First published April 12, 2014.

Mary_Palmer_and_Lightning_Round_kids_32014Mary Palmer emceeing a tie-breaking Lightning Round. The winner: Adams, the team at left, in white—“the little team that could.”

Mary Palmer, Director of Seattle Public Library’s Global Reading Challenge, has spent the last 20 years connecting children and good books. “Practically every kid in town either knows Mary or knows of Mary,” her colleague Jason Davis said recently. “And every kid who knows of Mary and her program wants to participate.”

She’s not an easy interview subject, since she leads questions away from herself back to the kids she serves. She’s the closest I will ever come to Zen—unconcerned about her motivations, more interested in the now. Yet Palmer doesn’t hesitate to tell me what makes her most proud: putting books—often books they’d never read on their own—into the hands of schoolchildren.

The Global Reading Challenge is designed to include all fourth/fifth graders, not just the avid readers, though they are its biggest cheerleaders. The program’s great reputation makes kids eager to complete. Though it means more work, they love the excitement (as well as the safety) of competing in teams; the wild and crazy practice sessions; the recognition by everyone in school; the realization later that they will always and forever be Global Scholars. (As a coach, I tell the children that it’s great for their résumé, an unfamiliar concept.) And, for all, the there’s the epiphany that books are actually fun and worthy of their time (not to mention that the competitors learn words like epiphany, thanks to one of this year’s titles).

The schools are asked to be completely inclusive in forming teams, thus encouraging non-readers, special education students, and English language learners to improve their skills and be part of a team. The rules ensure that the students who make the finals mirror the city’s mosaic of cultures.

It all started at the Kalamazoo, Michigan, Public Library, where Palmer began her library career. She was brainstorming with her boss, Terry Lason, about ways to bring more people into the inner-city branch library she managed. Terry, who had grown up in Chicago, had wonderful memories of his Battle of the Books. He designed the original Global formula: Fourth- and fifth-graders read 10 carefully chosen books. In public competitions, first in their schools, then in semifinals, then at a final competition in a public auditorium, teams of 7 kids each answer questions on the details hidden in the books. (Sample: “What was Mrs. Rosen serving Paris when Paris protested: ‘But Mrs. Rosen! I’m only 11!’?” (Answer: GINGER ALE.) Global competitions are sports events, accompanied by cheering crowds, handmade signs, and intensely focused teams in their huddles.

Global_competitors_huddle__314Team huddle. (Photo by Skip Kerr)

What has made Palmer’s program so wildly popular, with schools writing letters to the library administration, begging to get in? She jokes that it’s all for a pencil—the lovely color-changing pencil that all Global team members receive. (That’s about it for tangible rewards; they get Global T-shirts if they’re in one of 10 Finals teams.) But all Global students are made to feel special, no matter their level of participation.

Teams include many students from homes where English is not the primary language, plus many kids who have never had such a push to excel or had such an intense relationship with books and their characters. For instance, one teammate I met this year came from a Somali-speaking family. She was in a reading program for students needing more help. She blossomed in Global, reading two of the “hard” books, commenting that she loved learning about the characters’ thoughts and feelings. She was quick to join discussions and express her excitement over our relentless quizzing. After finals, she has continued to read all the Global books.

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  • Tea Bagger October 4, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    Thank you for letting everyone know about this worthy program and the inspiration that both initiated it and keeps it going year after year!

    You are an inspiration, too, in your dedication to helping young people learn to love reading, and your dedication to coaching them in the Global Reading Challenge. What a treat to meet some of these students at your parties and soirees!

    From one of the Tea bags in your Book Club