Connections Coach Janet Szajkowski, left, helps Iris Downey, grade 6, and Jadzia Thomas, grade 5, study for Friday’s state Battle of the Books.-Photo by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

Connections Coach Janet Szajkowski, left, helps Iris Downey, grade 6, and Jadzia Thomas, grade 5, study for Friday’s state Battle of the Books.-Photo by McKibben Jackinsky, Homer News

Book battle advances from district to state

Sure they can read, but do they know what they’re reading? Absolutely.

Proof of that pudding is the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Battle of the Books.  Taking first place were West Homer Elementary School third- and fourth-grade team of Eli Zatz, Olivia Glasman, Seamus McDonough, Kate Krautler and Aiden Brost, coached by Lyn Maslow and Shellie Worsfold, and the Homer Connections fifth- and sixth-grade team of Jadzia Thomas and Iris Downey, coached by Janet Szajkowski.

The idea for Battle of the Books grew from a radio program sponsored by the Chicago Public Library in the 1940s. The first one was held in Alaska in 1984. It is sponsored by the Alaska Association of School Librarians as a way to encourage and recognize students “who enjoy reading, broaden reading interests, increase reading comprehension and promote academic excellence,” according to information provided by the Battle of the Books.

Alaska students of all grades are given a reading list from which some begin reading as early as summer vacation. Teams at each school work together to become familiar with material they’ve read before competing district-wide. The competition includes questions about book content, with the students giving title and author of the book in which the content can be found. District winners advance to state competition.

Karla Barkman coordinates Battle of the Books within the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Audio conferencing makes it possible for the teams to compete from their individual schools.

This is the second year Barkman has coordinated the district meet. In the 28 years she has been with the district, she also has served as coach for each grade level. She also has been involved at the state level with the state librarian association.

As the coordinator, Barkman said she tried to read as many of the titles on the reading list as possible.

“I love to read personally and I love Battle of the Books because it’s a program that gets the kids fired up about reading,” she said.

“While there’s the competition factor and it’s nice to win, definitely, I’ve always felt that if one kid read a book (he or she) wouldn’t have otherwise, then the program was a success.”

Having already competed and won at the district level, today the West Homer team competes against other third- and fourth-grade teams from around the state. On Friday, the Connections duo takes on fifth- and sixth-graders from across Alaska.

“The WHE team is comprised of 20 students who started with practice in October,” said Maslow, of the full strength of the school’s team. “We spent lunches together and had a fun Skype battle with Aniak.”

Two weeks ago, they had to narrow the team for competition, using top scorers on quizzes, attendance and number of books read, with Zatz, Glasman, McDonough, Krautler and Brost chosen.

“The top five did read all the books and we divided up the books to reread and become expert on,” said Maslow. 

Three of the five competed in the Feb. 10 district competition. Today, they face a fierce 38-team competition held by teleconference. The students have competed by rereading for details and testing themselves during daily lunchtime practice sessions.

Homer Connections’ small two-member team began weekly practices in early December, “but both girls began reading the books this past summer when the list officially came out,” said Szajkowski.

“They used the Homer Public Library for books, the Homer Bookstore and online sources. Each team member is responsible to read all 15 books several times thoroughly, so they know the books.”

This is a repeat performance for each of the Homer Connections team.

“Jadzia competed … two years ago and Iris was on the district championship team for Homer Connections last year as a fifth-grader,” said Szajkowski.

“The Homer Connections team last year came in second place in the state competition, which included more than 30 teams throughout the state.”

The two students’ district competition, with 24 teams, was Feb. 11. Jadzia was the scribe, writing the key word from the book title and the author’s last name on the official record sheet. Iris was the spokesperson, giving the answer orally over the speakerphone.

“The girls have 30 seconds after a question is read to discuss, write their answer and be ready to give their answer, which is not very much time,” said Szajkowski.

Not content with their district win, the Homer Connections team has prepared for state competition by starting at the beginning.

 “They are preparing by rereading all 15 books again and focusing on multiple readings of the books that they feel the least familiar with,” said Szajkowski.

For more about Battle of the Books, visit

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.

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