Spell Cast

Spell Cast

This year’s New Haven Reads Spelling Bee, happening tonight, attempts to virtually capture the magic captured in this pre-pandemic story from 2018.

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Williwaw: “a sudden violent gust of cold land air common along mountainous coasts of high latitude” (Merriam-Webster).

Maureen Armstrong wasn’t sure why, but she knew how to spell it, catapulting Librarians…from Hell—her Hamden Public Library team—to the championship of the 2016 New Haven Reads Spelling Bee. “They said, ‘How did you know that word?’ and I said, ‘You know, I don’t really know,’” Armstrong recalls. “And later on, it came to me…” There was a children’s book called Williwaw! in the library’s collection.

The word that brought a Yale Office of Development team, Stellar Spellers, the 2017 title was quokka (“a stocky, herbivorous marsupial of southwestern Australia that has a short tail”). Melissa Winders says her teammate Siobhan Quinlan got that one. It was a word she’d seen in a recent BuzzFeed article about how cute quokkas are.


Foote School

Terpsichore (“the Greek Muse of dancing and choral song”) tripped up the Librarians…from Hell one year and sent them packing. They might have recognized it even with its unexpected pronunciation (the e isn’t silent) “if we had been allowed to let it stew for even a minute or two,” Armstrong says. “But you can’t let it stew.”

The Bee’s official wordmaster—voice actor Tom Zingarelli—reads a word, defines it, uses it in a sentence and repeats the word. Teams then have just 20 seconds to spell the word on a handheld whiteboard. Four onstage judges check the results and declare who’s in and who’s out in each single-elimination round. “You’re sitting there, and you’re , ‘I know how to spell. I’m good at this!’” Armstrong says. “And they throw this word at you—‘Wha?’” But she says that with three people and good teamwork, they can often get it right. Teammate Tracy Nista got the librarians past nidificate (“to build a nest”) in 2016, while Julie Smith saved them from putting an i on the end of consigliere (“counselor, adviser”). There’s a “nice little dynamic with all the teammates helping each other out,” Armstrong says.

Both the Stellar Spellers and Librarians…from Hell will be competing again in the 7th annual Bee tonight at Yale School of Management. The popular event is a fundraiser for New Haven Reads, a nonprofit offering free after-school tutoring to more than 500 New Haven children every week—all of them reading below grade level—as well as a community book bank and pre-K and kindergarten programs taught by credentialed teachers.

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Armstrong describes the competition among the field of 39 teams as “pretty brutal” and “intimidating.” She’s proud that she, Nista and Smith beat out two teams of Yale linguists in their winning year. But while competition may be fierce, the atmosphere is anything but serious. Team names often riff on the spelling bee theme. This year’s include Spell Binder, Spell Checkers, Spell-Behaved Women, Spell’s Angels, Buzz Kills and We Read the Ad Wrong and Thought It Was a Quilting Bee, to name a few. About half of the teams are making repeat appearances, albeit sometimes with changing members, says Fiona Bradford, development director for New Haven Reads.

Themed costumes are encouraged. The Librarians…from Hell always dress as “zombie librarians—old school librarians, but zombified” complete with green faces and dripping blood. Winders of the Stellar Spellers says stars are, not surprisingly, the team’s costuming theme. Teammates Quinlan and Susan Daniells are decked out with “lots of stars taped all over their clothes,” while Winders wears a light-up LED skirt. “Honestly, I was just delighted to have an opportunity to pull it out because I don’t get to wear it, and it’s really cool.”

Perennial host Ann Nyberg of WTNH keeps the ball rolling with questions, instructions and friendly banter while three-person teams hailing from local businesses, schools, organizations and groups of friends compete in “swarms” of six teams, including one made up entirely of local high school teams. The first word in each round is just for practice, and the first few are meant to be on the easy side, but “ideally, people are in for a few words, and then it should get a little harder, and a little harder, and a little harder,” Bradford says.

The swarm continues until one team is left standing and advances to the final round. Audience members are asked to remain silent during play, but there’s plenty of yelling, cheering, sign-waving and general raucousness in between. “It’s really just such a fun event,” says Kirsten Levinsohn, executive director of New Haven Reads.

There is, however, a serious side to this annual night of wordplay. “This is our only fundraising event, so really we put a lot of stock in this,” Levinsohn says. “Our budget is coming up on a million dollars, and we have to raise all of it because we don’t charge for our programs.” Teams pay a $225 entry fee, though some are subsidized by event sponsors, who also send their own teams. Program ads and suggested donations of $10 at the door round out the funding, which generally reaches upwards of $30,000 in total, according to Bradford.

But money isn’t all New Haven Reads needs to fulfill its mission. Although 420 members of the community already volunteer at least one hour a week to tutor, Levinsohn says there are still about 130 children on the waitlist. One-on-one tutoring is labor-intensive, but according to Levinsohn, New Haven Reads gets results. “We know our program is effective, both anecdotally from the students or their parents or their teachers but also in the data from scores,” Levinsohn says. “Truly, we know that we have changed children’s lives.”

2021 New Haven Reads Spelling Bee
Virtual, via Zoom and Kahoot!
Tonight at 7pm; $30 individual registration, $50 household
(203) 752-1923 | information@newhavenreads.org

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Images photographed by Michael Marsland during the 2015 Bee and provided courtesy of New Haven Reads. This story was originally published on October 19, 2018.

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