O'Town reading showdown

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March 29, 2008

ORLANDO, Fla.  -- An apple a day may keep the doctor away, but for 13-year-old David Silva and 16-year-old Ajoura Gwinn, a book a week earned them front row tickets to WrestleMania XXIV. (PHOTOS)

Silva, a seventh-grader from Elizabeth, N.J., and Gwinn, a high school sophomore from Pittsburgh, were crowned the winners of the 2008 WrestleMania Reading Challenge on Saturday morning. In front of family, friends, and hundreds of youngsters at the Downtown Branch of the Orlando Public Library, Silva and Gwinn each beat out four other regional finalists in their age groups -- seventh and eighth grade for David, ninth through 12th for Ajoura -- to claim their crowns. Sam Phillips, Louis Ellis and Lee Skelhorn, the three winners of the U.K. Reading Challenge, were also honored.

The third-annual Reading Challenge kicked off in October, as the American Library Association challenged the students to read a book a week for 10 weeks. Silva, Gwinn and the eight other finalists were chosen based upon essays written about one of their chosen books -- Matt de la Pena's Ball Don't Lie for the high schoolers and Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman for Silva's group.

WWE Hall of Famer Jimmy Hart served as the Master of Ceremonies for the event, with Matt Striker, CM Punk and WWE Tag Team Champion The Miz doing their best Alex Trebek impressions as the guest quizmasters. The Superstars asked each group of finalists 25 questions about their respective readings, with the authors serving as judges.

The high school competition was dominated by Gwinn and Orlando's own Kady Marie Peters, who were neck and neck down to the wire. In the end, however, Ajoura's 12 correct answers gave her the nod over the hometown favorite clad in a CM Punk T-shirt.

"Believe me Kady, if I could pull some strings to help you out, I would!" Punk said, but even the Straightedge Superstar's connections couldn't stop Ajoura.

Meanwhile, Silva captured both the crowd and the crown by constantly razzing Miz and Striker. At one point, Matt threatened to throw young David out of his classroom, but the Jersey boy stuck it to Striker by shifting into overdrive and correctly answering eight questions about Stuck in Neutral.

"This is awesome; I've never done this before and I'm so happy I won!" David exclaimed after the competition. "I'm going to WrestleMania XXIV!"

For Ajoura and her mother, the victory was icing on an already sweet cake.

"I'm so excited, it felt great to win. It seemed like everyone was getting to the buzzer sooner than I, but I guess it all worked out!" the high schooler said with a laugh.

"I knew she had it in her," added Ajoura's mom. "When it comes to reading, J.K. Rowling (author of the Harry Potter novels) got her hooked and now she's working on her own book. I'm so proud."

The authors were just as excited as the children to have their work featured in the Reading Challenge.

"This is a total honor. It was awesome to watch these guys hype up the crowd, and for all these kids to come out to a book event, it's great," de la Pena quipped.

Added Trueman, "It's hugely wonderful, a great honor and experience. This event, blending sports-entertainment and libraries, helps us reach the hardest group -- young men who tend to be reluctant readers. But if you can get a book in their hands that will really move them -- like I hope Matt's and mine have -- you can hook them for life."

It certainly hooked David Silva, who may have also hooked himself an opponent if he ever decides to pursue a WWE career.

"That kid … tomorrow, every time I throw a Superstar out of that Battle Royal, I'm going to look right over at David and dedicate it to him," The Miz laughed. "But seriously, this is the first time I've been in a library in a while, and it's awesome to see just how much children have at their disposal nowadays. Sure, David was a bit of a pain, but the more he got on us, the more the crowd loved him, and that's what it's all about: Getting people excited and having fun. You can have a lot of fun in a library."

Striker, a former social studies teacher in New York City, emphasized how important the Reading Challenge truly is.

"Honestly, it's a great way to give back. Love us or hate us, WWE Superstars are role models, and even though they may not always listen to their parents, children will listen to us," Striker said. "We can tell them to read books all the time, but if we can encourage them to read magazines, newspapers, Web sites … if they get comfortable with reading, they'll find out it's both fun and educational. It opens a whole new door to entertainment. Kids today have a lot of access to things my generation didn't; even when visiting sites like WWE.com or MySpace or whatever, that's reading, and that's a start."

Mary Anne Hodel, the Director and CEO of the 15-branch Orange County Library System, was thrilled that the Downtown Branch played host to this year's Reading Challenge finals.

"This has been a wonderful help to us; getting kids reading is important to society, and I'm very grateful to WWE for promoting reading and working with libraries. We couldn't ask for a better partner, and I hope WrestleMania comes back to Orlando soon so we can do this again!"

Hodel, who is a WWE stockholder as well, praised the company for their many community efforts.

"People may not realize just how much WWE is involved in and "gives back" to the community. It's a wonderful company and events like this make me proud to be part of it."

While David and Ajoura may have walked out with a trophy and the title of WrestleMania Reading Champion, all ten finalists were truly winners. Each received a free trip to Orlando and tickets to The Granddaddy of Them All, and their local libraries also will receive a $2,000 grant to help build their collections. And of course, all 10 walked away with personally autographed copies of Trueman or de la Pena's books.

And who knows -- with Ajoura already working on a book, maybe someday she or David will be back in the author's seat for another WrestleMania moment.

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