Kids’ Lit Quiz and the sport of reading

We are fascinated by the phenomenon of the Kids’ Lit Quiz™, so we asked National Library Services to Schools Facilitator in Northland Jeannie Skinner to take us back to school with Quizmaster Wayne Mills.

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Teams at the Northland Heat of the Kids’ Lit Quiz™

Late March, and it’s time for the Northland Heat of the Kids’ Lit Quiz™. The Kerikeri Primary School Hall is packed with teams buzzing in anticipation as they settle down and get themselves organised. After the brief business of welcomes, thanks and instructions, the Quizmaster, Wayne Mills, takes the floor. With trademark top hat, a sheaf of questions in one hand, microphone in the other, and a demonstrably full wallet of $5 notes in a back pocket ready for bonus cash prizes, Wayne gets the Quiz under way.

Heats like this are taking place all around the country and the world. I imagine there is the same hush of attention as Wayne describes what the Kids’ Lit Quiz™ is about – participating in ‘the sport of reading’, the glory and adventures that may lie ahead for the winning team, and the delights and rewards for everyone who is a reader.

The Kids’ Lit Quiz started life in 1991 in Hamilton. Wayne Mills was a Lecturer at the then-Hamilton Teachers’ College Waikato University, and keen to find a fundraiser for the newly resurrected Waikato Children’s Literature Association. Being a keen quiz man himself, he suggested that a quiz could be a fun event, and so the Kids’ Lit Quiz™ was born, with 14 teams, a hundred-plus children’s literature questions and plenty of enthusiasm. Wayne came to realise he had created something quite magical and unique. The KLQ combines all the appeal of quizzes – the element of competition and friendly pressure as you rack your brains, cudgel your memory, and seek the elusive answer on the tip of your tongue – along with the charm, for avid readers, of simply talking about books and celebrating reading.

The KLQ combines … the element of competition … along with the charm … of simply talking about books and celebrating reading.

From tiny acorns, mighty oaks… The Kids’ Lit Quiz is now an international event, with around 2,000 teams taking part in Australia, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa, United Kingdom, USA, and 16 regional heats around New Zealand. The KLQ is growing apace in Australia, and in Canada where the International Final will be held this year on 1 July, 2017, Canada Day, marking the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of Canadian Confederation. Canada recently saw the biggest KLQ heat in the world, at Ryerson University in Toronto. The 87 teams took up two full basketball courts but the event ran like a proverbially well-oiled machine.

Students from Whangarei Intermediate at the Northland Heat – Photo by Garth Rodda

Wayne is still the one and only Quizmaster for all heats, and writes all the questions himself. He only sets questions about books that he has read, so all that travel at least provides some good reading time!

The Quiz takes enormous energy, commitment and organisation by Wayne, assisted by his quietly efficient helpmeet, Pa, but he is quick to mention that it could never happen without the backing of a huge number of volunteers at every stage of the proceedings. For every student taking part, there are parents, teachers and librarians providing encouragement, mentoring and logistical support. Wayne is also keen to acknowledge the vital sponsorship from a number of people, especially the Wright Family in New Zealand, and a range of businesses including Whitcoulls, Softlink, and South Pacific Books.

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Students from Kamo Intermediate, winners of the Northland 2017 KLQ final, with Wayne Mills

The KLQ has been going for 26 years now, and it is a gift to the world of children’s reading. Upper primary/intermediate is such a crucial age to keep children reading for pleasure, fitting it into their increasingly social, digital and busy lives. The KLQ provides a shot in the arm. The competitive element is a masterstroke, but actually, when you go to a Kids’ Lit Quiz and see all the children having such a good time, no matter where they are placed on the scoreboard, you realise that, in truth, it is the taking part that counts – coming together as a community of readers to celebrate how books and reading enriches our lives. 

‘Stories you read when you’re the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you’ll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.’

Neil Gaiman, M is for Magic

An interview with Julie Huggins at Southwell School

Southwell is a school that has taken the Kids’ Lit Quiz to its heart. Over the years, the library team of Gerri Judkins, Penny Walsh and Julie Huggins have enthusiastically promoted the Quiz, recruited and mentored school teams, and celebrated great success. Julie is the lead coach for the Kids’ Lit Quiz, and under her guidance the Kids’ Lit Quiz has not only become an entire way of life for her (and her family!) but also a vital ingredient in Southwell School’s reading culture.

