What do books and professional wrestling have in common? A fair amount, it turns out. I just returned from "Wrestlemania" in Phoenix, which included a big reading smack-down for kids. World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) has several youth outreach programs including its international Reading Challenge-for which I was the judge. No, that wasn't my ring name, nor did I have to wear tights and get in the ring, but I did meet several WWE stars and "divas," along with a lot of great young readers.
Here's how the WWE Reading Challenge works: months prior, with the help of the American Library Association and its Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), books are chosen in three age/grade categories. Kids start reading. Two of my novels, SATURDAY NIGHT DIRT and SUPER STOCK ROOKE, were on the docket, which is how I came to be "The Judge" (I like that stage name more and more). Over the months, participating schools narrow student numbers via fun tests and activities with the novels; the finalists get to go to the last round of competition on "Wrestlemania" weekend to determine the three champions.
The WWE flew in the finalist kids and their families from all over the U.S., Canada and the UK, and put them up at the Hyatt. Imagine a hotel ballroom filled with chattering, excited kids and slightly stunned parents as they wait for the WWE stars to make a grand entrance-which the WWE is very good at. To thudding music and an announcer adept at periodic sentences, the "talent" (as their handlers called them) finally bounded through the doors: John Morrison, a younger, dark-haired version of Fabio; Kofi Kingston, chiseled from his dreadlocks down; gentle giant Mark Henry, "The World's Strongest Man"; the dark-eyed and sultry Bella Twins, Brie and Nikki, in glittery, very small outfits; and Kelly Kelly, blond current poster girl for WWE. I was the only one on stage without my own action figure.
But the Friday night ballroom event was only a meet-and-greet. The contest itself was held on Saturday at the downtown Phoenix Public Library. On a set much like a television game show (think Jeopardy), the WWE stars read questions about the books, the eager young readers hand-slammed their buzzers, the Bella Twins wrote down points on a giant leader board-and I, in my suit and tie, was Alex Trebek-the Decider- in case of uncertain answers. Way fun for all of us. The kids knew the books backward and forward, but eventually three winners emerged. They received a reader's champion cup as well as ringside seats to the actual "Wrestlemania" event on Sunday.
Over the course of weekend I was struck by a several things-certainly the graciousness of the WWE stars as they interacted with kids and parents. Kofi and John (my new best friends) were articulate and unrehearsed as they talked about the importance of reading in their lives; I never in my life expected to hear a pro wrestler use the word "metaphor"-which was my comeuppance of the weekend.
Conversely, in terms of expectations, I expected that the reading champions would be pointy-headed girls whose parents were college professors. Neither was the case. The winners were three boys: Liam Jose and Gabriel Murrell from Ontario, and La 'Quan Deen from Philadelphia. Bright, normal lads with varied interests in school and sports-and giddy to have ringside seats to the real event. The parents of the finalists were a true cross section of America, but united by their enthusiasm for books and reading and school. Teachers and parents need all the help they can get these days, and in fun and creative ways the WWE is certainly doing its part. I never thought I'd say this, but I'm a big fan.