WATSON -- Hannah Varnado couldn’t make up her mind.
Should she go with Alan Gratz’s “Projekt 1065,” the heart-pounding story about a family of Allied spies set in Berlin during World War II, or C.C. Payne’s “The Thing About Leftovers,” the gut-wrenching tale of a girl dealing with her parents’ divorce?
There was a reason for Varnado’s indecision.
The next day, she would cast her vote for the Louisiana Young Readers’ Choice Program (LYRC), in which students use real voting machines provided by the Secretary of State’s office to vote for their favorite book of the year.
The thought of voting kept the fifth-grade Live Oak Middle student awake most of the night as she replayed excerpts from both books in her head. With it being her first time at the polls, Varnado wanted to make sure she did her due diligence.
“I was up all night trying to decide,” she said.
She wasn’t the only student facing such a dilemma.
Students across the state have been hitting the polls for the LYRC Program, an enrichment program designed to instill the importance of both reading and voting among students in grades 3-12.
The program, under the umbrella of the State Library of Louisiana, is broken up into three grade levels — 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12 — and puts at least 10 books on the ballot for students to choose from.
Participation in the program has climbed since it was founded in 1999, going from 5,485 votes the first year to as many as 29,000 votes in 2009. Last year, Louisiana students read more than 73,597 books and cast approximately 24,749 votes.
Several Livingston Parish schools will have taken part in the program when the polls officially close March 1.
Last Friday, Live Oak Middle librarian Amanda Jones turned her library into a mini polling station. Three absentee machines were placed on a table that was guarded by employees from the Secretary of State’s office, who said they’ll take the machines to a dozen Livingston Parish schools over two weeks.
A little after 8 a.m., the library was buzzing with activity as more than 100 students — who all had to read at least three of the 12 selections — let their voices be heard. Students arrived in the library, handed Jones their voting ticket, and stood quietly in line to cast their ballot. After voting, Jones handed each student an “I Voted” sticker.
After much internal debate, Varnado breathed a sigh of relief as she walked away from the voting machine.
With her “I Voted” sticker proudly displayed on her sweater, Varnado said decided to go with her gut by selecting “Projekt 1065” because, “I love history and learning.” She also said she’ll never forget the feeling of being allowed to vote — something normally reserved for grown-ups.
“It’s like underage voting,” she said with a laugh.
Unlike Varnado, sixth-grader Dominick Bondi knew which way he was voting the moment he arrived on campus. Having read all 12 books on the LYRC list, Bondi said he went with Jason Reynolds’ book “Ghost,” which is about a middle-school sprinter trying to outrun his troubling past.
But like Varnado, Bondi said he thoroughly enjoyed the experience of casting a ballot for the first time.
“I enjoyed it,” Bondi said. “It was fun getting to vote for my favorite book. It makes me feel special. It made me want to vote for president and other stuff.”
After the last of the voters exited the library, Jones credited the students for embracing the program in force.
Jones said she’s had 15 copies of all 12 books on the LYRC’s list since the start of the school year — the most she’s ever had at one time. But even that proved to be an insufficient amount as students kept the books off the shelves and in their hands, reading one after another. Jones also singled out the 6th-grade special education class for having all 14 students qualify to vote.
Though not all students read the required three books, Jones said she had 200 students “who read at least one or two.” Half the student body was reading above grade level as Jones went with the books for grades 6-8.
“I think it went really well,” she said. “I was so excited that so many kids qualified. These aren’t easy books to read.”
Though the state’s results won’t be revealed until March, the verdict was already in at Live Oak Middle shortly after voting ended.
After approximately 107 votes, it was a tie between “Ghost” and “Projekt 1065,” which both received 18 votes apiece.
“Can we do a runoff?” Jones playfully asked.