ninja Unicorns! Kick book!

The Small Large Smelly Boy has been reading and studying for months. Really, the plotting for this competition started a year ago when the team lost a late-round nail-biting battle at regionals by, well, a hangnail. It was a heart-breaking defeat, made more so because they had given the right answer. But they had to prove it. In an official challenge, after two minutes, they were off by two pages. The other team got to advance to the next round. That’s just the way it goes, though it turned my head about how a quiet, erudite book competition could be incredibly thrilling.

A year ago, we had to drive to (hell and gone) Estacada (motto: “We’re in the boondocks … just keep driving”). I was simply the schlepper. Water, lunch, reading material — I was good to go all day. I was happy to support my kid and all his hard work, but I didn’t take it too seriously.

Then the competitions started.

At first I sat on the chair, politely crossed my legs and listened attentively. Then I started to realize how closely I was keeping score and how that inner voice, whispery at first, was gradually rising to ear-splitting levels: “GO! FIGHT! WIN!” At a very civilized book competition where the audience has to remain utterly silent, I suddenly had a deep insight into the wacko behavior of “Little League” parents.

After the morning battles, all the teams, coaches and parents reported to the auditorium to find out the rankings. (You haven’t heard loud until you’ve heard HUNDREDS of kids in an overcrowded auditorium.) Each team has four students with an optional alternate. As I recall, there were about 27 or 28 teams in grades 3-5, about the same number in grades 6-8, and about 9-11 teams in grades 9-12. The top eight teams in each of the younger divisions and the top four teams in the high school division would move on to the afternoon battles, and those would be winnowed down until two teams in each group would be left to move on to the state finals.

First, the eight teams from grades 3-5 were announced. We knew our schoolchums in the lower grades had done well, but none of us could believe it when the first-place team was announced: Our school.

Then the eight teams in grades 6-8 were announced. We knew we had done well, but we weren’t named as ranking 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3 … ohmygosh … we placed first as well! We couldn’t believe that both teams from our school were in first place after the morning competition.

But wait. There was a little mix-up. It turns out the Small LSB’s 6-8 team actually placed second. Scores had to be retallied. Several teams were mixed around. Competitions had to be stopped mid-battle. Some teams had to switch rooms. Questions had to be thrown away. Everyone was polite and courteous, but the confusion was growing a little wearing. The important thing was to keep this in mind: It’s all run by volunteers, it’s a very complex job, and the only thing that matters is the next opponent. Then the first afternoon battle began for real.

Question after question, the two teams were tied neck and neck. I don’t think the judge, who was facing the audience, noticed at first. But all the competitors, coaches, parents, scorekeeper and timekeeper, who were all facing the scoreboard that was behind the judge, were well aware of the mounting tension. It was uncanny how it played out. The scores were perfectly even right up until the final question, when, in a feeling of this can’t be happening, it was painfully obvious that whichever team answered it correctly would win the battle and move to the next round.

I’m not going to belabor the whos, whats, wheres or whys, because they’re irrelevant. The questions are what they are. The judges are who they are. The people who run these things are incredibly noble and very much appreciated. It came down to one answer and one loss and we went home.

That’s what makes these competitions so exciting.

Our team never said boo. They were the most amazing good sports. They swallowed their disappointment and they learned a valuable lesson: That’s just the way it goes sometimes. You live with it. You move on. And you do better next time.

Today is next time.

I’m only spelling out so much to explain how much the Small LSB’s team smells blood now and that this competition has perhaps a little more anticipation built up than would seem possible.

We will not be joined by the same crack grade 3-5 team from our school as last year (who lost in the same round last year in another nail-biting controversial competition). Everything I heard is that this team was a focused, formidable contender. But they were beat out by another team last week in a battle that came down to one answer that was one word on one page in one book. So they were eliminated, just like that, by one word, after months of reading and studying and practicing.

The 3-5 team that did win is thrilled to drive to Estacada. They’re all students in one class and their teacher told me how proud she is of them. She said they’re all really quiet girls.

I thought, Wow, then they’re different from the Large Smelly Boys. My Small LSB is on a team with a set of twins he’s palled around with since kindergarten. They’re in 7th grade now. There’s one girl on the team, an 8th grader, so you can imagine the gender/culture/mindset/light-year difference between her and the boys a year younger.

The boys are a studious, disciplined group. But they’re old buds, entirely comfortable with each other and occasionally try to mess each other up. When I asked the Small LSB if the one girl jokes around with them, he didn’t even pause to think: “She frowns at our fart jokes.”

Each team in each division has to know 16 books inside and out. Each of the Ninja Unicorns read as many of the books as possible, but they’re personally responsible for at least 5 books each. They strategize, figure out a timeline, reread some books, memorize facts, quiz each other. As soon as the full list of 16 books came out, the Small LSB and I went through the county library web site and noted which ones were available as books, audio books or digital downloads. We bought plenty of books, but we checked out audio versions, too, figuring listening to them while reading them would improve retention. I helped a little, but all the planning and organizing have been done by the Small LSB and his pals, with some assistance from their wonderful teacher/coach, Julie Polachek.

Ninja Unicorns T-shirt, designed by the Small Large Smelly BoyThe Small LSB carefully designed T-shirts:

And we have one more surprise for the big day: Specially made cookies with the Ninja Unicorn design. I was in Petite Provence bakery and asked about it on a whim. I was told to contact ChristineAnne at one of their other bakeries. They said, “They’ll know who you’re talking about.” I replied, “Because it just so happens no one else there is called ChristineAnne?”

It happened to be ChristineAnne’s day off, but she had come in to decorate a wedding cake. She would wait for me to race over with the design. My order was all of $36, but she was happy to help. She figured that when she gets a phone call like that, it must be prophetic, that things happen for a reason. She and I were in sync because that’s pretty much my philosophy of life. I understand the need to trust your instincts and go with the moment, believing that chance has a greater purpose and serendipity is a thing of beauty. You know, whatever feels right on a whim, like when it comes to dinner, clothes, children.

So, thanks ChristineAnne HoferSchoen, whose names are all squished together just like that. I noticed you put in a few extra cookies. I love you for that.

When I picked them up, the woman at the register asked what they were for. I said, “My son’s on a team going to the Oregon Battle of the Books?” And I ended the sentence with a slight question mark, figuring she wouldn’t have a clue what I was talking about.

Her face lit up. “In Estacada? My little sister is going to that!”

The little sister is in the same division in a school just blocks away. So, kick book, little sister. See you there. But just remember this: We have cookies and we’re not afraid to eat them.

Ninja Unicorn cookies, designed by Small LSB and created by ChristineAnne HoferSchoen at Petite Provence


*Name that literary reference in the title for extra points. Go ahead. Google it.


  • Ninja Unicorn T-shirts designed by the Small Large Smelly Boy.
  • Ninja Unicorn cookies, specially designed by Small LSB and created by ChristineAnne HoferSchoen at Petite Provence.