PUBLISHED: 11:00 AM on Wednesday, February 9, 2005
Johnson Youth Center team takes Juneau Battle of the Books title
What is the Battle?

The Battle of the Books is a statewide Alaskan reading program aimed both at motivating students to read and increasing reading comprehension. It's sponsored by the Alaska Association of School Librarians, who also put together the reading list of recommended titles for each grade level.

Participating students read a selection of books and form teams that then "battle" with other teams by answering questions about the books. All questions are content-based, and the answer is always an author's name and a book title.Titles on the high school reading list for this year included Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," Nicholas Sparks' "A Walk to Remember,"and J.A. Jance's "Birds of Prey."

When Jo Dahl, teacher at the Johnson Youth Center, introduced her students to the idea of participating in the Battle of the Books, it was in order to encourage reading. Little did she know that the three students who ended up representing JYC, chosen from a group of 12, would end up beating two other high school teams in Juneau and be the ones to represent the Capital City on the state level.

"We didn't get the books til right before Christmas break," Dahl said, "and, boys being boys, over Christmas break they didn't read as much as they could have. So when I came back on January 3rd and said 'How are we doing?' they had read two books, or three books ."

But 23 days later, when the team gathered to battle the other two Juneau high school teams in a teleconference, they had caught up.

"We had absolutely no idea how we would do," said Dahl, "because we've never done it before. I've never done it before."

The team got the highest score of the three battling ones, beating out Juneau-Douglas High School team, who were chosen to represent their school among over 1,500 students.

"As soon as we figured out we had won, I burst out of the conference room yelling 'We Won! We Won! We Won!' and I didn't remember it was visiting night and the room was full of parents and families," Dahl said.

Because all battles are done by teleconference, the JYC team was able participate, even though the winning team is made up of students who have been before a judge and are currently incarcerated.

"People might say, 'well, they're in jail so they don't have anything else to do'," said Dahl, "but that's just not true. The boys' time here to read is very limited. Their day starts at 6 or 6:30 in the morning with chores and room inspection. Then they walk into class, and their every minute is planned throughout the day. In the evenings, they have recreational activities or visiting days, or groups to go to, so they really don't have a lot of time to spend on preparing."

"It's quite a thrill for all of us, because a lot of times, by the time students come to me, they're in long-term treatment; they've probably been in trouble multiple times or they did something big," Dahl said. "By the time they get to me, school is not high on their list of priorities."

Students in the JYC program earn a high school diploma and sit for the high school exam.

The success of the Battle of the Books team has been a boost for all of the students, Dahl said. "The other students around them are also basking in the glow. These are kids that would probably not have done this sort of thing otherwise."

Because it's the first time students from Johnson Youth Center have participated in, let alone won the District title in the Battle of the Books, there were some things that confounded the organizers. The names of the participants from JYC can't be made public - even on the commemorative plaque that the team gets - and so whatever kudos the young men get for their effort have to be without them being identified. When word got around to the Department of Health and Human Services, under which the Division of Juvenile Justice sorts, Dahl got a call asking "What can we do for the boys?"

"I said 'Why don't you call Oliver's Trophies and get the biggest, fattest, most gigantic blue ribbons you can find for them!'"

The school district has been very supportive, Dahl said, in sending out books so that the JYC team has at least two copies of each book. And in preparation for the Feb. 15 state Battle, the team has the benefit of the help of an experienced Battle coach; part time JYC librarian Georgia Hartner, a retired librarian from the Wasilla High School, was the coach of the Wasilla team that won the Battle in 2003. Hartner has come in and spent some of her time coaching the team and doing practice battles.

"The boys are psyched and really reading," Dahl said. "The team is three boys that probably never would have gotten together as a team on the outside. They're three different personalities and different kind of readers.

One of the team members said he enjoys reading and did take part in Battle of the Books in elementary school, but this is the first time he actually made the team and got to compete: "It's been fun, and it gives us stuff to do while we're in our rooms," he said.

Winning the district was one thing, but state might be more of a challenge, he said.

"It's definitely going to be hard. I guess I'm pretty nervous. I don't know how we going to do."

No matter how the battle goes on Feb. 15, the students at JYC can count on a big celebratory party planned - one that will include not only the three-person team and the one alternate, but the entire group of students.

"Because the peers are helping support the team by reminding them," Dahl said. "They'll say, 'you can't do that, you have to compete for state, you've got to keep your act together'."