The Victory Stealers. Left to right, Garrikajoy, Naomi, Angela, Coach Toni, Sepe, Ruby, Ashley.

This is the third in our series on compelling volunteer work. The first, “Free Advice for Free Laborers,” was an insider’s look at museum volunteering; the second, JFK’s Peace Corps Call,” was about volunteering for the Peace Corps at age 50 or older. —Ed.

Picture this: the Final Ten, rather than the Final Four. Teams—seven 4th– or 5th-graders each—huddled together onstage as they answer questions on details buried in 10 carefully chosen books. An audience of 500 packed into the Seattle Public Library’s auditorium on a Tuesday evening in late March. This is the Global Reading Challenge, a competition that begins with 365 teams in November and ends with two teams triumphant in March.

My team, The Victory Stealers, is struggling with a question from the book Jackie and Me: “How old was Jackie Robinson when he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame?”  I’m in the front row, scoring my own answers. I get Jackie’s age wrong.

Unbeknownst to the audience, the Victory Stealers have a talisman they touch when they answer: a mockingjay (left), a piece of merchandising for the book they most want to read: The Hunger Games. This “young adult” novel has a long reserve list at the library and a price tag, even in paperback, that’s probably too steep for the kids’ parents. The Stealers are 11 years old and attend Northgate, one of Seattle’s poorest schools, a place where only 28.6% of fifth-grade students met state reading standards last year and where most of the students—88.4%—qualify for the free/reduced price lunch.

In my seven years as a volunteer coach, I’ve chosen schools according to my perception of greatest need and where I am welcomed by the staff. I am a retired librarian with a particular interest in working with groups of kids; my paying job flowed into this volunteer passion. But you do not have to be a librarian to be a Global Reading Coach. Most are not.

I coach because I love the excitement of working with kids in groups.  I am competitive. I want my underdog kids to work as hard as they can. My aim is to have a team in the Finals each year, and I work them as hard as any other sports coach would. This is the Sport of Reading! I am evangelical about it.

Peach Candy and the Red Thread of Destiny

As we quiz and quiz on the books, we come to love them. We hate the bad guys, though we talk about their redeeming qualities (we did not forgive the Nazis in Snow Treasure), and we root for the good ones. We drape ourselves in Scotch tape in solidarity with Owen, who needs it to hold himself together in Becoming Naomi Leon; we munch on peach candy—the real thing not being in season—to follow MinLi and Dragon through the forest of peaches (once they trick and trap the monkey guardians) in Where the Mountain Meets the Moon. We wrap ourselves in the red thread of destiny (same book).

We look up the setting of all the books in notebook atlases (this is my pet project, since their geographic literacy is abysmal), so we know where Kabul is, featured in Extra Credit. We learn about famous dead authors in Alvin Ho, set in Concord, Massachusetts.

Kids comment on how the world is never quite the same after Global. How can we look at a lily without smiling over the magician’s oft-repeated “I intended only lilies,” in The Magician’s Elephant. Teammate Ruby almost drove us nuts with her falsetto “Bush  Babies” as a mock answer to random questions—a reference from the animal nursery at Sawubona in The White Giraffe.

 Spread the Joy—Field a Team!

Have I hooked you a tiny bit?  Global Reading Challenge is a program that coordinator Mary Palmer brought to Seattle from Kalamazoo, Michigan.  It is active in various places in Washington State, in Abbotsford, British Columbia, and surely in other forms around the country.

I invite you to start a program in your town. The major cost is the books—all in paperback, of course. In Seattle, the books are chosen by a team of children’s librarians and delivered to school libraries, paid for by the Library Foundation and other private funds.

We started very small, and you can too. Visit your local public library and talk to the children’s librarian.  What elementary school might be interested? The local library board or foundation, the school PTA, churches, synagogues, Rotary, could get you going.  Go to a community council or other civic organization and get on the agenda. (I got funds for a separate summer literacy program by showing up cold at the neighborhood association. A grouchy man stood up and growled, “We don’t have time for this,” whereupon a woman declared, “I will pay for the books if I don’t have to volunteer.” Bingo!)

All the finalists get an autographed copy of this book; the winners earn a trophy for their school.

Most of us are interested in getting kids together with books, in making books come alive for children, in boosting a school in two of its core goals:  reading and teamwork. My kids tend to be scattered and twitchy.  But see them in competition and you’d never imagine this. They have been coached on the importance of appearing calm.

I cannot imagine a more satisfying way to spend my time, and I’m at the stage where I want to spread the joy. I can provide you will lots of materials and startup ideas, as well as ongoing coaching. I have a vision of a network of coaches, linked by email, with a love for connecting children and books, and especially for engaging in a life-changing project when our own lives are in a time of change.

The answer to the Jackie Robinson question was age 43.  My team missed it—it was the only question they got wrong.  A significant achievement. The two winning teams, George’s Magicians Treasure, from Alki School, and the Lightning-Round Readers, from Adams School, missed none.

One more from the magician: “What are we to make of a world where stars shine bright in the midst of so much darkness and gloom?”

You can read about the program (and see this year’s champions)  here.

You can also reach me via email. I hope you do.

Join the conversation

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. April 15, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    Thanks for sharing this fantastic volunteer experience. Olympics for young readers! We really appreciate your enthusiasm and determination to spread this program across the nation. I am sure many of our readers will contact you to learn more about beginning a program like this in their communities. Finally a fun competition that does not involve a game box.

    Dr. Pat

  • Ruby Hazidakis April 14, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    This is so AMAZING! I love it!

  • Elizabeth W April 14, 2012 at 11:38 am

    What a fun contest! (Like pub trivia for the under-21 bookish set!) I’d love to participate in a contest like this, answering questions… Or help a team of kids train for victory!

  • Patricia Moscatello April 14, 2012 at 8:55 am

    Dear Toni,
    You interested me! I live in Portland OR. During the summer, please forward me some info. Is there a program in Portland? How does one get started?
    I thoroughly enjoyed your story and the Children’s story too.
    I look forward to hearing from you.