Updated: May 16
“It was a surprise to a lot of people when Mrs. Olinski’s team won the sixth-grade Academic Bowl contest at Epiphany Middle School. It was an even bigger surprise when they beat the seventh grade and the eighth grade, too. And when they went on to even greater victories, everyone began to ask: How did it happen?”
Mrs. Olinski had returned to teaching after 10 years, after being paralyzed in an automobile accident. She chose four students…a rather unlikely selection, to be part of her Academic Bowl team. ( a quiz team)
The stories of each of the four...Nathan, Nadia, Ethan and Julian, called ‘The Souls', stories overlap and entwine together with Mrs. Olinski’s, to narrate the story of their victory.
The book opens with the team at the regional finals. Generally quiz teams prepare by memorising facts, which the Souls have done. But in this case, the underdog team happens to be able to answer by connecting the questions to experience in their lives. As the questions are asked, author E.L. Konigsburg tells the story of each contestant’s encounter with the relevant fact that is the answer to that particular question, showing us how that particular, normally dead fact comes alive for each child.
As a library educator who works daily with children across the ages of 6-16, I absolutely love this in the this dimension of the book. Children never fail to surprise me with the connections they make to the books they read or the stories I narrate in the library. There is a richness to their learning when we encourage these connections and give them the space to make and share these connections.
This sharing of the stories behind each of the answers to the factual questions, to me was a question in itself. What is education? Is it only the rote learning that thrives in our country? What props up this memorisation? What does rote learning serve to the development of the mind? What is intelligence?
The story is narrated in first person by each of the different characters. Each story layered one on top of the other. Each layer adding meaning and insight to the plot of the stories that came before. As a result there is a lot of back and forth between the contest and the stories of each of the children.
I found this book sophisticated in the quality and structure of the writing. However, it would be a book that I would recommend to advanced readers, eclectic readers or older readers…12 plus.
The theme that overarches the story is kindness, friendship and respect.
I picked this one in a heartbeat, after I came across a reference to it in another book and given that the Newberry medal winning ‘From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankwieler’ also by E.L. Konigsburg, is one of my all-time favourites.
Considerations that parent, teachers and librarians may want to take note of, given the exposure levels of most Indian children and the publishers age rating of 8-12.
1.On page 2 “Both maxwell boys’ voices had deepened and the girls displayed lacy bra straps inside their T-shirt necklines. The fact the necklines were outsized and the two pairs of straps matched—they were apricot-colored—made Mrs. Olinski believe that they were not making a fashion statement as much as they were trying to say something. To her sixth grader puberty was something they could spell and define but had yet to experience.”
(yes, children are exposed to A LOT…but an adult passing judgment on a child made me question this sentence. )
2. On page 8 says Grandma Sadie said “Nathan, how can you stand playing the same piece over and over again?” And grandpa Nate answered “Why don’t you ask me how I can stand making love to the same woman over and over again?”
This sentence took me by surprise and may need some explanation for younger children. I take it as a positive affirmation of an old man's love for his wife and most children won't even understand the reference, but I hope children are old enough or have talked this over with a responsible adult to understand that it refers in a positive manner at a decades long relationship between two individuals, rather than the denigrating view so often shown in popular media.
There are a few other milder comments…but these two concerned me as an educator who encourages children to make their own choices and I am unaware if they would have the freedom to talk about sentences that may disturb them or would leave questions unanswered, which is why I am not comfortable keeping this on the shelves of the school library for the recommended age group, but would highly recommend it for older children or for a parent/adult to read along with their child.
I share these concerns given the culture we live in.
To sum up this post, I have to say that I loved the book, the brilliant writing, the unique plot and the storyline.