"Team 14 and the Hotel Thief", this year's Battle of the Books winner. | Credit: Courtesy Santa Barbara County Education Office

Kids from 31 schools across Santa Barbara County prepared for an epic battle this year by studying their most powerful weapons: books. 

Throughout the past year, the county’s 4th-8th grade bookworms read a multiplicity of children’s book titles — from a designated list of 28 — to equip themselves with knowledge about plots, characters, and themes for “Battle of the Books,” the Santa Barbara County Education Office’s volunteer reading competition. 

Credit: Courtesy Santa Barbara County Education Office

Digital Learning Director Cate Tolnai said the students have a year to read at least 14 books from the list to participate, often with continuous support from librarians, teachers, and family. “It’s a real community-involved activity,” she said. “It’s heartwarming; it’s inspiring. It makes me believe that we’re all doing the right thing.”

Eager readers devoured the list of books, so that when the day of battle did arrive, they’d be ready to go head to head with their peers for the ultimate book-quiz showdown. This year’s Battle of the Books was divided into two virtual elementary and junior high individual battles, and one in-person event, the team elementary battle. 

Small clusters of 4th-6th grade students filled the Santa Barbara County Education Office’s auditorium on Thursday, April 27, for the team elementary battle. The sound of quiet brainstorming sessions echoed around the room, juxtaposed by answers shouted out excitedly by group leaders holding personalized, hand-crafted shields displaying their team name. 

Fifth grader Margot Bruneel of La Patera Elementary was a member of Thursday’s first place team, “Team 14 and the Hotel Thief” (a name based on one of the books from the list). This is Bruneel’s second year in a row on the first place elementary team. 

“We won our first two battles and lost the third one, but made it to the final round,” she said with a big grin. “It feels really good!” 

Credit: Courtesy Santa Barbara County Education Office

She told the Indy that she read all of the books on the elementary list (junior high students had a separate list). Her favorite was The Distance Between Us: Young Readers Edition, by Reyna Grande, about the author’s childhood journey and struggle of immigrating from Mexico to the United States.  

“They’re reading for the joy of reading,” said guest author Bruce Hale, who read the questions for the final battle round. Thursday’s winning team received signed copies of one of Hale’s latest books, Switched, which will be on the battle book list next year. 

Tolnai said that County Education has been hosting the program to encourage kids to read for 22 years. “As a former English teacher,” Tolnai said, “ I could only dream of having a room full of 140 students who genuinely love literacy, love literature. And so much so that they’re willing to stand out in their crowd and participate in battle.”

The final, virtual battle for junior high students will be held on Wednesday, May 3.


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