Student literati make reading into a team sport with annual Name That Book Competition

Five teams of students sit in tight circles on the stage in the Jane Long Academy Auditorium. It’s 9 a.m. on a school day, so the event is sparsely attended, but the few audience members watch in rapt attention as the teams make selections on tablets passed from hand to hand between them, quietly deliberating, until their 60 allotted seconds have passed.

The tension is palpable, and it’s no wonder, considering the months-long road of arduous work it took the teams of high school students to get here. This competition isn’t like any other group activity; it’s comprised of teams of individuals who joined together to compete in one of the most singular pastimes there is: reading.

The Name That Book Competition (NTB) was created by Maxine Jackson, a librarian at River Oaks Elementary, more than 50 years ago, and has since ballooned in popularity nationwide. In HISD alone, more than 130 schools participate annually, with nearly 1,000 students competing. Each student reads 25 books from a curated list comprised of a blend of contemporary works and classic literature. A proctor reads out a quote from one of the books, usually one that is ambiguous but with enough context for a savvy reader to recognize, and the teams must correctly guess which of the 25 books the proctor is quoting.

The competitors have from the beginning of the school year to the start of the competition (this year, the first week of February) to not only read the books but to retain the content within, from keywords to the cadence of the writing to the authors’ style and syntax.

NTB has brought reading comprehension to the competitive level, a unique opportunity for students who lack the challenge of competition elsewhere. “I think it’s a great competition for students who aren’t sporty or into music or something like that,” said Library Services Specialist Robin Cashman, co-chair of the NTB Competition. “This is a niche competition for someone who is more academically minded.”

“Reading is such a solitary thing and it’s so important,” added Library Services Specialist and co-chair Melissa Buran. “[The teams] help with comprehension, as well. They’re having to discuss these books and really do a deep dive into them, which isn’t something readers always get to do.”

The number of competitors has dwindled over the past few years thanks to COVID-19, but with a return to form comes a renewed vigor, and the 2023 competition was fierce. Over the three weeks of active competition, teams were pared down to the finals, victory often coming down to a sudden death question or an outright tie with the results as follows:

Grades 3-6
Arabic Immersion Magnet School and West University
Tied for first place

Middle School
T.H. Rogers School
First place

High School
Westside High School
First place

NTB has cultivated a sense of community among the competitors and helps to build their confidence and sense of self.

“It’s fun to be in a group and read books and have that communal sense of nerdiness,” said HSPVA senior Alika Jimenez. “I’ve been on the team for four years, and having to read this many books every single year has definitely helped my reading comprehension. I read ‘Brave New World’ in the past two days; I didn’t think I could do that!”

To learn more about the Name That Book Competition, visit HISD’s Library Services Website.