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American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds Hardcover – May 16, 2006

4.3 out of 5 stars 26 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

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
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 370 pages
  • Publisher: Rodale Books (May 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594862141
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594862144
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.4 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (26 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,056,622 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Henry Feldman on October 4, 2006
Format: Hardcover
Up front I will confess my prejudice about this book: I'm in it, albeit as a minor historical character. For me the spring months of 1958, 1959, and 1960 were largely taken up by study of word lists, culminating in three shots at the National Spelling Bee.

But James Maguire mostly has fresher fish to fry: real time spent with real kids who compete in the modern Bee, lately popularized through television broadcasts on ESPN and ABC. If teenaged kids and their strivings to find identity and accomplishment have any appeal for you, you will enjoy this account.

This has been a very good year for spelling bees. ABC put the 2006 final rounds on prime-time TV. The film "Akeelah and the Bee" vividly captured the home-front and on-stage drama of the Bee, taking off where the 2002 documentary "Spellbound" left off. Starbucks promoted the film with an attractive sprinkling of coasters, coffee collars, mugs, and flashcards decorated with foot-long winning words from the national Bee. The musical "25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" continues to play on Broadway and in regional companies.

Now James Maguire gives us a broad and entertaining journalistic book on the subject. He profiles five competitors in depth, having befriended them, visited their homes, and hung out with them among family and friends as they balance "normal" schoolwork and activities with the single-minded pursuit of exotic words and etymology. He follows them to the national competition in Washington, which equals any major-league sporting event in risk and suspense. In between episodes, to break the tension, he light-heartedly fills us in on the mottled history of English words and dictionaries, making it clear how and why we reached the hopeless confusion of modern spelling.
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Format: Hardcover
Spellers of Indian-American descent have won the Scripps Spelling Bee in seven out of the last eleven years, even though they represent less than 1% of the American population. This year's top eleven finalists included seven Indian-Americans as well. Together, these statistics present a powerful message for those wanting to improve American pupil achievement. Unfortunately, Maguire largely misses the point.

The "good news" is that "American Bee" does somewhat appreciate the effort that goes into becoming a finalist. However, a quick scan of this year's finalists also shows that only one attended private school, and three others were home-schooled.

Thus, the "bottom-line" is that hard work and parental support, not more money, are key to high educational achievement. This agrees with the late Prof. Harold Stevenson's (psychologist - Univ. of Michigan) findings comparing American and Asian pupils, as well as those of others that have found that more money is not that answer to improving pupil achievement.
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Format: Hardcover
Maguire does a stellar job engaging the reader's interest in the characters. He does more than interview them, he spends time with their families, learns their hopes, dreams and fears, which puts many an adult to shame with their incredible work ethic and study habits. We learn that the kids are not automatons but well-rounded kids who often excel in many subjects. For anyone who has competed in competitions, one can appreciate the drive and loneliness one incurs in working towards a goal. There is definite drama and as an excellent speller, I came away impressed with the kids' abilities and determination. The book is not a narrative, there are interviews with prior champions and a history of the English language included. I wholeheartedly recommend American Bee.

-- Jacqueline and Jeremy
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Format: Hardcover
James Maguire has written a fascinating account of the National Spelling Bee in American Bee. The work discusses the broad history of the spelling bee in America, focusing on the National Spelling Bee, as well as bringing us stories of particular spellers. As someone who's made it to "the show" as a finalist (86 and 87), this book really resonated with me. The essential speller experience -- hours spent drilling words; the thrill of (and sometimes disbelief at) winning a regional bee; the excitement of the big event in Washington DC; the camaraderie of the spellers; the gut-wrenching nervousness waiting on-stage; the agony of being eliminated; and the aftermath -- these are all accurately recounted in the book and brought back great memories.
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Format: Hardcover
James Maguire is a wonderful storyteller. He brings the Spelling Bee right into our homes, and by sharing with us the funny, passionate, stirring and inspiring stories of the young boys and girls, Maguire also finds the way into our hearts. Many Spelling Bee fans have known that the competition is much more than memorizing difficult, quaint, strange and longwinded words. And Maguire deftly and vividly shows us how the kids go around preparing for the competition. There is a lot of technical stuff to be explained and Magurie does it with ease. On many occasions during the time I taught feature writing at New York University, students used to ask me about writing technical and science stories for consumer magazines. If I were teaching the course now, I would recommend American Bee.

It is a fun book but it is also filled with wisdom and human stories. And there are many life lessons in it. Maguire also demolishes several myths including the one that only the rich kids can get the resources and help to reach the top.
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