Connections team places second in statewide Battle of the Books

  • Having won in the fifth- and sixth-grade Battle of the Books competition in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, the Homer Connections team of Coach Kristin Mertz, fifth-graders Iris Downey and Caleb Holschen and sixth-grader Teddy Handley took second place in the state.-Photo provided

The Homer Connections fifth- and sixth-grade team was surprised when it took first in the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Battle of the Books, landing them a spot in state competition. That wasn’t the end of the surprises.

During telephonic state competition on Feb. 27, the youngsters claimed second place.

“There were 39 teams in round one. Then it went to 12 teams. Then it went to five teams. And then we were second, off by one question,” said the team’s coach Kristen Mertz at the Connections’ Homer office.

The team — fifth-graders Iris Downey and Caleb Holschen and sixth-grader Teddy Handley — was equally surprised.

“We were very surprised because, at first, we just had a lot of fun and we didn’t really get into it that much. We weren’t that serious, but then we were totally and completely surprised when we won district,” said Iris, adding she also was “totally surprised” by the team’s state-competition performance.

Caleb agreed, saying he felt good about the team’s second place.

“We knew we were in the top four. Then we knew we’d get first or second, and we got second by one question,” said Teddy of the single slip that put them in second place.

The three book battlers share a love of reading, which was good since they had to read and be familiar with more than a dozen books selected in advance by the Alaska Library Association, sponsor and coordinator of the annual event. The competition includes four categories — high school, grades 7-8, grades 5-6 and grades 3-4 — with each category having its own list of books. 


During competition they are asked specific questions about the books and must answer with the correct book’s title and author.

“When I heard about (Battle of the Books) from my mom, I just thought, ‘well, it’s going to be wonderful. Why don’t I try out?’” said Iris, who especially enjoys adventure stories.

Caleb, who enjoys fantasies, said the required reading was “easy.” Still, he said he read each of the books “about 15 times each.” 

Teddy, whose favorite stories are action-packed adventures, said the team studied together several times a week to prepare for more detailed questions than they encountered at the district level.

Looking back, Caleb said the best part of participating in Battle of the Books was “being with my friends.” Iris said the secret to the team’s success was “having someone there with me … and just having that competition surge.”

Drawing from their experience, each team member offered advice for future book battlers.

“M&Ms really do help to answer,” said Caleb.

“Actually, for district, just to keep him going, I brought trail mix that had M&Ms in it, so it must work,” said Iris. Her own advice, however, was, “Read, read, read, read.”

Teddy zeroed in on specific tips.

“Don’t breeze through the books,” he said. “Go slowly, watch out for things that kind of pop out and remember specific details about different parts.”

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at


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