Battle of the Books

Battle of the Books in an American Schools Reading Challenge which began in the 1930s in Chicago but slowly gained popularity and is now played, not only all over the US but also in International Schools, world wide.

Here at Concordia I have just had my first experience of The Battle.

Battle of the Books is a unique reading incentive program which encourages children from upper Elementary and Middle schools to read from a selected list and then answer questions on the books competitively. Here in Shanghai we have separated our Battles into a middle school one for the older kids and an Elementary School one for the 10-12 year olds.

Unlike other American schools, Concordia’s Elementary School finishes at Fourth Grade (UK Year 5) so other schools had a mixture of grade 4 & grade 5 whereas I just had grade 4. I worked with 20 of our children who volunteered to take part as one of their after school activities. I ran two sessions a week during the autumn and spring after school clubs and saw roughly half the kids in each session. They were very excitable and often noisy!

8 books had been selected by the Librarians from across the International Schools in Shanghai and purchased in bulk. The titles this year were:

A story about a deaf girl who decides to help Blue 55, a whale who sings at a different frequency from the rest of his pod. A beautiful book all about communication.
Coyote and her dad journey across America in a converted school bus following the death of her mother and two sisters until Cotoye hears that the woods near her old house are being torn down. She realises that she must return to rescue her memory box and both of them must confront the truths that they have been running away from
Short Stories from outstanding international authors showing that heroes can be ordinary people who have the courage to do extraordinary things.
An adventurous romp throgh Indian mythology when Aru lets out The Sleeper from the Lamp of Destruction and has to travel to the underworld to rescue the universe, all in her Spider-Man pajamas!

Rocket to the Moon by Don Brown is a non-fiction graphic novel which charts the history of space flight from the earliest invention of gunpowder in China through the space race of the 1960s to the famous moon walks.

This graphic novels tells a story of frienship between two girls, one of them develops a brain tumor which threatens to derail their friendship. The characters are Chinese American, but the situations and experiences of wanting to have fun, friends and fit in are universal.
This was a longer book with a more complex plot which weaves through the darkest, strangest, and funniest twists and turns of Mayan myths. There are the scariest gods, the creepiest denizens of the underworld, and the most amazing and unlikely heroes, who have to save our world from being ripped apart.
Ideal for fans of Harry Potter, this is the tale of Morrigan Crow who as a cursed child is doomed to die on her 11th birthday but who is rescued by the enigmatic Jupiter North and taken to Nevermoor where she finds herself entered for the Wonder Society trials. Morrigan will have to prove herself to the judges and Jupiter, even if she has no idea what her ‘knack’ is!

The children were divided into teams and encouraged to read as many books from the list as possible. Some enthusiasts read ALL of them while some teams made sure that each book had been read by at least one team member.

In normal years the event would be a day away at a neighbouring school with the different elements taking place amidst other fun activities like meet the author etc. COVID, however meant that each school had to work remotely.

This year 6 Shanghai Schools took part with 21 teams. The Battle itself has three components:

The first was to redesign a front cover from one of the books.

Here are sone of the team submissions from across the schools. I was very impressed with the art work.

The second round was to decorate a cake with themes from one of the books. This was the most eagerly anticipated and exciting part of the Battle. Each team chose a book and then spent several weeks designing a decoration. All teams were supplied with a round cake so that all had the same basic size and shape to work from.

Much fun was had on the day but previous to this the teams had to use project management skills to plan the ingredients that would be needed very carefully. By the end of that process I was presented with a shopping list from each team that comprised, different coloured icing, frosting, sprinkles and even twizzlers and cotton candy (in purple!) among other things. We are fortunate to have an amazing online shopping system here called Taobao, which made my life MUCH easier.

Because the ingredients for the cake were not sourced through approved school suppliers, we were under strict instructions NOT to eat anything. This was a source of much discontent and the most frequently asked question that I heard was ‘when do we get to eat the cake?’ So to counteract any temptation I purchased muffins from our school cafe (all approved for consumption) and the kids ate those. Eagerly.

We judged our cakes locally and decided that Song for a Whale by the Moonlight Star Savers should get a Concordia prize. This was awarded at our assembly

The third element was perhaps the most challenging. After reading the books, teams had to answer questions using Kahoot, which is an online quiz software. It was important that someone in each team had read each of the books. It was a test of their knowlledge and understanding. We had to use our library so we were a little cramped.

