By Gene Kruckemyer
As the Kids Are Authors competition sponsored by Scholastic Book Fairs heads into its 30th and final year, it’s appropriate that one of the reigning winners is titled Masterpiece because each student-written book through the years has been a masterpiece in its own right.
About 50,000 student authors in kindergarten through 8th grade have participated in the national competition since 1986, creating such catchy titles as The Music Inside Me, Haiku Hike, Poor Pluto and Greatest Homework Excuse Book Ever.
And along the way, the competition has changed lives.
“Some of the project coordinators’ comments were that it brought out the best in some of the most quiet and introverted students,” said Sandy Blanchette, Scholastic’s Kids Are Authors program manager.
“To those who actually win, they get to say they are published authors at such a young age, and to actually see them get their medals and handed their finished published book is unbelievable. I overheard one of the students say, ‘This is the most remarkable day of our 10-year-old lives.’”
This year’s fiction winner, Masterpiece, is about a young girl’s visit to an art museum, while the nonfiction winner, Through Jane’s Eyes, is a look at the inspiring lessons taught to us by anthropologist and conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall. Watch Dr. Goodall's message to the authors!
And now the upcoming 30th anniversary winners will be the last, as the project will turn its final page at the end of this year’s competition.
Scholastic saw the value of Kids Are Authors in 1998 when the company acquired PAGES Inc., which started the competition.
Under Scholastic’s leadership to expand KAA – as it is affectionately called by those involved with it – the competition soon evolved to become one of the premier writing programs in schools as children’s imaginations lit up the pages. Many teachers used KAA as a way to incorporate language-arts goals to meet educational standards for their grade levels.
One of the program requirements is that the entries must be created by at least three students working as a team. Through the years, books have been submitted by groups of friends, siblings and even whole classrooms working collaboratively with words and art.
The books have covered topics that have been funny, sad, informative, poignant, introspective, adventurous, historic and educational–in short, the same genres that are on best-selling book lists.
The payoff for the students and schools has been both financial and emotional. The two grand prizes each year earn for the schools a voucher for 5,000 Scholastic DollarsTM to purchase Scholastic Book Fairs products, plus 100 copies of the published book.The young authors each receive a gold medal, a copy of the published book (with their photograph on the back cover) and an award certificate. Smaller awards are given to honorable mentions.
Carolyn Longest, a Scholastic category manager who oversaw the project for 11 years, said she was always amazed every year by the entries.
One of her favorites, she said, was One Day in the Life of Bubble Gum in 2001 by five fourth-graders at Mt. Horeb Intermediate Center in Mt. Horeb, Wisc. The story told of the sticky travel adventures around town of a piece of gum that was first stuck to a park bench by a girl and then scraped off by a maintenance worker. Miraculously, the gum ends back on the same bench the next day, where it was retrieved by the girl who decided it tasted better than before.
“The five students were all individual personalities and stars on their own, but they had to come together to create the book,” Longest said. “That’s one of the things we always promoted-teamwork.”
Blanchette said one of her favorites was 2010’s Vincent van Gogh’s Cat by second-graders at East Washington Academy in Muncie, Ind.
“It was a very simple one-line-per-page book about van Gogh’s cat telling a story of each painting while running in and out of the canvases…beautiful artwork,” she said.
One of the program’s most serious and reaffirming books was September 12th…We Knew Everything Would Be All Right. The 2002 entry by a first-grade class at Masterson Elementary School in Kennett, Mo., tells about the aftermath of the news events of September 11.
As the classroom wrote:
“September 12th was a new day. We knew everything would be all right because the sun came up and the birds started to sing again…We knew everything would be all right because we had homework. 2+2 still added up to 4…On September 12, our parents still tucked us in our warm, safe beds.”
All the published prize-winning books through the years have been sold at school book fairs, but September 12th has been the only one sold in commercial bookstores.
After the book was published, the students were invited to visit New York on an all-expense-paid trip by the Nasdaq stock exchange as an appreciation for what they had written. They appeared on the TODAY show, opened the stock market on Sept. 11, 2002, and toured the city.
When they returned home for their official KAA awards ceremony at school, they were praised by the assembly’s guest speaker, singer Sheryl Crow, who was born in the town of about 10,000.
Achieving the status as a winning entry has been no easy feat.
Some years, as many as 3,000 entries have been received, which all go through a series of judging stages including teachers, journalists, graphic designers, community members and Scholastic staffers before the final handful of book finalists are reviewed by children’s authors who have won Caldecott, Newbery and other book awards.
“You know there’s a story behind every one of them,” Longest said. “There’s always the excitement when you’re opening them that this is going to be ‘the one.’”
Perhaps the comment that best sums up Kids Are Authors over its 30-year span, Longest said, was when a teacher at an awards ceremony in rural Minnesota thanked Scholastic for providing the inspirational opportunity for children.
“You taught them they can dream as big as anybody,” she said. “Thank you for showing my kids that.”
Gene Kruckemyer has been a longtime invited judge for Kids Are Authors because of his background in journalism, public relations, and education.