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Booking it to Salem

These 12-year-olds could be a preteen girl's favorite literary characters:

Bella Mannray is a dancer with a broken ankle wrapped in a pink cast.

Uma McGuire is a skier who loves her Lady and the Tramp sweatshirt.

Sarah Aaronson is a basketball player with a wide, white headband holding back her brown hair, exposing her rainbow sequin earrings.

And Alex Westrick is a cross-country runner who wears a pink and a blue watch, both on the same wrist, which she has named "Jenna" and "Katie," since, she asks, "Doesn't everyone name their watches?"

The girls play soccer and a musical instrument, and paint their fingernails tangerine with silver tips, coral pink, purple with silver crackle or turquoise.

They are smart, funny, self-described nerds who spend up to an hour after school, on weekends and even during spring break reading and memorizing facts in 16 specific books.

But they are not make-believe heroines.

The four Ashland Middle School sixth-graders are, however, celebrated on campus for their ability to answer tough book questions in front of an audience while the clock is ticking down from 15 seconds to zero.

And their fan base is about to get much, much larger.

They are the reigning regional champions of the Oregon Battle of the Books for sixth- through eighth-graders and will head to Salem to compete in the finals on April 13. There, they will be tested in Jeopardy-like fashion against teams from all over state.

The Oregon Battle of the Books, or OBOB, is a reading program for girls and boys in third to 12th grade that is run by volunteers through the Oregon Association of School Libraries.

Ashland School District teacher-librarian Hazel Smith coaches OBOB teams and is a regional coordinator.

"The best part is watching my students develop a cohesive team, making decisions about team responsibilities as well as reading a diverse set of 16 books together," she says. "OBOB helps to build the skills to succeed in so many competitive arenas, starting with those third-graders who suddenly find themselves blooming into confident students willing to take chances and responsibilities."

In the Ashland School District this year, Bellview Elementary formed 21 OBOB teams, Walker Elementary had 18, Helman Elementary 16 and AMS seven.

On Thursday afternoon, the victorious AMS girls gathered in their usual campus hangout, the back of the school library. They pulled 16 paperbacks from shelves, each one they have already read. And read. And read again until each detail — down to the type of candy bar a character eats — has been memorized.

OBOB organizers selected these classic and new books to span a range of interests, from realistic fiction, nonfiction and fantasy to science fiction, historical fiction and mysteries. The book list was posted last summer and like most ambitious OBOB competitors, this team, named Agents of the Lab, read most of them before the school year started.

The girls then splayed the books on a table and each chose four to practically recite by heart. Each girl, who, as Uma explains, "has specialized knowledge," would be relied upon when a question about that particular book was asked. But all the girls have a chance to decide on the answer as a team.

If the question were: "In which book does the main character live on a 12-acre rock surrounded by water?," the girls would huddle, whisper, then nod, and team spokesperson Bella would stand and announce: "Al Capone Does My Shirts" by Jennifer Choldenko.

A follow-up question could be: "What is the name of the island where Moose Flanagan lives?" Answer: "Alcatraz."

"Some teams argue before they answer," says Uma. "But we are all friends. We are a good team."

Do contestants yell? "No, but there are loud whispers and words like, 'Why didn't you know that?'" she says, and some people cry.

Before Sarah can complete her sentence, that starts with, "If we get it wrong, which rarely happens …," Alex breaks in with a joking "Don't brag."

"I was just bragging sarcastically," continues Sarah.

"Sarcastically real," says Uma. And they all laugh.

Uma adds: "It's cool that we made it this far because we're the youngest to compete in our level."

The girls write practice questions on note cards and tests themselves over and over. Sometimes they meet at the Yogurt Hut. Upstairs, says Sarah, where it's quiet.

Says Alex: "I'm doing this for fun, but I'm in it to win."

Adds Uma: "And we love to read."

There are teams of all girls, and all boys, and a few that are mixed. "If one of us left the team and a boy wanted to join our team, he would have to be smart," says Alex, "and committed."

They thought maybe they could stay in one hotel room the night before the state competition so they could study.

But that idea worries Alex. "We would never get any sleep!" she says.

"But we're not rowdy," confesses Uma.

"We would just read ourselves to sleep," says Bella.

Bella is pretty quiet during the discussion and everyone knows why. She'd prefer to read different books and maybe just once. "I'm glad we're going to the finals," she says. "Then after that I can read what I want."

Just then, the end-of-school bell rings and the girls politely say goodbye, put away their books and head toward a back door.

Stopping to read the sign — No Exit — these girls, who read everything — from hand soap packaging to next year's possible OBOB reading list — then push through the door and like the preteens they are, race down the hall to meet their friends.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.