Teams had a team leader and they each chose their own team name based on the books. We had: The Moonlight Star Savers; The Remarkable Coyotes; The Moon Runners and Heroes Without Capes.

The quiz was a test of the children’s knowledge, recall and their ability to work together as a team to come up with the correct answer. There were 120 questions to be answered and we had only an hour available so concentration ran high. I was delighted with the way eveyone co-operated (well nearly everyone, there was a little bit of rolling around on the floor, but not too much). It was incredibly tense and exciting. Scores are awarded on Kahoot not only for the correct answer but also for how fast the answer is given.

We were able to tell which of our teams was the local winner on the day but I had to add our scores into a central spreadsheet and await the outcome from the other schools who were doing their rounds on different days.

The teams were asked to evaluate the Battle and here are some of ther comments…

“Before if I didn’t have time to read then I didn’t really read. But when I came to the Battle I would read every day”

“This has made me read more in my life and to take more notes”

“I thought that this was really fun. I got to bond with more friends and laugh with more people”

“It has positively impacted my life by letting me see how much and how fast I can read. Before I didn’t really know that it would be this much fun.”

“I had a team to work with for the first time”

“It helped me to exercise my brain and my memory”

“It helps me READ more books and enjoy reading!”


We presented each child with a participation medal and to my huge delight The Remarkable Coyotes’ hard work paid off as they took FIRST PLACE.

There was much celebrating all round.

Hangzhou West Lake and Temple

Day 2 of our mini trip to Hangzhou started for me with a spot of Taiji by the lake. It was wonderful to be outside in the fresh air. Doing Taiji in natural surroundings can be very beneficial as you can absorb energy particularly from trees or water. I was certainly buzzing by the time I got back to the hotel (I was going to need that extra energy later on). It was actually quite busy by the lake with joggers walkers etc but I ignored them all. I did find it funny though when I spotted one Chinese lady videoing me! Especially as tai chi in the park is a very common sight here. Maybe they just don’t get many foreigners doing it!

Photo courtesy of Lisa our tour guide who was out for an early morning walk.

We were staying at the Shang-ri la hotel which interestingly had accommodated some of the G20 heads of state back in 2016 including Angela Merkle, Francois Holland, Theresa May and Recep Erdogan. We had a drink in the bar which Vladimir Putin had patronized. Who knows we could even have sat in the same seats!

After a delicious breakfast of noodles and dumplings (not at the hotel) we crossed the West Lake. This lake is one of the largest in a city in China and has over 300 bridges. This was a particularly beautiful one.

The weather was overcast and at times a little chilly but that didn’t deter us.

In the middle of the lake was a large island. And in the middle of the island was another lake. It is called the lake in a lake!

Around this lake were several pagodas including this one which was unusual because it has three corners on the roof instead of four. It was designed to represent a ship pointing out to the water. On the top is a white crane which symbolizes longevity.

Note also the zigzag bridge across the water leading up to the pagoda. This is because ghosts can only move in a straight line do they can’t follow you as you go across the water.

The lake itself is segmented into four so you can walk around or across it. The flowers we saw on the island were just starting to bloom.

This was a magnificent display of lupins around some shaped floral art

In the water we saw these rocks. They are very popular in traditional Chinese gardens.

Called Scholars Rocks, they are limestone which has been eroded by wind and water to form delicate and aesthetically pleasing shapes. Representing wealth and status, they symbolize the impermanence of life and how we are all shaped by nature and our environment. The holes in the rocks are to remind you that you can always see things from lots of different perspectives.

It was very pleasant to stroll in the greenery after being in an urban sprawl for so long.

In one part of the lake are three structures. They each have three holes so on a certain night during the mid autumn moon festival you can see three moons reflected in the water, thats 9 shimmering moons on the lake plus one in the sky and they say that we each have a moon in our hearts. So 11 moons in total. This is quite a famous landmark and features on the 1 yuan note (not that cash is used much here anymore!)

There were lots of interesting buildings on the island with delicate and ornate carvings.

He was enjoying it… honest

Back on the shore we travelled to another park which was famous for the Buddha’s carved in the rocks. There were hundreds of them and each had been commissioned and carved by a family as their shrine. Fortunately many survived the cultural revolution although some were defaced.

This laughing Buddha is very popular with locals.