Southwell is a Year 1–8, private, co-ed primary school in Hamilton and Julie is a part-time librarian there. I rang Julie to talk to her about how she and the school have maximised the potential of the KLQ to get children reading and raise the profile of reading for pleasure in the school community.

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Julie Huggins, lead coach for the Southwell School team, celebrating books of the 1980s

What is it that you love about the Kids’ Lit Quiz?

What’s not to love? It’s all about creating readers, developing relationships with students about their reading, sharing a love of books and working as a team. The Kids’ Lit Quiz celebrates the joys of reading and rewards of reading.

I spend many happy hours planning fun activities, writing hundreds of questions, and using preparation for the KLQ as a framework to nurture readers across the school and then to select and tutor the teams to represent the school. The competitive element really works for many kids this age – they push themselves, and the reading mileage we see as a result is phenomenal. I can see the students develop a real sense of themselves as a reader, knowing what they like but experiencing a wide range of literature.

One thing I really like about the KLQ is the variety of books – you never know what rounds might be in the Quiz, and so you are encouraged to read widely. Many other reading competition events I’ve seen, like Battle of the Books, are based around proscribed lists so it feels more like a test. I like the way Wayne includes pop culture, visual aspects, and different formats – the scope is broad, from The Simpsons to Shakespeare!

So it isn’t all about the winning?!

While success is rewarding, and competition can be an incentive, it absolutely isn’t the most important thing about participating in the KLQ. A Southwell team won the KLQ World Finals in 2015 in the USA. When I asked them what was the highlight of the whole KLQ experience, their most favourite moment or memory, none of the students mentioned winning the local heat, national or international finals. They talked instead about ‘the training session where we all dressed up’ or ‘the training session when we made s’mores around a campfire’. It is fun activities like these that keep the joy in the reading experience and develop a team camaraderie that lasts well beyond the final scorecard.

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Penny Walsh, Teacher Librarian at Southwell School

How do you go about selecting your teams?

I begin in Term 4 by promoting the Kids’ Lit Quiz to the school during assembly and library visits. The KLQ is a well-known quantity now so doesn’t take much introduction. I cast my net wide and everyone is invited to join in, from Years 5–8. I’m looking not just for the avid readers – the ones who have read every horse story, or who adore fantasy, but also the ‘wide readers’. I’m looking for students who are prepared to take reading risks and read outside their comfort zone.

This year we had about 60 students who were interested, and then we ended up with a training squad of about 30 keen students who came to meetings once a week through Term 4. If new students to the school in Term 1 are interested they have the opportunity to join in, and then over Term 1 we have a couple of after-school training sessions each week. The reading mileage is incredible – students are reading five or six books a week. They keep a reading record in Google Docs and all share what they are reading with others.

Towards the end of term, we have a final selection quiz and the results of this go into a big matrix template I’ve created to see who knows what, where the complementary strengths and weaknesses lie. The competition to be in the teams is so fierce that I think it is really important to be transparent about the selection process and have some ‘evidence’ to back up the final selections.

We do lots of book talking, book selling, and sharing book recommendations. 

What do you do in your ‘training meetings’?

We keep it FUN – it isn’t meant to be work in any way. We do lots of book talking, book selling, and sharing book recommendations. We talk about authors and genres, book covers and illustrations, favourite books when we were younger, what we are going to read next. We have quizzes and play games – I’ve made some Literary Pictionary cards which the kids love doing (see below for these downloadable resources). I try to make it enjoyable and encourage everyone to join in.

We might have a theme for each week’s meeting, such as poetry or myth and legends, and I’ll tell the students this in advance so they can do some reading in that area if they want.

We talk about the rights of the reader – the right not to finish a book, the right to skip, the right to re-read etc. (See The Rights of the Reader by Daniel Pennac).

We encourage children to be discerning, thoughtful and reflective readers, so we talk about our responses to books and how they tell us something about the world.

