Thursday, September 03, 2015

Letter from South Africa: A Parent's Joyful Discovery

Today's post is a letter from Jo-Ann, a South African mother of a Lit Quiz Kid to Wayne Mills, the founder and quiz-master of the Kids' Lit Quiz. 

Jo-Ann's first experience of the Kids' Lit Quiz captures the joyful discovery that many parents have had revealed to them through the Kids' Lit Quiz; the unexpected pleasure that comes with understanding what makes a Kids' Lit Quiz reader. 

Our thanks to Jo-Ann for her permission to to publish her letter here. I've edited it slightly to protect the privacy of Jo-Ann and her daughter.

To read more about the 2015 South African KLQ competition, see Marj Brown's report at the end of Jo-Ann's letter. You can also read an Australian educator's perspective on the benefits of the Kids' Lit Quiz, in Janine Hudson's piece, Hooked on Reading, in this postFinally, there's more "fan mail" from young readers who have enjoyed the Quiz as well as from authors, educators and other amazed parents at this link.

But, first, here's Jo-Ann's  letter.  I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.

South Africa, 22 July 2015

Dear Prof Mills,

I know that you have many good books to read and questions to compose but I hope that you will have some time for this lengthy letter of thanks. I have delayed sending it so that it won’t seem like the manic mutterings of a recent Kids' Lit Quiz convert. However, even after a respectable wait following the South African final, I find that I am still completely enthused by our experience.

The 2015 South African national team

We had absolutely no idea what to expect from the Kids' Lit Quiz. As a mom, and on behalf of J, my daughter, I can’t thank you enough for what an incredible experience it was. We were so surprised to see you, the real-life Kids' Lit Quiz quiz-master, in South Africa and were extremely honoured that you travelled all the way down to our region to reward and inspire our children.

I just wanted to write a little about what it’s like to have a child that is a reader. Compulsive reading is a condition that you are well acquainted with, but, even though I have shared my daughter with her books for 12 years, I saw her in a new light, thanks to the Kids' Lit Quiz.

I was completely astounded to see my little girl (she is tiny in stature) in action at our regional heat. Of course I know she reads a lot, and I am extremely grateful for it, but I have never exactly been proud of it. Whilst watching and listening to her at the quiz heat I felt unexpectedly proud and, more importantly, extremely happy for her. I felt so happy to see that, at such a young age, she has discovered and developed her passion in life.

I know that J has much knowledge thanks to all her reading. Amongst the first books she read were collections by the cartoonist Zapiro so she has a particular love for the interplay of written words, illustrations and layers of meaning. She also has a curious grasp, for someone so young, of the often incomprehensible social and political issues in South Africa. However, before seeing her in action at the Kids' Lit Quiz, I had no real idea of the volume and diversity of her reading and of how she has retained and assimilated so much of what she has read. I had no idea of her ability to make associations amongst the memories of the read and re-read books and to pluck these memories from her mind. It was an absolute joy to discover this.

J is, of course, one of those kids who gets into trouble for reading – at the dinner table, during class, while grocery shopping, walking through parking lots, etc. Before the Kids' Lit Quiz she also used to get into trouble with me for reading “junk”.  I guess, because I have less time and lack the reading compulsion she has, I am a fussy reader. I like to read “good” writing and I can’t stand the ancient Richie Rich and similar comics that she finds in drawers in her grandparents’ home, left there by a generation that did not know TV or anything digital. I can’t understand how J can move from a classic to a tattered comic as if they are all equally deserving of her attention. Well, the Quiz proved just how shallow my approach is and how elegant her depth and breadth of reading is. It seems she was right all along (never too soon for a mother to acknowledge that).

I wanted to share a moment from J’s reading past that I think you will appreciate and which will, hopefully, amuse you. It happened when J was about 10 years old. Buying books is a costly business, especially in South Africa. I always feel so guilty when I buy books – knowing that for so many people in this country the price of a few good books is the same as a family’s monthly food budget. Buying books for children is a little easier on my conscience and, as we have four children, I am able to justify buying books for J (the eldest, so the books will get passed down) more freely.

