All week long, groups of Kenai Peninsula Borough School District students gathered in libraries and classrooms for an academic competition called Battle of the Books, vying for a spot in the state championship later this month.
Each day, a different age group competed. Grades three and four battled Monday. High schoolers battled Tuesday. Grades five and six battled Wednesday, and middle schoolers battled Thursday.
Most KPBSD Battle of the Books competitions are held via a conference call, with microphones muted after a question is read so the teams can deliberate on their answer. Thursday morning, a rare in-person match was held at Kenai Middle School between its two fielded teams — the Guilty GOATs and the Reading Rhinoceri. The two teams sat facing one another in the school’s library as they went head-to-head in the day’s first battle, then divided to separate locations for the remaining matches.
Students who compete in Battle of the Books read through lists of books selected by the Alaska Association of School Librarians throughout the school year. At competition, they are asked questions structured as “in which book did …”. If a team gets a question wrong, they can challenge and are given two minutes to find exact page numbers and sections from their book that match the question asked.
The four top scoring teams each morning met for a final battle at 1 p.m. each day. The winners will battle again at the end of the month in a statewide competition. The teams representing KPBSD will be Redoubt Elementary, Soldotna Montessori, Soldotna Connections and Homer High School.
Jill Gann, a librarian at Kenai Central High School and Kenai Middle School, as well as a coach for KCHS and for sixth graders at KMS, said Battle of the Books affords students a purpose for reading and a way to get more meaning from it.
“It teaches finding pertinent information out of the book,” she said Wednesday. “Reading for information, reading for specifics, paying attention to details.”
At the high school level, this means deep and detailed reading and analysis. For younger students, it’s more about pulling the concepts and being able to summarize the text, she said.
District Librarian Lindsay Hallam, who officiated Battle of the Book matches all week, last Friday said that Battle of the Books is part of a larger focus on literacy within KPBSD, designed to “instill a love of reading.”
Susan Nabholz, who coached the Kenai Middle School teams, said Battle of the Books gets students to read outside of their comfort zone. She described a student who reads voraciously, but perhaps only fantasy novels. The reading list for Battle of the Books features representation from a variety of genres, themes and difficulty levels.
“Exposing them to some different genres and realizing how many connections there are between the books, I really like that,” she said.
The diversity of the texts on each list could be seen in the books that students said were their favorite. Each student who spoke to the Clarion reported a different favorite book from their list.
KMS students Emma Castimore, Sawyer Graham and Andrew Stein each listed a different favorite, “Ghost Boys,” “Tale of Magic” and “Challenger Deep.”
Aidan Bon, who competed for SoHi, said her favorite book was “Wild Lands,” “because it was just so wack.” She described wild twists and turns that brought her to her feet even as she read.
Hallam said the list intentionally led the students to a wide range of topics. Nabholz said the middle school list surprised her with its maturity, including social commentary and covering topics like mental health and life and death situations.
Alongside broadening students’ reading, another valuable element is the social aspect, Nabholz said, especially when it comes to featuring a competitive academic program in each school.
“It’s really fun to geek out on books and have fun reading them and challenging each other with them,” she said.
Jessica Bamford, who coached a team at Seward Elementary School, said that Battle of the Books provides a unique value as an outlet for the talents of some students that they may not see in other activities.
“It speaks to their strengths in that way,” she said. “It’s very detail oriented.”
Gann said some students who are perhaps not as strong or dedicated to reading become invested in the program and their reading list to be a part of the team.
Stein said Battle of the Books gives him a community with which to talk about books.
“And also, free snacks,” he said.
The social element was a key driver for the members of the team at Soldotna High School, who on Tuesday gathered in a classroom at SoHi with pizza, waffles, coffee and Coca-Cola — they reported the time spent with friends was a big reason why they participate each year.
“It’s a fun experience,” Emma Knowles, a member of SoHi’s team, said. “Get to read books with people who love reading books.”
“I had a lot of fun this year, because your team really matters, and our team this year … we had spirit,” teammate Leihla Harrison said.
SoHi’s team had high energy going into the district championship match Tuesday evening. The three active contenders, Knowles, Harrison and Lydzi Gaucin, were joined at the desk by Bon, who was an alternate for that match, and coach Nicole Jensen. Also in the room were several “cheerreaders,” who had participated throughout the season but did not compete Tuesday.
The Stars collectively cried out aghast when Hallam used a pronunciation of author Paul Greci that was different from theirs — “Grecki” over “Gree-chi.”
Homer ultimately claimed the top spot, but the Stars were unflagged.
“It was fun,” Knowles said. “We lost but it was still really enjoyable.”