It's only fitting I post a picture of myself with my best helper. Hmmm, I think here I was judging a school writing contest.
From the web archive: Catch a Judge's Eye
Last year (2007), I had
the pleasure of serving as one of the judges for the Magazine Merit Awards to
recognize outstanding works of writers and illustrators published in 2006. Over
Christmas vacation, after the deadline for nominations had passed, I read by genre, made
notes and concluded that all stories
aren’t created equally. Some were merely competent. Many were
good. But there were the exceptional few that stayed with me, transformed
me, wowed me. It was truly an educational and eye-opening experience
for me as a writer.
this judge’s eye? Stories and articles that surprised, educated, and
entertained me. Poems that begged to be read out loud and illustrations
that leaped off the page and into my imagination. Let me give you some
separates a good story from an award-winning one? Voice. It’s seems
so elusive, but voice is how you or your characters say things, see the world,
choose what to pay attention to, and ignore.
Rosie the dog, narrator of “Stinky Treasure” by Jacqueline Adams (Highlights,
Apr. 2006). Rosie’s (mis)interpretations drive the story. She
thinks: “Garbage is so special that no one is allowed to touch it.” In
the end Rosie concludes: “A dump must be a place where people store their
garbage after it gets stinky. So a dump is ... the most wonderful place
of all!” You’ll have to agree that Rosie’s voice is unique, fresh and
for Children editor, Marileta Robinson, remembered this piece fondly.
“It was our fiction contest winner, which means that it rose to the top amongst
1,500 entries. We all enjoyed the sly good humor of this lovable
There are no
new stories, right? Only old stories told in a new way. Consider
folktales. What makes them fresh? Evocative language. A new
setting. A different viewpoint. In Patricia Bridgman’s retold
Chinese folktale, “One Thousand Dragons,” (Cricket, July 2006), a young
girl discovers her power and uses it to escape an evil emperor. I
literally felt ten thousand dragon wings flap as they came to life when Ling
painted their eyes. Deborah Vetter, Editor at Cricket, said, “It reflects a powerful folktale motif in which the character brings a painting to life and
escapes death or slavery.” She added, “At Cricket we love
folktales, and we love seeing the same motifs crop up in stories from all over
Wednesday Club” by Anna Levine (Cicada, Jan./Feb. 2006) touched all of
our hearts with its honest and hopeful portrayal of a young girl whose mother
battles cancer. Later, I discovered that Levine’s sister had passed away
from breast cancer. The story was written in her honor. Vetter said, “Anna was determined to get
it right. She and I worked through several revisions, and I was so proud
of her when she nailed it. She poured herself into the story.”
It’s the heart of a story. Revision. It’s work that lets the reader
feel your heart.
nonfiction articles were highly focused. “Treasures in a Pinecone” by Jan
Black won my heart (Highlights, Dec. 2006). The author wondered, like a
child, why pinecones are sometimes closed and sometimes open. It was a personal
account, simply told, a great introduction to science and to the power of
observation. Melanie Hope Greenberg, my co-judge said, “Lovely visual
language, calling seeds ‘treasures’, hearing pinecones ‘crackling’ open.”
Robinson summed it up in one word: “enthusiastic.”
enjoy reading about famous people. And little-known facts about them make
great magazine articles. Both Trish Early and Barbara Kerley wrote
focused articles about famous people: “Ben Franklin: Fit for Life” (Highlights,
July 2006) and “Josiah, the White House Badger,” (Highlights, Apr. 2006)
respectively. Both articles were meticulously researched, evidenced by
their vivid and telling details.
started off with a bang, then lost steam and momentum shortly afterwards.
Compelling nonfiction grabs you by the throat and reels you in with every tasty
morsel. Two outstanding articles that succeeded in keeping my interest to
the very end were “Libby or Liberty” by Tracey E. Fern (Cricket, July
2006) and “The Town Underground” by Claudia Cangilla McAdam (Cricket,
Cricket’s Vetter remembered these pieces vividly. “Tracey Fern is an
author who knows how to find the ‘story’ in ‘history’,” said Vetter who also
commented on how astounded everybody was by the idea of an underground
town. She said, “What ingenuity, what novelty, what an exotic life in the
magazine piece keeps the excitement, the sense of awe and discovery, no matter
its length. Vetter said, “We look for a premise, excellent research, the
ability to explain difficult concepts, and a creative approach that will bring
the topic alive for young readers.”
jumped off the page were my favorites. I could literally feel “Winter
Clothes” (poem by Karla Kuskin) that Mary Bono illustrated (Highlights,
Jan. 2006). It had texture. Robinson remarked that Bono had knitted all the
adorable little clothes herself.
Greenberg, herself a visual artist, said of Karen Lee’s cover art for Highlights
for Children: “Delightful characters that are alive, everything is in
motion, not static.”
“Saxophone Summer” (Cicada, May/June 2006) sizzled. We loved the
syncopated rhythm that sounded like red hot jazz. In contrast, Cynthia
Porter’s “How Many Moons?” (Spider, Feb.
2006) was quiet and reflective. Natalie Rosinsky, my co-judge said, “A
small gem, where every word is aptly chosen and emotions of awe, appreciation,
recognition of fleeting time, and a sense of place are conveyed so vividly and
and Vetter confirmed our gut reactions.
Poetry is the shortest, most precise form of writing, and you either get it or
don’t. There seems to be no middle ground. “Editors tend to disagree
wildly on any manuscript submission. Poetry is especially subjective; so
is humor. What makes me laugh out loud can leave my Editor-in-Chief scratching her head – and vice versa!” said Vetter.
pieces stayed fresh even after repeated readings. The passion for the
topic shone through. Months later, I’m still thinking about them.
So, write what you love, what piques your interest, and publication and
recognition will surely follow.
"Catch a Judge's Eye" was first
published in the Jan-Feb. 2008 Bulletin.
art by Thacher Hurd.