This is, if I am counting correctly, my eighth year helping out with the Readers’ Cup. Every time I am reminded how much I love it. Of course there is a lot to admire about the competition – the way it fosters a healthy excitement in literature that turns it into a collaborative experience, or the way it encourages healthy competition between schools and a sense of respect for other competitors. I’ve been thinking a little bit more about this though, and I think these aren’t even the greatest strength of the competition. For those with only a passing familiarity with R.C., each team is given a reading list of Australian and International books that range from picture books to non-fiction to novels, and are expected to show up on the day of the competition with a comprehensive knowledge of the set texts, as well as a rehearsed performance or presentation as a creative response to them. Their final result is a combination of the scores they attain in these two sections. It’s a simple enough conceit, though a lot of work goes into it behind the scenes.
The real value of the competition however – as I see it, anyway – is this: to win, it is not enough to simply read the books. The questions are fiendishly difficult at times, such as “How many rabbits are in the landscape picture that forms the endpapers?” or “What’s the colour of the tennis racquet that Jordan hides behind the wardrobe?” I have read many of these books, but I could not for the life of me answer many of these questions. Similarly, the creative challenge requires students to carefully re-imagine or analyse their chosen texts, with many choosing to bring to life moments absent from the published narrative, or to collide the worlds of two stories together (a notable example from this year’s primary competition was the “Switch-Witch,” who gleefully cackled as she nabbed the characters from one story to put them in the world of another, just to see what would happen). It is always a delight to see just how astonishingly hard the students have worked at pulling these stories apart.
Which leads me to my point. The Reader’s Cup encourages deep reading. In a world where the printed word is fast becoming another disposable commodity that can be churned through and discarded, the contestants in R.C. must engage with their prescribed books in a way that perhaps seems alien to them in much of their reading outside of the competition: they have to study them, and go a bit beyond what would be expected for their English classes, too. They have to know the characters inside out—know what they would say, do, or be in different situations. They have to know the smaller details of the story, spotting the things that only the author would usually notice. They have to live within the novels, not just consume them. From my discussions with them it’s clear that most of these kids will remember the books that they worked on as favourites for years to come, and I think that the relationship that the competition fosters with the printed word is really special.
For a little while, books are more than books. As lovers of reading, isn’t that all we could hope for?