OBOB: It’s all about the stories

Oregon Battle of the BooksBy Laura Grimes

Oregon Battle of the Books didn’t disappoint. It was nerve-wracking. And it wasn’t just me.

After the Ninja Unicorns’ sudden-death face-off among three teams for the eighth and final position to move on to the elimination rounds in the regional competition, I poked a dad who graduated from the Naval Academy.

“Tell me that didn’t get to you.”

“Are you kidding? Of course it did.” He slouched all his muscles as if to show the staggering weight. “I’ve been trying to be restrained. I’ve been calling my wife constantly to give her updates.”

I overheard one adult say to another, “I had no idea this could be so intense.”

Ninja Unicorns, with their whole exciting backstory here, won the sudden-death round by answering their question correctly while the other two teams did not. Out of 33 teams, they were one of eight that advanced to the afternoon elimination rounds, where they faced off against a team that goes to a school just blocks away. It was neighbor vs. neighbor, and ironically, three out of four members of the Ninja Unicorns live within the boundary of the other school.

The other team won. Decisively, thankfully. Nothing could be disputed. The other team went on to place second overall and earn a spot at the state competition. Ninja Unicorns are already looking over next year’s reading list.


How does the competition work?

Students read and practice for months to prepare, and it can be all over in a blink. One wrong answer and they go home. It’s not like a spelling-bee, though, where one word at a time determines who’s in or out. OBOB (for adults/OBOOB for adolescents) is a mix of trivia question, horse race, strategy, chance, luck-of-the-draw and lots of reading.

Each team of four players has to know 16 books inside and out. Battles have two parts. The first eight questions include a fact and the teams have to give the corresponding title and author. A correct title earns 3 points, an author 2 points. (It’s a good strategy to memorize the book titles and authors.) The second eight questions are about trivia in a given book. Most are 5 points each, but some are broken into two parts that earn either 3 or 2 points.

Teams alternate answering questions first. If a team answers incorrectly, the other team has a chance to answer it.

In the morning pool rounds at the regional competition, each team has two battles. The sole object here is to acquire points so winning or losing doesn’t really matter. Relativity comes into play: Evenly matched teams have less chance of racking up points, and being paired with a team that isn’t well prepared can provide more opportunities to capitalize on wrong answers and pick up points. One part that is a little hard to swallow: Even if one team has overwhelmingly beat another, it’s still worthwhile to challenge a decision and possibly pick up more points because it can have an impact on the final outcome.

At the end of the pool rounds, the teams with the highest number of points advance to the afternoon elimination rounds where it’s all about winning or losing.


Concerned that this competition reduces reading to battles? Nah. These kids read read read. They dig into these books and get more out of them than a casual skim. If splicing the books to remember facts and maximize strategy sounds like a minimalist approach to great literature, think of it as a healthy fusing of the right brain with the left. Nevertheless, any way you slice it, the stories are there.

And stories pour out of these competitions that are all about stories.

The first battle the Ninja Unicorns played was against a team with only two members. Their other two teammates announced two days earlier that they couldn’t make it. The two came anyway and proved to be worthy competitors. They answered nearly all the questions consistently, and the match ended tied.

One coach described a team of third-grade girls as spacey. The girls just wanted to read the books but not compete. They had to be talked into it. They didn’t pay attention and didn’t take the battles seriously. But they started winning. Then they beat a strutting fifth-grade team, who were stunned. Then they beat a fourth-grade team to win their spot at regionals. Their coach laughingly described them as impervious to competition and seemingly clueless. She said when a moderator reads a question, they stare around the room, appear disengaged and not listening and not connecting with one another, and then they have a quick chat and come up with the right answer, time and time again. As if in amused disbelief, the coach laughed as she shook her head and threw up her hands.

An unlikely team of fourth-grade girls from the Small LSB’s school (that I wrote about here) placed second overall, winning one of two spots to go to state. The team they beat out to advance to the final round? Yet another neighborhood school just a few blocks away.

To know the remarkable story about this team is to know what one mom whispered in my ear and I can’t say out loud. The girls are shy and quiet, they don’t call attention to themselves and they don’t necessarily earn the highest grades in school. In fact, one has struggled quite a bit.

The mom told me this has been a great experience for her daughter. She nearly didn’t let her compete because her daughter was already in band and other activities and she didn’t know how they would fit it in.

As the girls played the final round to decide rankings at state (the scores ended up being only a few points apart), the audience looked square on a couple of posters on the wall. One showed a photograph of six baby ducks and the words, “Look. Listen. Learn.” The other showed an illustration of a house cat staring in a mirror with a tiger looking back. Underneath it in large type: “Reading Builds Confidence.”