Battle of the Books: A March Madness Style Bracket that Works Year Round!

This post was originally published at Bryce Don’t Play. Edits have been made to the original post. Outdated/irrelevant information has been struck through. New information has been added in red.

Age Range: 2nd-4th or 5th grade
Time: 1 hour each week over the course of 15-17 weeks
Program Type: Outreach; Cumulative Series

One of my favorite things about my job is that I am fortunate enough to do not only public programs, but outreach programs as well. This month, I want to share an opportunity that I had to do a program with an outreach group that worked better in their setting than it ever would have as an in-house library program.

For years, I’d wanted to do a Battle of the Books at our library, but we had very spotty participation with the public, and anything we tried along those lines just sort of fizzled out. From August to December 2017, I had conducted a weekly book club with an after-school group at one of our local schools. They were the first to invite me to do this and I was very excited about the possibilities. For that first semester, we read one middle grade novel, going through it in small chunks each week. But for this the spring, starting in January and ending a couple of weeks ago in May, I wanted to try a Battle of the Books with them. I was excited to do this because not only would it be fun, it would also expose the kids to several books that they might not otherwise pick up. I also viewed it as a chance for them to begin building a summer reading list with title suggestions from our brackets. The kids involved in this program were second through fourth graders. The Battle was a hit from start to finish and here’s how we did it.

A blue shoe box sits in a window. Hanging over it is a sign.
Sign has two book covers, with the letters VS in between them.
The box is intended for voting for books.

Before our first semester of book club was over, I explained to the kids how I wanted our Battle of the Books to work. We’d have eight brackets of sixteen titles and vote each week to narrow it down to one winner. This program took place over the course of sixteen weeks, taking us from the beginning of school in January to mid-May. We would meet for an hour each week.

In December, I brought a box and some suggestion cards and asked the kids to submit titles that they wanted to see in the brackets. The suggestion cards were very simple. I asked the kids to submit their title along with reasons why they liked the book and thought it was worthy of the Battle. They had a full week to think about and submit their suggestions.

Over the winter break, I sifted through their submissions and created our first set of brackets. I used mostly titles that the children suggested, but I also threw in a few suggestions of my own to fill in holes. I tried to group similar books together for the first eight brackets. Our beginning lineup in 2018 was as follows:

-Encyclopedia Brown vs. Captain Underpants (both series; not specific titles)
-Judy Moody vs. Magic Tree House (both series; not specific titles)
-The Tale of Despereaux vs. Fablehaven (book one)
-Fish In a Tree (my suggestion) vs. Wonder
-Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone vs. Serafina and the Black Cloak (my suggestion)
-Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library vs. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Getaway
-Dearly, Nearly, Insincerely vs. All Birds Have Anxiety (my suggestion)
-Narwhal: Unicorn of the Sea vs. Rutabaga the Adventure Chef (both my suggestions because I really wanted to have a graphic novel bracket)

Our 2019 bracket was as follows:
-Magic Tree House vs. Diary of a Wimpy Kid (both series; not specific titles)
-I Survived vs. How to Train Your Dragon (both series; not specific titles)
-Sisters Grimm vs. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Sisters Grimm was the whole series, not a particular title)
-Closed for the Season vs. A Wrinkle in Time
-A Bear Called Paddington vs. Peter and the Starcatchers (book one)
-Wonder vs. Captain Underpants and the Attack of the Talking Toilets
-Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire vs. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe
-Weird But True! 5 vs. Curiosity: The Story of a Mars Rover (my suggestion)

Of course, if you do this on your own, you’d probably come up with different titles, but you’re always welcome to use these as well. They were a great fit for this particular group of children and all of these titles have pretty wide kid appeal.

THE FIRST ROUND

Classroom doors displaying a tournament-style bracket.
The bracket has book covers on them, signaling which books has won each round.

For the first eight weeks, I presented the two books for each week to the kids using PowerPoint presentations. We’d go over when the book was published, awards and acclaim it had received, characters, plot, etc., as well as watch book trailers and read excerpts. The first eight brackets were to introduce the kids to all the titles and give them a feel for each book. The first eight weeks of the Battle went as such:

1) Kids would vote on the previous week’s bracket by circling a picture of the title on a ballot and placing it in the ballot box. I’d give them each a sticker every time they voted. (Great way to get rid of old summer reading stickers!)
2) We’d go over that week’s titles with the PowerPoint and read excerpts of each.
3)The last thing we did each week was tally up the votes for the previous week’s bracket to see which title would move on. This was easily the most exciting part for the kids!

Each time I’d introduce a book, I’d bring copies of it to the school and leave them there so that the kids could read them for themselves if they so desired over the course of the Battle. Once a book was voted out of the Battle, I’d take those copies back to the library.

