March Madness–a term once exclusive to the thrill of the annual college basketball tournament—has recently been applied to literary throwdowns. Tournament-style book battles have been adopted by libraries across the country to generate excitement for all ages about books and reading. From School Library Journal’s own Battle of the Kids’ Books to a variety of school and public library variations, here are a few ways to throw book battles in your library.
Living in the historic college basketball town of Lawrence, KS, the Tournament of Kids’ Books at the Lawrence Public Library, was a big win for the city’s young readers. One-part passive program and one-part facilitated program, the March event featured the children’s room staff and myself encouraging young patrons to vote for their favorite books and watch them advance from the Sweet 16 all the way to the championship round.
Those selected to compete were the 16 most circulated early readers and chapter books from the previous year. These titles were paired off head-to-head in a bracket battle and were dependent on votes from young patrons to advance to the next round. Each day the library was open, voting ballots were made available in the children’s room, and a large bracket display was constructed to track the voting progress. As ballots were tallied at the end of each week, the winning tiles advanced to the next round, and a new ballot was set out for voting. Kids that voted were eligible for a raffle drawn each week for book prizes provided by the Friends of the Lawrence Public Library.
At the end of the month, the winning book was revealed at the library’s Tournament of Kids’ Books Winner Ceremony with University of Kansas basketball players participating through a collaboration between the library and the University of Kansas Athletic Department. At this exciting event, the guests unwrapped the winning book, gave away fun book- and basketball-related goodies, and performed a storytime for the audience.
There were many unexpected takeaways from hosting the Tournament of Kids’ Books, one being that the bracket display served as an instant reader’s advisory guide for kids and parents. We also didn’t expect this program to have the impact that it did. Families enthusiastically rooted for their favorite books, and kids begged their parents to visit the library to vote and witness the tournament’s progress.
Now, you don’t have to live in a basketball town to host a literary tournament in your library, nor do you have recreate one in the same fashion. Libraries across the country are incorporating book battles for all ages in a variety of unique ways with great success, from passive programming, to storytimes, to after-school programs, to social media, and beyond.
Battle of the Funny Books, created by children’s librarians Alicia Cheng and Lindsey Krabbenhoft of the Vancouver Public Library (BC), is a fun twist on book battle programming. Starting with 16 comical picture books, each title was pitted against another in the opening round, and kids voted online or during open hours at the library throughout the summer. Geared towards kids in kindergarten to sixth grade, the tournament had the books with the most votes move on to the next round, and at the end of four rounds, the one with the most votes was crowned the funniest. Krabbenhoft noted that, “Running this type of program over the summer while the majority of children are not in school allows kids and families to focus on connecting with great reads.” Lisa M. Shaia, children’s librarian at Oliver Wolcott Library in Litchfield , CT, started Battle of the Books, a March Madness–style program last year for children in grades K–6 after school once a week. This month-long session features her favorite picture books of last year. Shaia gathered young patrons in a group, read the selected story for that session to them, and then assigned the kids into teams, with the oldest as the leader. Each group explored the picture book, and at the end, the participants vote on their favorite book. “It’s easy for you to plan and implement, and it’s easy for the children to participate,” says Shaia.
For an entirely different take on this concept for grade school–age kids, Travis Jonker, a school library media specialist in Michigan, hosts a Battle of the Books in his school library where students are the winners, not a book. This is an annual competition for the fourth graders and the titles are introduced to students in January. Teachers divide classes into teams, and the teams work together to make sure at least one member reads each book selected. In March, the teams compete against each other by answering questions about the titles. The teams make their own logs, and once the battles begin, results are posted and students track their progress.
Leveling up to older kids, Griffin Middle School students use Google forms to vote for their favorites in the annual Book Madness program. Frances Loving, library media specialist at the school in Carrollton, TX, asks her school’s language arts teachers to pool their students’ favorite books, and with those suggestions, she creates a bracket for the competition. It’s a school-wide program all students can participate in by voting online via Google Forms. Each Friday, the books that have advanced to the next round are posted in the bracket display in the library. Loving encourages voting with weekly prizes and a grand prize at the end of the tournament. For grades nine–12, Emily Neal, library assistant for Lake Forest High School (IL), says their annual Tournament of Books is a great way to get students recommending books to each other. After bracketing the top titles of the school year, voting is done at “check-in.” Votes are counted each week, and the winners move to the next round. Neal says, “We’ve learned [students] get competitive about it. They have fun campaigning for votes for their favorite books and getting their friends to read them.”
The Louisville Free Public Library (KY), in another big-time college basketball-minded community, holds their tournament battles in the realm of social media. Literary March Madness is unique in that the competition takes place on the library’s Instagram account between famous authors selected by library staff. The four regions of the bracket are divided into literary genres: classics, teens and children’s books, banned books, and best sellers. As each match is posted, Instagram followers, typically teens and adults, vote for their preferred author by leaving a comment. Votes are tallied, and the winning author advance.
Communications director Paul Burns comments, “The excitement around NCAA’s March Madness and filling out brackets is a national phenomenon. So for libraries to find a way to co-opt that popular idea and make it relate to services we offer is a no-brainer. It was also a great way for us to boost participation in our fledgling Instagram account. We were able to cross promote Literary March Madness on our other, more established social media feeds, thus driving more traffic to Instagram. It was also very popular with teens —a demographic we had previously struggled to engage.”
Basketball fans or not, each library started with a central theme and a bracket-style competition and successfully tailored it to the specific needs and interests of students and patrons. The applications are endless for this scoring opportunity.