Bowling for Books: A Library Program to Get Kids Moving

Lucas Maxwell


Lucas Maxwell has been working with youth in libraries for over fifteen years. Originally from Nova Scotia, Canada, he's been a high school librarian in London, UK for over a decade. In 2017 he won the UK's School Librarian of the Year award and in 2022 he was named the UK Literacy Association's Reading For Pleasure Teacher Champion. He loves Dungeons & Dragons and is the author of Let's Roll: A Guide for Setting up Tabletop Roleplaying Games in Your School or Public Library. You can follow him on Twitter and on his blog.

Growing up, one of my favourite films was UHF starring Weird Al Yankovic. As an 8-year-old, it felt like a movie that I wasn’t supposed to be watching. It was subversive, weird, and punk rock. In the film, George (Yankovic) takes over a fledgling UHF television station. To get it back on its feet, he introduces as many bizarre and hilarious TV shows as possible. One of these is Conan the Librarian where Conan cuts a guy in half for having overdue library books. Another show was called Bowling for Burgers, and although the ad they show in the film is around five seconds long, it always seemed hilarious to me. It inspired me to start Bowling for Books in the high school library that I manage.

There are a few main goals for this program. One is to get kids moving again; here in the UK the majority of our students were at home in lockdown for many months, resulting in a lot of inactivity. The second goal is to help students become more independent users of the library, to get to know our diverse collection a little more and to introduce them to new books, ones that fly under the radar. Lastly, I want them to have fun and to think of the library differently. I want them to know that the library is their space and it’s important that they realise they are going to be treated fairly while having fun.

The game is pretty simple. A class of children (ages 11–12) come in for their biweekly library lesson. I put them into groups of three. When I say “Go!” one student from each team grabs a toy bowling pin from the box; on the pin we have placed a label containing the name of a book. This book will be one that I have promoted or that I feel is awesome and deserves a lot of attention. The goal is for the student to find that book on the shelf in three minutes or they have to put the pin back in the box.

I will remind the students at different junctures that the class is actually working together. The more pins the class gets as a whole, the better. We organise our books alphabetically by the author’s last name, so this is an amazing way to get students to use our system and find the books on the shelves for themselves when they come to the library in the future.

We also have other shelves that contain comics, manga, gaming/coding books, fun facts, sports, and so on, so this game also helps them find the right area.

When a student finds the book that is on their pin, they raise their hand and I confirm they have the right book. They have just “won” the pin for the class. The pin is then placed in a standard triangle bowling alley format. Once all the students have had a chance to find their pins (with some help from their teammates and myself) we should have a good sized triangle of pin.

This is the next stage, their English teacher (who brings the class in with them) gets one bowl, and one bowl only, to knock down as many pins as they can. I then record the class’s score on an official bowling score sheet on the wall of the library. The students love coming in to see which class has the highest score. The team that eventually wins will receive free books and chocolate, one of the best prizes in the world!