It’s a contest that has been held in New York City schools for nearly three decades, and this year, its success is beginning to resonate around the country.
The 27th-annual Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competition — hosted as a partnership between the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation and the New York City Department of Education — awarded three winning entries citywide: colorful, artistic, soulful texts created by a sixth grader from Brooklyn, an 11th grader from Manhattan, and two third graders (submitted as one entry) from Brooklyn.
“New York City public school students from across the city not only rose to the task of making their own books, they expressed themselves on deeply personal levels,” said Deborah Pope, executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation. “Two of the three city-wide winning books this year are about Hurricane Sandy — one student’s home was badly damaged, and the third is about finding one’s identity. We are moved by the depth of expression and artistry evident in these books.”
The competition is stiff, and making the book itself is no easy task. Parents are not allowed to help out. The contest is divided into three categories, from all five boroughs: elementary (grades three through five), middle (grades six to eight) and high school (grades nine to 12), and includes entries from Districts 75 and 79.
Third-graders Ellie Hui and Vincent Chen took the winning spot in the elementary category for their book, “Surviving Hurricane Sandy,” which Ellie wrote and illustrated and Vincent co-illustrated. The children attend PS / IS 229, The Dyker School, in Brooklyn.
They were touched by the ordeal of a classmate who has been re-located to their school after Sandy — and it inspired them to base their book on him.
“The story is dedicated to our classmate John,” Ellie said, “who came to our school when his house got ruined by Hurricane Sandy. I wrote the story first, then my friend Vincent and I did the illustrations. Doing the book — especially drawing in perspective — was hard, but I was lucky to learn perspective. I felt proud when my teacher read our book to my class.”
“When my teacher told me I won, I was excited,” said Vincent. “I now think that I’m very good at drawing and want to be an artist when I grow up. I had a good time sharing ideas with Ellie. I’m going to save the prize money so that I can buy a good car when I grow up … and then an iPhone 5.”
Dealing with the fear and chaos of Hurricane Sandy also served as the catalyst for the ideas that flowed on paper in the middle school category, where sixth-grader Amelia Samoylov of The Bay Academy for the Arts and Sciences, in Brooklyn, took the winning spot for her entry, “We Are Not Alone.”
“I created ‘We Are Not Alone’ based on my family’s experience during Hurricane Sandy.” Amelia said. “Our house — like many others in Sea Gate — was badly damaged. I felt helpless and scared. My book is dedicated to anyone affected by Sandy and to those who helped us. It’s meant to help people deal with their emotions … to know that they are not alone. Making the book and winning the award made me realize that I really want to write and draw more books.”
And in the high school category, Helen Lin of Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan took the top prize for her book, “Shell,” about a young girl trying to find herself in a chaotic world.
“ ‘Shell’ is a picture book about a girl trying to find her identity by purposely entering her ‘Wonderland,’ so she doesn’t have to deal with her earthly problems,” said Helen. “I drew and painted pictures of [her] journey as she tries to fit in with the society of that world by wearing a mask, until the ruler sees through the disguise and the girl realizes that she has to come back to earth and face her problems. In the end, she manages to find herself, and shed [her] shell.”
Winning books and honorable mention books were on display at the Brooklyn Public Library last month, and an awards ceremony was held there on May 17 — where the four city-wide and 23 borough-wide winners of the Bookmaking Competition received medals. In addition, the city-wide winners received $500 each and the borough-wide winners received $100 each from the foundation.
The contest may have lit a spark among these young winners — who say, just like the late award-winning children’s book author and illustrator for whom the contest is named, they might like to pursue writing and illustrating as they grow up. And if that’s the goal, says Pope, then the contest itself is a winner.
“Ezra’s legacy shines on in all of these students who worked so hard, often for months, to express their experiences in their fine and creative books,” says Pope. “Our hope is that this award will encourage these young writers and illustrators to pursue their dreams, just as Ezra did.”
And it may catch on in other cities, which Pope says are considering hosting the competition in their communities.
The Contemporary Jewish Museum, Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, and San Francisco Unified School District staged a pilot Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competition this year. Participants were honored at an awards ceremony at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on Feb. 21. The books were on display in March at the San Francisco Unified School District Arts Festival at the Asian Art Museum.
For information about the Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competition, the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, and all city- and borough-wide winners, please visit www.ezra-jack-keats.org.
Monica Brown is a television news anchor and freelance writer who lives with her husband and two children.