Kids’ Lit Quiz – Most Inspiring

I had the delight today of speaking and presenting awards for the Kids’ Lit Quiz National Finals held at City of London School. The amazing author, Cressida Cowell, Waterstones Children’s Laureate, she of “How To Tame Your Dragon” and “The Wizards Of Once” fame, also spoke and awarded the prizes. The prize? An all-expenses paid trip to New Zealand for five to compete in the World Final

Left to right: Dull Sheriff, four winners from Keswick School with their teacher, Cressida Cowell, Quizmaster Wayne Mills

It’s rather intimidating to address 80 pent-up competitors between the ages of 10 and 13. Whittled down from 400 national competitors to 20 teams of four, they just want you to go away so they can get started on the quiz. Yet behind them are 150 or more parents and observers who want to make sure you give an appropriately inspiring talk on the importance of reading and education. It’s even more intimidating when you’re informed of your ten minute slot-of-fame about 20 minutes ahead of time.

In any case, I managed to eke out a welcome to the City of London, mention the role of Sheriff (NOT of Nottingham), and point out how many stories that matter had occurred right around the school and St Paul’s environs, Romans & Boudica, William I and the Norman invasion, Magna Carta, Wynkyn de Worde and Thomas Caxton, Shakespeare, the Great Fire, Johnson, Dickens, the Blitz, as well as modern stories of technology, finance, or climate change in the making.

The two hour quiz got underway when that rather dull Sheriff got off the stage. The event was expertly guided by the irrepressible Quizmaster Wayne Mills, a New Zealander who started this amazing, international reading competition back in 1991. He was supported by a wonderful team, including an emcee, invigilators, arbitrators, scorers, and electricians hovering over buzzers. Fortuitously, several of the stories I referred to in my opening featured in the questions. The questions themselves covered authors, illustrators, characters, and plots.

Over five themed rounds of 15 questions the 20 teams battled. At the break I spoke to several. They came from across the country, many having risen at 04:30 or so to get to London that morning. And what did most do at the break, once that uninteresting Sheriff had passed by? Stick their noses in a book. One pair of young girls were happy to chat about their reading a book I have just re-read, Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (1990).

Back to the fray, the rather-exciting competition ended with the results as:

1st:Keswick School
2nd:Colfe’s School
3rd:Oxford High School

Honestly, it was most inspiring to see a love of reading and knowledge, celebrating the enthusiasm of the students. And I got to use one of my favourite quotes about stories by Terry Pratchett (another fortuitous coincidence today). This comes from the opening of Witches Abroad (1991), his tenth Discworld novel:

“… on the Discworld, people take things seriously. Like stories.
Because stories are important.
People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it’s the other way around.
Stories exist independently of their players. If you know that, the knowledge is power.
… And they have evolved. The weakest have died and the strongest have survived and they have grown fat on the retelling…
Stories etch grooves deep enough for people to follow in the same way that water follows certain paths down a mountainside. And every time fresh actors tread the path of the story, the groove runs deeper.

This is called the theory of narrative causality and it means that a story, once started, takes a shape. It picks up all the vibrations of all the other workings of that story that have ever been.
This is why history keeps on repeating all the time.
So a thousand heroes have stolen fire from the gods.
A thousand wolves have eaten grandmother, a thousand princesses have been kissed…

It is now impossible for the third and youngest son of any king, if he should embark on a quest which has so far claimed his older brothers, not to succeed.

Stories don’t care who takes part in them. All that matters is that the story gets told, that the story repeats. Or if you prefer to think of it like this: stories are a parasitical life form, warping lives in the service only of the story itself.”

During the rest of the novel, three witches try to make sure a servant girl doesn’t marry a prince – it’s a very big job – you can’t fight a Happy Ending.