One Friday afternoon, J and I left the bookshop with three books for her and one for me. The long drive home was the scene for yet another lecture from Mom to J on how lucky she was to have parents who can afford books and who are prepared to buy them. I barely saw her on the Saturday and, on the Sunday morning, I found her lying in her bed gazing at the ceiling.

“How are you doing?” I ask, expecting some words of gratitude for the book deluge; instead she replies, “I’m bored.”

“How can you be bored? You have three new books to read!”

“I’ve finished them,” she says in a tone that states the obvious, given that I have clearly missed it.

“What?!” I am annoyed and rather envious that she has had time to read three books when I haven’t even started mine. “How can you have read three books when you only got them on Friday afternoon?”

“I’ve finished them all,” she says again, very calmly.

I am more than annoyed. In fact, I am ready to launch into another rant about how precious and expensive books are, how they need to be cherished and that there is no sense in racing through them. So I ask a silly question. The kind only an angry parent who is poised to lose the battle asks.

“J, do you actually read all the words?”

“No,” she says, still totally calm. I had anticipated a standard pre-teen retort, “Of course, Mom.” Yet she, shamelessly, says “No”.

I am about to explode. I draw in a deep breath in order to proceed with my lecture (tantrum, if I am truthful.) J, the more mature of the two of us, no doubt thanks to her reading, states evenly,

“Mom, I don’t read all the words. I purposely miss some of them out. You see that way, when I read the book again, there are a few surprises for me. Sometimes, when it’s a really good book, I leave out whole pages.”

That was the moment I realised that I, who can merely read, was standing in the presence of A Reader, someone who, whilst reading a book is already anticipating reading it again and is squirreling away words to make the re-read even more enjoyable. It was the first time her reading completely amazed and humbled me; the second time was at the Kids' Lit Quiz heat where, as I’ve mentioned, her ability to recall details of her diverse reading completely floored me.

The 2015 South African National Final at Rodean School, Johannesburg

The South African final at Rodean School was fantastic and being part of it was an incredible experience for our school's team and for their parents. To see our kids, whose only preparation for the event was their years of reading, affirming their love of words was quite special. It was also a privilege to be in the company of a roomful of people who shared that passion.

A very sincere thank you to you and Marj Brown. I am so grateful for the inspiration and affirmation that the Kids' Lit Quiz has given to my child and to children all over the world.

Kind regards, many thanks and much respect,

J's Mom

Report of the 2015 SA Kids' Lit Quiz

by Marj Brown

Now in its twelfth year in South Africa, the Kids' Lit Quiz was held during February 2015 – this year involving over 100 schools and 177 teams.

Copyright, Chris Riddell, SA Children's Laureate, 2015 (from KLQ SA Facebook page.)


In 2004, the Kids' Lit Quiz was brought to SA after I had seen it in action the year before in Yorkshire, UK – where I was teaching at the time.

Looking back, it is remarkable to think that over the twelve years, it has spread to over 100 schools in SA, growing from 40 teams in its first year to 177 teams taking part this year throughout SA. Initially, the Quiz was held in Johannesburg and Cape Town, with Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Port Elizabeth following soon afterwards. Since then, two other regions – Pretoria and Knysna/George – have also joined.

In the KLQ World Finals – where the winners from each participating country compete against each other – SA has been the winner on two occasions, and has also twice taken second place. The global competition has increasing year to year as new countries join the quiz. The international finals now include: New Zealand, China, Singapore, UK (with a play off of the best teams from England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales), Australia, Canada and the USA.

Benefits of the Kids' Lit Quiz

The Quiz incorporates questions on classics, comics, contemporary novels, graphic novels, general book knowledge, films that are based on children’s books and even magazines. Picture books and fairy tales are as important in this quiz as classics and mythology.

