For the love of books

31 March 2022

Wayne Mills
University of Waikato alumnus and Kids Lit Quiz founder, Wayne Mills

Wayne Mills MNZM travels the world asking children questions about books and rewarding them for their literary knowledge. The former primary school teacher and University of Waikato student and lecturer is the man behind the Kids Lit Quiz, which he started 31 years ago in Hamilton.

Wayne had been teaching for many years, mostly in Napier, and was actively involved with the local children’s literature association there, holding book events and hosting authors from New Zealand and overseas (Judy Blume, even). He’d introduced some pretty radical reading programmes in his classrooms to help struggling readers and he had a good knowledge of reading theory. He saw a job advertised at Hamilton Teachers College and applied despite not having completed his bachelors degree. He got the job, finished his bachelors and moved on to a masters, all the while lecturing in children’s literature.

It irked Wayne that while there were plenty of prizes and accolades for children’s sport, there was nothing or very little done to reward children for reading for pleasure and their knowledge of books. So he decided to do something about it.

The Kids Lit Quiz started small, but word soon spread that there was a competition in the Waikato, supported by the Waikato Children’s Literature Association, where children won prizes for reading, and before long the Kids Lit Quiz was a national competition with hundreds of schools competing.

“For the first couple of years we ran the quiz like a knock-out competition, but then we decided it was fairer to get all teams together and ask everyone the same 100 questions, and that’s when the quiz really took off,” Wayne says.

By 1997 Paper Plus was on board as a sponsor and that same year Wayne moved to take up a position at Auckland Teachers College. He’d spend his annual leave on the road hosting the quizzes up and down the land.

Then word got out offshore about the quiz and Wayne was invited to Newcastle in the UK to host a round of his quiz. “And in one of life’s lucky breaks, a reporter for the Times Educational Supplement was in the audience,” Wayne says. “She managed to capture the energy and excitement that surrounded the quiz, which is quite hard to reflect in a story, and after her story was published, the phones went mad.”

That was in 2003 and Wayne spent his summer break hosting quizzes in 19 cities across the UK. The following year he was in South Africa. And today, having retired from Auckland University, he hosts quizzes in New Zealand, Australia, China, Canada, USA, Singapore, Hong Kong, Nigeria, South Africa, Indonesia and Thailand. The winning team from each heat competes in a national final. National champions compete in the world final.

But it hasn’t all been plain sailing. Wayne was in China hosting quizzes at international schools when he got word that Paper Plus was pulling its support – there’d been a change at the top – and he thought he’d have to abandon the quiz. “But a kind philanthropic couple, Dymocks and then Whitcoulls came on board and while I was never going to get rich, it was actually quite a struggle, the quiz survived.” Teams of four now pay a $115 fee to participate.

Each quiz has a 100 questions with 10 categories. “I’m constantly reading,” he says. “And because the quiz is truly international, I have to keep up with other countries’ books. I could never ask a question about a book I hadn’t read. I’d feel like a fraud.” He’s got so many books that he gave 4000 to a couple of schools in South Africa that didn’t have libraries, and his lounge holds nothing but books. “No technology, just walls of books.”

Lockdown during the past two years put the brakes on Wayne’s travel. But not wanting the children to miss out, he sent his questions to national co-ordinators who took over the hosting of all the heats. He hopes that by 2023 he’ll be hosting a world final with the winning teams from all participating countries all present.

Wayne received the national Margaret Mahy medal in 2008 and in 2011 he was awarded the MNZM for his services to children’s literature.

He says slowly and steadily the quiz that was once dominated by girls now has a 50-50 split and he thinks that’s largely because high profile authors have been writing strong boy characters: think JK Rowling, Eion Colfer (Artemis Fowl), Anthony Horowitz and plenty more. “Lots of strong boy heroes – it’s made it cool for boys to read,” Wayne says. And nothing makes Wayne happier than seeing children get excited about books they’ve read and being rewarded for their efforts.

Wayne says the recent Hood report Now I don’t know my ABC: The perilous state of literacy in Aotearoa New Zealand makes the point that reading for pleasure has declined significantly since 2000. “It only reinforces the importance of the Kids Lit Quiz,” he says. “It can’t ever stop!”

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