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Originally published Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 12:20 AM

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Kids' books: This 'March Madness' is literally playing by the book

School Library Journal is sponsoring a "Battle of the Kids' Books." Patterned after the wildly popular March Madness, when college basketball teams vie against one another in a "bracket" scheme, the "Battle of the Kids' Books" pits 16 topnotch children's books against each other and asks popular children's-book authors to choose a winner.

Scripps Howard News Service

Think "March Madness" is all about basketball?

Think again.

For the second consecutive year, School Library Journal is sponsoring a "Battle of the Kids' Books." Patterned after the wildly popular March Madness, when college basketball teams vie against one another in a "bracket"scheme, the "Battle of the Kids' Books" pits 16 topnotch children's books against each other and asks popular children's-book authors to choose a winner.

It's a fast-paced event. The 16 books that open the contest on March 15 are whittled down to eight books by the second week, and four books on the third week. A winner will be chosen on April 6 by Newbery Medalist Katherine Paterson, who is the new National Ambassador of Young People's Literature.

Interested? Check out the new Web site for the "Battle of the Kids' Books," sljbattleofthebooks.com. And this year there's a new twist, which allows readers a way to register their vote. Through March 14, readers can vote in the "Undead" poll for the one book (of the 16 finalists) that they want to see "rise from the dead" and compete as the contest's final winner.

Once again this year, there's a great list of children's and teen books in contention. All are novels or nonfiction books aimed at ages 8 and older. The 16 finalists were published in 2009, and many already have won honors, including the Newbery Medal ("When You Reach Me" by Rebecca Stead) and the National Book Award ("Claudette Colvin" by Phillip Hoose).

Besides Paterson, the judges in the "Battle of the Kids' Books" read like a "Who's Who" of children's literature: Newbery Medalists Christopher Paul Curtis ("Bud, Not Buddy") and Cynthia Kadohata ("Kira Kira"), as well as Newbery Honor authors Nancy Farmer ("A Girl Named Disaster"), Shannon Hale ("Princess Academy"), Gary Schmidt ("Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy"), Jim Murphy ("An American Plague") and Megan Whalen Turner ("The Thief."

The whole thing is the brainchild of three dedicated children's-literature lovers: Monica Edinger, a teacher at The Dalton School in New York who has a blog called "Educating Alice" (medinger.wordpress.com/); Dalton School Librarian Roxanne Feldman; and Jonathan Hunt, a teacher in Modesto, Calif.

"This contest isn't about money or time — we're just passionate about it,"said Edinger in a recent telephone interview. "I think it offers a different way into considering these books. There's been a lot of buzz about these books, but not everyone has had a chance to read them."

Last year's winner was "The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins, and chosen by Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry. This year, Edinger says she, Feldman and Hunt started working back in October to come up with a list of possible books.

The 16 finalists are matched up alphabetically, which can make some interesting choices, Edinger noted. For example, Newbery Honor author Schmidt must choose between a novel about a teen with Asberger's syndrome ("Marcelo in the Real World" by Francisco X. Stork) and a nonfiction look at the 1960s, "Marching for Freedom" by Elizabeth Partridge).

Some people complain about these "apples and oranges" choices, Edinger said. But they are typical of the decisions that are made each year by librarians who choose the winner of the Newbery Medal or other prizes in children's literature, she added.

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"Award committees have to look at really different kinds of books," she said.

So, what's the point of the "Battle of the Kids' Books"?

"It's really meant to be a game, to be fun," Edinger said. "We're trying to give another look at books that did get some attention but are definitely worth reading."

Karen MacPherson, the children's/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.

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