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Bookworms tangle over plot, characters

Six teams emerge from Hillsborough's Battle of the Books and will proceed to the district competition.

Published May 1, 2003

TAMPA - With the halls of the Tampa Convention Center buzzing with literary trivia, Lutz Elementary fourth-graders Maggie Dietz and Skylar Busch were intent on one final cram session before the beginning of the ninth annual Battle of the Books competition Tuesday morning.

"We know it all," Skylar said of the 20 novels they had to read for the contest. "But we're trying to get ahead of everybody."

"Everybody" was the throng of fellow fourth-grade contestants: 408 students from 102 schools all seeking one of six spots in the district finals. "We had some pretty hard competition getting here, but we survived," Skylar said.

The Battle of the Books pits three-student teams (with one alternate) against one another to test their knowledge of the 20 books they all read. Quotes, plots, characters, authors and more are used to compose questions, which teams vie to answer in game show format.

"I've been studying for nine months," Maggie said.

"She's read all the books four times," Skylar said, impressed with her pal's rigor.

Eric Young, Jimmy Williamson and Malik Mamajdeh from Brooker Elementary in Brandon were trying not to bounce off the walls as they waited for their first-round match. "It takes teamwork," said Eric, captain of the squad. "And you have to be well-prepared. And, oh yeah, don't forget to breathe!"

Deep breaths were in short supply as the battles commenced. Teammates huddled over answer buzzers, whispering among themselves, hanging on every word as the moderator read the questions.

The battle, put on by the Hillsborough County School District, is a serious undertaking. Each contest has one moderator, two scorekeepers and at least four judges (six for second-round battles.)

Parents and principals cheer silently (it's a rule), pulling for their school's team. Tampa Palms Elementary principal Betty Lou Turner kept score during her school's first-round victory, keeping a running tally after each correct answer.

"I don't know if it's funny or not, but it's pretty tragic as into this as I am," Turner said.

And the kids kept their game faces on, too. Claywell Elementary School teacher Vicki Anderson has taken her teams to the district finals five years running. This year's captain, Erin Domaracki is the fourth child in her family to compete in the battle, following three older brothers.

Claywell made it through the first round, but came up short in the round that determined which school would make it to districts. Team member Lisa Patzner got a little teary, as did a lot of students whose teams didn't advance, but she cheered up a little later when she got to meet Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio in the hall.

"We talk to the kids about sportsmanship," said Battle of the Books organizer Barbara Rooks. "It's not just about reading books. It's part character education, too. It's tough to see those tears, but we teach them to cope with that."

Alisha Cherian, captain of the Chiles team, came within one wrong answer of experiencing defeat. But her team eked out a spot in the district finals, winning a tie breaker with Tampa Palms.

"I'm going to district!" Alisha shrieked into a cell phone, telling her dad the happy news. "It was very scary, very stressful," she said later. "My teammate (David Harris) was freaking out, having a heart attack up there."

In addition to Chiles, the five other schools heading to the district battle are Bryan Elementary in Plant City; Bryant Elementary in Keystone; Carrollwood Elementary; Roland Park Elementary in Tampa; and Yates Elementary in Brandon. That final Battle of the Books competition will be May 15 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

- Logan D. Mabe can be reached at 269-5304 or at

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