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Charlie with a childhood favourite, Dear Zoo, which was first published in 1982

One fun thing we did recently was explore some ‘old’ books from the 1980s that were sitting on the shelves. I called it visiting the decade that fashion forgot, and we all dressed up in 80s gear – lots of shoulder pads, neon, mullet wigs, side pony tails and headbands, etc. We talked about some great books from the 1980s – Bridge to Terabithia, Hatchet, War Horse, The Polar Express, Ramona, Superfudge, Number the Stars, and more – even Where’s Wally? has turned 30! It was a hoot and, of course, brought lots of new reading discoveries.

What makes a great team?

I try to pay attention to team dynamics. Different students have different reading knowledge, and working as a team is so important – all those social skills come into play as well. We want students to be confident and take risks, and also be good listeners, be respectful and encouraging of their teammates. We talk about how to win and how to lose graciously.

Although the KLQ is about books, it is so much more. It is about bringing like-minded children together, and for some of them, this might be their perfect niche. The students learn to work together and support each other, and I know that many of the teams bonded so well that they are still in touch with each other many years after the Quiz and leaving this school.

Although the KLQ is about books, it is so much more. It is about bringing like-minded children together…

It seems there is strong support from the school management for the KLQ?

I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to put the time I do into the KLQ, and I couldn’t do it without the full support of school management and the teaching staff and my amazing fellow librarians – Gerri Judkins when I first started at Southwell and more recently, Penny Wash. There are always time pressures for students with all the other commitments, such as music or sport, but we’ve got the KLQ well-established into the programme and timetable now, and teachers are supportive.

Another crucial element is having a great school library. We have a really healthy book budget and Penny and I are always looking for books that will hook children into reading. We’ve also been getting fabulous boxes of books from National Library Services to Schools with their Reading Engagement loans offer. These boxes of books allow us in the library and teachers in classrooms to provide additional and varied reading choices, giving us books we wouldn’t otherwise come across.

How has the Kids’ Lit Quiz helped build the reading culture at Southwell?

Our participation and success at the Quiz has, I think, become a selling point for the school! The library is always part of any tour, and we really celebrate everyone’s reading success. It is fabulous to give recognition to children who are readers. It validates them and it validates the power of reading.

Our Kids’ Lit Quiz sessions are catalysts for other readers – not everyone can be in the team, of course, but they all enjoy being in the squad, and they are role models for other children in the school.

As part of our annual book week, along with an author visit and so on, we incorporate our own version of a book quiz, and this is both fun in itself but also promotes the KLQ as something to aspire to. All the school takes part. For Years 1–4 the quiz questions are very visual; and then there is a quiz targeted at Years 5 and 6, Year 7, and Year 8. We have five rounds of eight questions – four or five questions will be at a pretty easy level that most can answer, and the other three or four are more challenging. It is always entertaining for the parents who come along to see what children are reading and remembering – they are so impressed by the children’s knowledge.

The KLQ encourages reading widely – not the hardest book or thickest tome, but a real range, and ideally this knowledge is built up over many years – nursery rhymes and fairy tales, myths and legends, stories old and new, and fiction that will stay with them in years to come. I tell students that the Kids’ Lit Quiz squad and training is the ‘icing on the cake’, but all your lifetime of reading, that is ‘the cake’!

Kids’ Lit Quiz heats are occurring all over New Zealand throughout May. The national final will be held at the National Library in Wellington on 28 May.

Read more

The Kids’ Lit Quiz Website Behind the scenes at the International Kids’ Lit Quiz Final, by Adam Dudding for

Positive rewards from creating a school-wide reading culture: Wellesley College has a thriving reading culture and is reaping the benefits, which included winning the Kids’ Lit Quiz 2016 world final in Auckland

Creating Kids’ Lit Quiz Experts: SLANZA Conference presentation by Gerri Judkins and Julie Huggins, including downloadable resources (Literary Pictionary included)

Good Sorts: Gerri Judkins and Julie Huggins

The Rights of the Reader, by Daniel Pennac, illustrated by Quentin Blake, reproduced with permission of Walker Books

Jeannie Skinner

Jeannie is a Facilitator with National Library’s Services to Schools, based in Kerikeri working with schools in Te Tai Tokerau. She is passionate about creating readers and about the role of libraries in helping this happen. She is a great admirer of both the Kids’ Lit Quiz and The Sapling!