A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Every March, dozens of children from all over the country gather in Washington D.C. for the National Spelling Bee. This book charts some of their journeys, explores the history of words and spelling bees, the latter being “a genuine American folk tradition”, according to the author. While bees have been tried elsewhere, most notably in England, they’ve flourished in the U.S. becoming the modern day equivalent of the Olympics for young brainiacs.
Maguire follows the evolution of spelling bees from their Puritan origins in the 1600’s, becoming more social occasions in the following centuries to the point that pioneers took the idea westward. In the 1870’s, after a popular novel “Hoosier Schoolmaster” (in which the hero falls in love during a spelling bee) became a best seller, bees became trendy. The first nationwide bee was held in Cleveland, Ohio in 1908 and the winner was a local African-American girl, Marie Golden, the 14 year old daughter of a mail carrier. The official Bee began in 1925 and has been held every year since, save for 3 years during WW2.
As a person who crumbles under pressure, I’ve always been amazed at the children who reach the upper levels of the national contest. They come from all sorts of backgrounds and have survived regional and statewide matches to make it to Washington D.C. The age limit is 14, allowing many students attend multiple times, striving to place higher each year, closer to winning. It is more egalitarian than most competitions, victory divided almost equally among the genders, though a few more girls have won. There is a collection of “Champions Profiles”, spotlighting winner in an intimate, but not intrusive way and lets us get a sense of the varied personalities who have competed. A few have later become employed by the Bee as adults, a pleasing circle of events.
The middle section of the book briefly traces how the varied influences made a mishmash of the English language over the centuries, which flows into a chronicle of dictionaries and how American independence influenced both. There’s startling idea that a number of prominent Americans were in favor of changing to a more phonetic spelling of certain words or in some cases, creating a new alphabet as both Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain advised. It’s telling that two of the most charming and persuasive personalities this country ever produced was unable to convince people to change.
Maguire has a nice narrative flow, laced with subtle humor and describes the National Bee in such a vivid way that it makes the events quite suspenseful. For anyone who loves words and is curious about the smarts and stamina it takes to compete on stage, this is the book for you.
Rodale Books 2006 371 pp. ISBN 1-59486-214-1