From Publishers Weekly
To the fans-those who've caught the ESPN broadcast of the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee or the documentary Spellbound, among other outlets for the increasingly popular competition-Maguire's efforts to enliven his esoteric subject matter may prove superfluous, but his deft portrayal of the heart-stopping competition the Bee inspires will certainly catch the attention of the uninitiated. His profiles of the young spellers are amusing, occasionally touching and always impressive. The spellers' affinity for language leads to some great feats: David Tidmarsh, the 2004 champion, studied the entire Webster's Unabridged dictionary; Samir Patel, the 2005 runner-up, studied word lists all day, even while eating. Maguire's adulation for the spellers at times leads to excessive description, a problem complicated by the number of competitors, though his focus does eventually hone in on ten spellers competing in the 2005 Bee. His portraits of these spellers' preparations and personalities-Samir Patel's charming on-stage presence or Kerry Close's latent competitiveness-gives the reader ample reason to play favorites, giving the book a welcome touch of suspense. In addition, an impassioned description of the evolution of language in America sheds a new light on the Bee, and the worthiness of these competitive spellers' alacrity for the subject.
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Maguire, author of Impresario: The Life and Times of Ed Sullivan (2006), gives voice to our current national obsession with spelling bees. Focusing on the annual National Spelling Bee held in Washington, D.C., which features 250 finalists chosen from an initial pool of 10 million, Maguire paints a vivid portrait of the unique culture surrounding the event and its "geek chic" overtones. In clear, accessible prose, he gives the contest the high drama of a sporting event while profiling five extremely bright, precocious participants and their diverse ethnic backgrounds. As the stress of the competition kicks in, spellers variously faint, shout their words, clutch talismans, and hyperventilate. Maguire also details the history of spelling bees and of the English language and reveals the logic behind the compilation of the master list used in the national competition. What comes through most clearly here is the truly democratic nature of the bee and its spellers--the kids come from all kinds of schools, towns, ethnicities, and class levels--and the impassioned love of language that drives them. Joanne Wilkinson
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