Kids' Lit Quiz participants have to identify characters, opening lines, authors and archetypes. One theme is often visual, or auditory. The range of questions in the Quiz widens the students' scope of reading, both vertically and horizontally so increasing their empathy, intellectual ability and enabling them to travel to different worlds without physically leaving their reading spot. These children certainly read authors from many different cultures and thus have insight way beyond their years. They also see adult readers around them and this provides an important message about the pursuit of reading for leisure and information.

Past SA winners have testified that their status in the school improved after winning an international trip because of their love of reading: suddenly the school library also increased in popularity.  As Wayne asks the questions, teachers and parents are seen writing down titles that they have not heard of, in order to purchase these, so the Quiz spreads the knowledge of books and assists book sellers and publishers as well. Library stocks have increased as a result of the Quiz – as children push their boundaries, reading beyond their few favorite authors or genres.

This year, feedback from one coach was that an autistic, ADHD boy on her team was able to complete a Maths test for the first time – and teachers attributed it to the concentration that the Quiz has brought to this boy's life as he reads intently. Certainly the increased vocabulary through reading and the comprehension required for the Quiz enhances these skills and benefits performance in other subjects. Some questions require immense higher order skills of understanding and critical thinking: For example Wayne might describe the history and theory behind nursery rhymes and from these clues, the children identify the rhymes.

Our International Community

Wayne Mills, the quizmaster, is a past lecturer at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He introduced the quiz 24 years ago, to NZ and then the UK, and then beyond. At present, there are over 1,000 teams on five continents. 

In New Zealand, Wayne was awarded the prestigious Margaret Mahy medal in 2008 in recognition of his services to children’s literature and, in January 2011, was awarded the New Zealand Order of merit by HM Queen Elizabeth. This is a tangible mark of respect from New Zealand for a man who encourages and rewards NZ reading citizens and those abroad. One wonders if an order of the Baobab would ever be awarded to a person for encouraging reading in SA?

Through the Quiz, good readers are recognized for their reading ability in the same way as prowess in mathematics and sport is rewarded.

One Canadian school required all children who wanted to be chosen for the KLQ team, to sign a contract that they would read widely over a 10 week period (mythology one week, poetry the next, classics the next and so on.)  All entrants were issued with KLQ badges and certificates, displaying a huge level of pride in their reading initiatives and goals. Some schools have started KLQ book clubs while the University of Auckland is currently considering awarding scholarship prizes to the members of the winning NZ team each year.

For all participants, the chance to travel the world and meet authors and like-minded peers at a world final is enormously attractive. This, plus their reading, helps them to engage with and understand other cultures, as global citizens.

2015 SA regional heats

There are a group of regional coordinators in SA who help run the quiz regionally; they set up the venues, register the teams, and host the quizmaster. These women make the quiz possible through their enthusiasm for reading and keeping the spirit of volunteerism alive in SA – making a difference to literacy and striving for literary excellence. The scores and number of teams entering in each region steadily increase each year, thanks to their hard work.

CAPE TOWN: Grove School– Bev Petit: Contact
KNYSNA: Oakhill School. Julie Stevenson. Contact
PE: St Georges Prep. Contact: Rosemarie Roth:
PMB: Athlone School. Contact: Linda Brand
DURBAN: Durban Girls College. Contact: Bev Campbell:
PRETORIA: Springvale Primary. Contact: Cheryl Gibbs -
JHB and SA FINALS – Roedean School. SA Coordinator Marj Brown - – assisted by Nicky Sulter of St John’s Prep,

2015 Regional and National Results:

Cape Town: Sweet Valley, St Georges Prep
Knysna: Holy Cross, Holy Cross
PE: Clarendon Prep, St Georges Prep
PMB: Cowan House, Pelham Senior Primary
Durban: Manor Gardens, Manor Gardens
Jhb: St John’s Prep,  Redhill
National Finals: 1. Manor Gardens 2. Holy Cross, 3. Sweet Valley

2015 National Team: Manor Gardens Primary School

2015 South African National Team

As the SA KLZ winners, Durban school Manor Gardens will represent SA in Connecticut, USA at the KLQ World Finals; these will be held on 8 July 2015 at the Central Connecticut State University.