Then it was on to the Taoist Lin Ying temple. Ying means ‘hidden’ and Lin means ‘spirit’. This was quite a large temple complex which had many Buddha halls and featured large incense burners.

I love the details on the rooflines
And the curtain of vivid prayer flags

We finished off with a simple vegetarian lunch in the grounds of the temple. This is supposed to be an auspicious thing to do. it was certainly very tasty and a great setting in which to eat.

Our return journey wasn’t as easy as we had hoped. We missed our train, which shouldn’t have been a problem as our tour guide, Lisa went to swap our tickets for the next one. What should have been a straightforward transaction took her well over an hour, the station manager, a party official and quite a lot of shouting! For some reason they couldn’t get Kevin’s passport to work with their system, which was a bit ridiculous as we had bought the original ticket and had used the passport to travel in the day before. Officialdom in China is not particularly flexible and was a point when Lisa feared that we might have to take a car back to Shanghai!!!

Anyway, all well that ends well and after standing (no seats) by the door in the cold we eventually got inside and were able to get a warm drink. We had missed about 3 trains by then!! We were pretty tired by the time we reached home but glad that we were back safely. We couldn’t have managed without Lisa.

“ For all the tea in China”

After spending the last 7 months and 3 vacations stuck in Shanghai we were resigned to our spring break being the same. But at the 11th hour, literally the Friday afternoon before we finished, we got an email to say that we can travel to other low risk areas in China. Yippee!!!

While lots of my colleagues headed straight to the beach at Sanya (known as the Hawaii of China) we opted for a more cultural experience with a trip on the bullet train to Hangzhou.

Hongqiao Railway station in Shanghai is massive. This was the scene at 8am

Hangzhou is about 4 hours away from Shanghai by normal train but by high speed train it takes just over 1 hour (which is quite incredible when you think about it). We were delighted to be able to get out of the city and into a more rural area. The air quality has been good this week in Shanghai but we have recently had yellow fog and some very nasty pollution days.

Hangzhou is a Tier 2 city in China and has a population of 10 million, so when I say go out to the countryside, it’s all relative. Our destination was actually the west lake area which is a scenic spot and from there to the tea plantations. This was a drive of approx an hour from the train station.

Tea is big business in China and in fact the UK originally got all its tea from here. The tea in Hangzhou though, is a specialty green tea and it is so highly prized that most of it does not make it outside of Hangzhou.

We began our trip dressing as tea pickers with traditional hats (needed against the sun) and baskets which were surprisingly comfortable to wear.

The type of tea grown here is called Long Jing which means ‘Dragon well’ and it is an exclusive tea. One of the reasons for that is that it is picked only once a year and the picking season lasts only about 6 weeks. So if it rains the workers have to carry on picking because there is not a moment to lose. They are given these waterproofs though. Fortunately, although overcast, it didn’t rain during our visit.

We were given access to the tea terraces belonging to one family and we walked up narrow paths between the tea bushes to get some simply stunning views

It was wonderful to be outside in the fresh fragrant air surrounded by tea.

The ladies who do the picking get paid approx £20 per day and they pick from 6-6. Once up on the terraces they don’t leave, food is brought out to them. But most of these people do this job for fun rather than as their living. They do it to help out. It’s a real labour of love.

The leaves that they pick are the young tender shoots and not the darker tougher leaves. Like the pale green leaf below.

There are tea plantations all over but the most prized and better quality tea is grown high up. This is because the higher up you go the colder it is and the tea grows more slowly which gives it a better flavor.

It would take all day to pick a full basket (if that)

The leaves are then taken down to the village to be dried and roasted. Mostly this is done in a machine but the more expensive varieties are roasted by hand which is a highly skilled process. You need to take out a small mortgage to buy some of that.

Drying racks

Interestingly, we saw several tombs dotted around the terraces. Normally Chinese do not go near graves but these tombs are strategically placed among the tea so that the spirits of their ancestors can guard the terraces (& the family business)

And then down to lunch where we had wonderful exotic dishes such as this one which is pork ribs in tea!!! I would never have thought of combining those two ingredients!

I am not a huge fan of green tea as I find the taste can sometimes be a bit bitter but this was very different. You can see here that all the shoots have sunk to the bottom which is a sign of good quality. But more than that, the stalks are floating upwards and the leaves downwards. I have never known tea to do that before!!! It actually tasted very smooth and refreshing. I was pleasantly surprised.

If you ever get the chance I would highly recommend this trip.