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Saturday, February 28, 2015 |  Madison, WI: -8.0° F  Fair
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Mama Madison: Viva the Book Bowl!
It's a lot more fun than playing "Authors"

For those of you unfamiliar, Book Bowl is a Madison public school rite of passage. The voluntary contest, designed to encourage kids to read more and explore new genres, begins in fourth grade. The kids pick their own teams, usually of four, and begin the sometimes daunting task of finishing 16 fiction titles in preparation for a "Quiz Bowl"-style literary smackdown in early March.

My oldest never did Book Bowl. He was an all-non-fiction-all-the-time kind of guy and certainly didn't want any "pesky" (my word, his sentiment) adult telling him what kinds of books he should be reading for pleasure. But the kid already had Steven Ambrose's Band of Brothers on his nightstand and Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals half finished under his bed. Sure, I wouldn't have minded him stretching a bit and considering a topic that didn't involve the United States' presidency or one of the World Wars. But I chose not to meddle.

For son number two though, Book Bowl was the highlight of his elementary school experience. Two years later, I am still not sure which of his friends convinced him to compete, but I owe that boy a big thank-you. My kid was not what you'd call a voracious reader. I'd have assumed he'd be the kid picked last for a Book Bowl team. Kind of like me for grade school kickball.

I owe even bigger thanks to whichever kid had the genius idea to invite the boy with the librarian mom to be on their team. That woman, a saint, divided up the books among the boys, had them reading an additional few for "back-up", and invited the team over every Monday during the "training period" for cookies, milk and book discussions.

The boys worked hard. They did the all their assigned readings and then some. They learned to spell authors names, like Patricia C. McKissack, with the appropriate upper case M and lower case c. Precision counts in the world of competitive reading.

I think it was the first time my son genuinely realized that there was very little he couldn't do well if he chose to put in the time. It wasn't quite Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours . But it was enough to bring home the Randall Elementary championship.

Having been inspired, or at least envious, of her brother's success, my daughter, a light reader herself, chose to participate this past week in the "Bowl". I hoped she too would discover that working beyond your comfort zone is a good thing. That, and that reading quietly without the constant blare of the Disney Channel in the background can really help with comprehension.

But no such luck. She and her teammates divided up the 16 books evenly, four books per girl. I guess I should have been happy that their rudimentary division skills were okay. But none of them had much desire to read even a page beyond the bare minimum. And I think they got together only once to prepare during which time they discussed Selena Gomez's post-Wizards of Waverly Place career options as opposed to the actual books.

Come Book Bowl morning, my daughter's worst fears were realized. One of her teammates was sick. It was down to three of them to hope and pray that the questions they would receive would be about the books they'd actually read. But unfortunately question #1 was from the sickie's book, as was question #2 and question #8. And given that they grew up in the post-Gloria Steinem era, neither my daughter, nor any of her teammates, could seem to remember that the title of E.L. Konigsberg's 1967 Newbury award-winning book was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, not Ms.

So when it came time for the librarian Master of Ceremonies to announce the winners, they already knew. It definitely wasn't them. It is entirely possible her team, "The Intergalactic Flying Bagels" (they could have won for best name), had come in dead last.

My daughter was bummed. But we discussed that while I was very proud of her for participating (it was voluntary, after all), each member of her team hadn't read all the books. She hadn't done title-spelling drills or participated in plotline discussions. She hadn't worked her hardest. She probably didn't deserve to win.

But she discovered, as is true with so many lessons, that sometimes it's not just what you learn inside, but outside the book as well, that ends up mattering the most.

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