This is not Manor Gardens’ first appearance at the World Finals; their 2011 team won the world final by the largest margin ever. At a time when SA has very poor literacy levels, we celebrated the enormity of this victory in the “sport of reading”.

Being crowned the winning SA school for 2015 is a testament to the children, their parents as people who encourage reading in the home, and the librarian, Isobel Sobey, who inspires the children to read and keeps a steady flow of good literature in the well-stocked Manor Gardens library.

The school, too, has to be applauded for prioritizing this essential tool of education. Past pupil and Manor Gardens SA representative in 2011 for the SA KLQ, Alex Breckenridge, also speaks of the immense importance of reading for pure pleasure, for escapism, in this pressurized world.


Upon my return to South Africa in 2004, I identified a need for literacy support in under-resourced South African schools which could not be addressed by the Kids' Lit Quiz, an international literary competition based on the last 200 years of world literature, which requires contestants to have access to a well-stocked school library.

Only 7% of South African schools have functioning libraries so Phendulani, founded in 2008, spreads the fun of the Kids' Lit Quiz to under-resourced South African schools.

As with the KLQ, Phendulani provides an incentive for kids to read for fun and to earn book prizes in the process. Similarly, authors hand out the prizes and speak about their work, so that these kids can also have the opportunities of being inspired to write. Many of the authors themselves come from humble backgrounds. Phendulani aims to:
  • provide an incentive for children to read the books
  • promote literacy in SA schools
  • provide opportunities for children to meet authors
  • promote reading with understanding
  • ensure that books are circulated in a school, and not locked up as a valuable resource, where they could remain hidden from children.
It is exciting to see the difference Phendulani has made, since 2008, to both to the participating schools and students and in the wider picture of South African education.

In Johannesburg, many of the participating schools have been identified as schools at risk and Mr Potledi Ngoepe from the Department of Basic Education has attended the Jo'burg heat to witness the quiz first hand and see how the department can build a quiz into their broader literacy work.

For participating schools, the quiz is an eye opener to how one can read and enjoy literature and be rewarded for this activity – schools from as far afield as Alexandra, Diepsloot, Nootgedacht, Lawley near Orange Farm, Daveyton and Soweto attended and will be back, determined to win next year.

The teachers work with the children to ensure the teams know the books and it is encouraging to see levels of literacy rise in these schools. Most importantly it is good to see the children enjoying reading – something that will enhance their progress in all subjects besides their level of critical thinking, imagination, knowledge, and emotional happiness.

Times Media

Times Media, sponsors of the SA Kids Lit Quiz, must be commended on supporting this quiz and making it possible. They also support the Phendulani literacy quiz, supplying books and prizes for a quiz for schools without well-stocked libraries. Support for reading at both ends of the literacy spectrum places the people at the Times Media Group in a position where they can hold their heads high in terms of assisting education and literacy in this country.

Marj Brown
SA Coordinator, KLQ SA and Phendulani
February 2015

In February 2015, Wayne Mills donated 2000 books (that's a LOT of books!) from his personal library to two under-resourced South African school libraries identified through the Phendulani Quiz. The donation was coordinated by SA Kids' Lit Quiz national coordinator, Marj Brown, through Breadline Africa, a South-African based charity, and in collaboration with the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory. You can read more here

Notwithstanding Wayne's generous book donation, there remains a critical need for children's books in many South African schools. New or gently used books can be sent to Marj Brown at 14 O’Brien Ave, Northcliff, Johannesburg SA, 2195 for distribution to schools and children in need. 

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