The Kids’ Lit Quiz

For as long as I’ve been working at Surbiton High School (September 2011 to the present day), we’ve taken part in the Kingston Borough Literary Quiz, and as far as I know this has been the case for several years beforehand too. Our track record has been pretty good: last year we won the Inter Borough Cup after finishing runners’ up in the previous round, and we have emerged victorious on several other occasions as well.

So it was time to take the plunge and participate in the Kids’ Lit Quiz.

The Kids’ Lit Quiz is a global literary competition with schools from nine different countries taking part. Hosted by the incomparable Wayne Mills, a New Zealander who hosts every heat in each of those nine countries, this is without doubt the toughest literary quiz in the world for 10-13 year olds, with a range of general literary knowledge questions on every conceivable genre of literature from Ancient Greek myths right up to the present day. This past Wednesday, we competed in the South London Regional Heat, which was hosted by King’s College Wimbledon.

We were the first team to arrive (which you can blame on Mr Humphreys’ chronic fear of arriving late to things), and were initially staggered by how many teams we would be facing. At the Kingston Borough Quiz we competed with half a dozen or so teams. Here, we were up against 25 other teams…

There were ten rounds of ten questions each, totalling 100 mind bending questions on categories as diverse as Owls and Sea Animals to the Supernatural and Royalty. Unlike the Kingston Literary Quiz, there are no set texts, so prep for the quiz is more difficult: you either have a strong general knowledge of literature and swim, or you don’t, and you sink. Fortunately, we had a very strong team representing us: four well read Year 8 girls who know full well the benefits of a well balanced and varied reading diet.


Deciding our tactics before the quiz began

After a nerve fraying couple of hours, the results were in and…we finished third! No small feat considering this was our first time, and the fact that the opposition was both large in number (did I mention we were up against 25 teams?) and exceedingly strong. King’s College Wimbledon claimed top spot, and Dulwich College second, pipping us by a solitary point. Incidentally, we’d taken third spot away from King’s College’s ‘B’ team by a mere point as well. Upon such fine margins are these things decided…

Our congratulations go to them, but we couldn’t help noticing that we’d beaten all of our Kingston Borough rivals. A good omen for the Borough quiz?

For now, though, we’re savouring our achievement, with the girls each receiving a certificate, a free book and a £10 book token for their efforts. Who knows, we might go two better next year and have the chance to compete in the National Final, for the chance to go for the title of most literary School in Britain. After that, the world awaits…

Author visit from Marcus Sedgwick

An author visit is always a literary highlight of the school year, and Marcus Sedgwick’s talk to Year 8 was no exception. Marcus is the author of some thirty books for children and young adults, ranging from vampire tales set in Transylvania to contemporary psychological thrillers and dystopian graphic novels. With such a diverse canon to his name, it was no surprise that Marcus’ talk, which encompassed the themes of his novels, was of great interest to all in attendance.

Addressing the classic question all writers are subjected to (“where do you get all your ideas from?”), Marcus took us on a virtual tour of his writing desk and workspace, which he’d assured us had been tidied up before he welcomed us in! Inviting the audience to ask about an area of his ‘office’ that looked particularly interesting to them, Marcus discussed how the number 354 was of particular significance to him, and its coincidental trail through his latest novel,  the psychological thriller She Is Not Invisible. As well as figuring heavily in the plot, the number 354 is also the number of pages in the book, and the blurb is written in three paragraphs of, respectively, three, five and four sentences.

Coincidence? Who can say?

Marcus also discussed how coincidence can be found in surprising places: for instance, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy had a lot more in common than being assassinated USA Presidents. He pointed out that we as humans always look for patterns in things, as can be seen in the slide of the picture below. Coincidence, and the strange, intangible feeling inside when we experience it, is a very human phenomenon.


After this, Marcus talked about a real-life Romanian ritual that inspired My Swordhand is Singing, reading an extract from the book which caused the room to draw a collective breath at its conclusion, and a multitude of girls scurrying to the front of the room to get their hands on one or more of his books.

A reminder, if any was needed, that visits from talented, accomplished and inspiring authors are invaluable for firing the imagination of our students, encouraging them to undertake a journey of discovery that can only really be provided within the pages of a Very Good Book. Marcus was a big hit, and there’s no doubt in my mind that we will be welcoming him back to the school in the not too distant future.

Carnegie Season has began

Yesterday, both the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway Medal nominations were announced.

For those not in the know, these medals are awarded for the year’s most outstanding work of fiction  written for young people (the Carnegie Medal) and picture book written for children (Kate Greenaway).

The initial nominations are, for the first time, to be whittled down to a longlist by the judging panel, and then reduced even further to a final shortlist of eight in March 2014. The panel comprises librarians who are members of CILIP (that’s Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals to you), whereas suggestions for the nominations are made by other school and public librarians…like me!

Looking at this year’s nominations, there’s the usual mix of the well-established (Malorie Blackman, Anne Fine, Terry Pratchett), the critically acclaimed, who have been shortlisted before (David Almond, Kevin Brooks, Annabelle Pitcher), the up and coming who may be the next big thing (Dave Cousins, Emma Pass, Rebecca Stead) and the quite-frankly-they’ve-got-no-chance-because-they-don’t-have-enough-literary-merit (whose names I shall diplomatically withhold).

What do I mean by ‘literary merit’? I’m talking about a book that is more than just a superficially good read. It needs to fire the reader’s imagination, make them think, provoke an emotional and intellectual response, and have the potential to stay with them long after they’ve finished it…and in a good way too!  So that’s why the much vilified Twilight series doesn’t make the cut (the only emotional response those books provoke in me are angry bemusement that they actually got published, let alone become a global phenomenon).

The worst books in the world – Fact

Let me put it another way – you wouldn’t expect to see a fluffy chick lit novel make the Booker Shortlist would you? I imagine such a happening wouldn’t help the cause of authors like Eleanor Catton (see previous post) one iota.

Anyway, we shadow the Carnegie Medal at Surbiton High School, and all who participate thoroughly enjoy it. One girl told me she is really glad it happens, as it means she gets to read books she wouldn’t normally even consider, and I’m sure that’s how many, if not all, feel about it. One of the most fun things is the Shadowing site we maintain, in which we discuss, argue and debate our favourite choices, through blogs, polls and reviews.

In an age of many book awards, the Carnegie may just be the most important award for the reading tastes of young people. As a genre, young adult fiction is thriving, with an abundance of choice of reading material to cater for just about every taste. So if you want to get in to the finest books in children and young adult fiction, you could do worse than keep an eye on the Carnegie Medal.