Savannah Hepburn Penny’s kids spent this summer the way they spend all their summers: between the covers. Of books, that is.
But not just any books.
Every year for the past six years — the COVID-hampered summer of 2020 excepted — Hepburn Penny has organized a Battle of the Books program that sees kids between the ages of eight and 18 ditch their video games and cellphones and commit to reading 10 books over the summer holidays.
The books are classics. “There’s no Captain Underpants, there’s no Diary of a Wimpy Kid, it’s books that have stood the test of time,” Hepburn Penny says.
The kids meet via Zoom to discuss them, and when summer’s over, they team up for a Battle of the Books competition that tests what they’ve learned.
The program has grown in popularity over the years, with more than 30 kids participating.
But this year was the first time Hepburn Penny, who moved to Hampton from Ontario last year, held the program in New Brunswick.
She hadn’t had time to build up much of a network, so she just put the word out on a New Brunswick homeschooling page on Facebook and figured a few parents would see it and sign their kids up.
Within days of putting the word out, 24 kids had registered to participate.
Less texting, more texts
Those who have already discovered it know there are few things to rival the joy of getting lost in a good book.
But cellphones, iPads and video games have become increasingly stiff competition for kids’ (and adults’) attention over the years.
Hepburn Penny would love to see books muscle back in on that treasured turf, and she thinks the Battle of the Books can help them do that.
Choosing top-shelf reading material is a key part of the strategy.
Hepburn Penny handpicks the titles, a takeaway from the original Battle of the Books program held by a local library in Ontario.
She had signed several of her own six children up for that program, but as the summer wore on, she had questions about some of the book choices.
“When we got to a zombie fiction novel, I called the local librarian and I said ‘Why are these books not great?’ ” she recounted with a chuckle.
The librarian explained that it was a government-funded program, which meant there had to be a certain number of Canadian authors, a certain number of books written in the last year, and other rules around the selection.
So Hepburn Penny decided to branch out on her own, launching the Battle of the Books: Classics Edition.
In the years since, she has built up a lengthy list of high-quality kids’ literature titles to choose from. She picks 10 books per summer, and everyone of every age reads the same books.
“My big challenge was making sure that I wasn’t selecting material that was obviously too mature for an eight-year-old,” she said. “But so much that is good for eight-year-olds is also good for 18-year-olds.”
She cites one of this summer’s picks — Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, which recounts the true story of her family’s efforts to help Jewish people escape from the Nazis during the Second World War — as an example.
“There is some tough stuff, obviously, in a book like that,” she said. “But even my six-year-old, who listens along with the stories … [kids] just meet the books where they’re at.”
The bottom line for Hepburn Penny is that if kids are reading good books, and families are discussing them, it’s a win-win way to build a lifelong habit.
“A number of parents have said the moment that they’re finished with one book, their child says, ‘What’s next on the list?’ So I know there’s a bit of an appetite created and that only comes through reading great books. … and if we develop that appetite as children, it sticks with us as adults,” she said.
“My hope is that it edges out of some of the default activities that we sometimes spend time on, which would definitely include video games and the like.”
Community pitched in to donate prizes
The quick uptake on the New Brunswick edition of the reading program wasn’t the only thing that surprised Hepburn Penny.
When she put out a request for a few donated prizes for the Battle of the Books competition, she was taken aback by the response.
In Ontario, she said, “this was always the most labour-intensive component of the whole process,” and entailed a lot of driving around to ask businesses if they’d like to donate a prize.
But here, she said, neighbours, residents, businesses immediately chimed in on Facebook, donating gift cards, homemade bookmarks, customized certificates and more.
“I was really impressed by that,” Hepburn Penny said. “Not necessarily surprised, because I’ve lived in this area for about 14 months now, and the people here are just so generous. They’re so sweet.”
The jam-packed prize baskets will put a nice bow on the program’s grand finale Wednesday night, which entails three hours of lightning rounds, a Jeopardy!-style “sudden death” round and a championship round, all punctuated with potluck refreshments and door prizes for the families in attendance.
All in all, Hepburn Penny said, it’s a great, family-friendly way to close the chapter on summer.
“There’s usually little kids running around, so it can be a bit chaotic, but a lot of parents step in to help with kids, you’ve got siblings who are there keeping track of the score — it’s really a lot of fun.”
Hepburn Penny plans to run the program again next year, hopefully expanding it across the province, and says anyone interested in registering can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s a small registration fee, which is contributed directly to prize baskets for the competition.
CURLING UP WITH A GOOD BOOK: THIS YEAR’S LIST
Savannah Hepburn Penny handpicks the books for the kids’ summer reading list, noting she has built up a library of “dozens and dozens” of titles over the years. The books have to be classics that have stood the test of time and have appeal to kids from ages eight to 18. For its first year in New Brunswick, the list included:
- Old Yeller, by Fred Gipson
- The Hiding Place, by Corrie ten Boom
- Summer of the Monkeys, by Wilson Rawls
- Owls in the Family, by Farley Mowat
- A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
- The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich
- Farmer Boy, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Rascal, by Sterling North
- Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt
- Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech (later removed from the list because Hepburn Penny decided it was “a bit too heavy” for the younger readers)