Now I am the type of person who loves to have things planned out well in advance, so the first eight weeks of this program were great! I had the PowerPoints ready to go, had my reading selections marked, and knew what I was going to do weeks in advance. But once you get past the first eight brackets, planning becomes a challenge because sometimes you don’t know weeks in advance which book is going to make it through!

THE SECOND AND THIRD ROUNDS
After our introductory brackets, once we started seeing the titles for a second time, I wanted to have an activity of some kind to go along with each book. I found some really fun things to do, and a few things that were not as successful with our time constraints along the way. It was also a great lesson for me in being flexible because sometimes I had to tweak or change things at the last minute. If you decide to do what I did, you’ll definitely be kept on your toes! I’ll share the activities that I did here to give you a few ideas of what can and what probably won’t work in an hour’s time. For the next several weeks of book club, the order of events was as follows:

1) Do activity for first book in bracket.
2) Vote on previous week’s bracket.
3) Do activity for second book in bracket.
4) Tally votes for last week’s bracket.

I reversed steps 1 and 2 in 2019, but either way is fine. The kids didn’t notice or care. =)

A group of children in a gym play Muggle Quidditch, using
PVC pipe for broomsticks and hula hoops.

Click the battle names below for sample activities. Even if you’re not doing a Battle of the Books, there are some fun activity ideas here that may help you with other programs!

Encyclopedia Brown vs Magic Tree House
Fablehaven vs Wonder
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone vs. DOAWK: The Getaway
All Birds Have Anxiety vs. Rutabaga the Adventure Chef
Encyclopedia Brown vs. Wonder
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone vs. Rutabaga the Adventure Chef

2019 activities
Diary of a Wimpy Kid vs. How to Train Your Dragon
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children vs. Closed for the Season
A Bear Called Paddington vs. Wonder
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire vs. Weird But True! 5
Diary of a Wimpy Kid vs. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
Wonder vs. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

If any of those links don’t happen to work, click here for the whole folder. (along with other resources for the program)

DEBATE AND PARTY!
The week before the final bracket vote, we had a planning session for the final week. All I knew going in was that I wanted the kids to do some sort of campaign-type presentation about each book before the final vote. I showed some examples of book commercials and 90-second Newberys to give them some ideas. The only parameters that I put on it were that the presentations had to be five minutes or less and that each person in the group had to contribute something. One child asked if they could have a debate, which I thought was an excellent idea, but I told him he had to get both sides to agree to do it. At first, the kids were on the fence about it, but after they’d had a day or two to think about it, they decided to do it. The directors of the after-school program came up with nine questions about the books that they asked each group, which were as follows:
-What is the name of your book?
-What is the book about?
-Who is the main character in the book?
-What characters support the main character?
-Who is the villain in your book?
-What happens in your book?
-What is your team’s favorite part of the book?
-Who is your favorite character in your book?
-Why is this book the best?

The children composed their answers and then each side in turn came up and gave their group’s response when the moderator posed the questions. They also made campaign signs for their group’s book of choice. On that final day, they held their debate first, then we voted and revealed the winner, and had snacks to celebrate! Snacks included cupcakes with surprise middles that revealed your Hogwarts house, Encyclopedia Brown sandwiches, Monster Book S’mores, and more! The final winner with a completely unanimous vote was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which the kids went absolutely nuts to find out! In 2019, we just decided from the beginning to do the debate again. Our final two that year were Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children vs. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Harry Potter won again, much to my delight! Snacks that year included Rice Krispie eyeballs, pretzel wands, and gillywater.

Table with a hanging sign that reads,
“Battle of the Books Debate”.
Two large printouts of book covers hang above it.

MY FAVORITE PART
My favorite part of this whole experience was how much the kids got into the books. When we read excerpts of certain books, they were disappointed when we had to stop and couldn’t read the whole thing. Many of them said, “I want to read that book!” later and some of them did! Rutabaga the Adventure Chef was the little story that could. More kids loved that book than I thought they would going into it and many of them read the entire thing on their own after getting a taste of that first chapter! We talked briefly at the end celebration about which book from the sixteen each child thought they might want to read over the summer. It was fun to hear their choices and to think about how some of them might not have ever been exposed to some of these books otherwise. I am looking forward to doing this program again with this and possibly other outreach groups. It definitely helps to have supportive after-school directors who encourage a love of and excitement about reading in the children throughout the week as well. I have been incredibly fortunate in that regard. If you’re interested in seeing more of our battle, you can check out their Twitter account here.

I hope there has been something useful in this post for you, whether it be activity ideas for specific book programs or just some ideas to get your Battle of the Books up and running! It can be a lot of work if you choose to do something similar to what I did, but the payoff is well worth it! There’s nothing quite as rewarding as seeing kids screaming with excitement over books!

If you have any other questions, feel free to contact me at jennifer dot johnson at jcpl dot net.

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