American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds
by James Maguire
As a child, I never participated in a spelling bee – even though I was one of those kids who loved words (guess that makes me a word nerd, then and now) and I read the dictionary for fun. I always thought spelling bees were kind of fascinating and intriguing.
I’ve also never seen the documentary “Spellbound,” (it’s on my list) which follows several students as they prepare for the 1999 National Spelling Bee. From what I hear, American Bee is similar as it profiles the top contestants as they each strive to become the 2005 National Spelling Bee champion.
Author James Maguire definitely did his homework with this book, as he spent considerable time with each speller and the families, as well as the professionals responsible for putting on the annual Bee. (Many of those who are involved with and work for the Bee are former Bee participants, finalists, or champions themselves.) Maguire provides a history of the event itself and a lesson on the English language itself. And believe it or not, there are even people who protest the National Spelling Bee!
(The beef with the bee is a concern of the British, apparently. The Simplified Spelling Society feels that “English spelling is riddled with inconsistencies – a word’s spelling often does not correspond with its sound …[which] contributes to the high level of illiteracy in the English-speaking world.” (pg. 15). Hence, the group’s annual protest – with placards and all – of the National Spelling Bee. Don’t say that our friends across the pond don’t have our best interests in mind.)
Because somewhat of a word nerd, I enjoyed American Bee, even if I found parts of the book to be repetitive. Maguire profiles the top candidates, and in doing so, is prone to describing them by geography. There’s a lot of “the New Jersey girl” and “the San Diego boy,” which gets a bit annoying after 300-some pages.
I also kind of wanted more of these big words like tonitruous and jamrosade to be defined, perhaps in a footnote at the bottom of the page. (As much as I wanted to look all of these words up, it would have taken me months to read this book if I actually did so.)
That being said, I liked much more of American Bee than I didn’t. It was a tense read at times, as I couldn’t help but get caught up in the excitement of these kids – some of whom are 9 years old (and this year’s Bee included the youngest participant on record, 6 year old Lori Anne C. Madison) – and how much they accomplish in order to make it to Washington, D.C. for the National Spelling Bee. As a nonfiction book, it reads almost like a novel at times, keeping you in suspense until the very end.
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