Thursday, October 27, 2016

Catch a Judge's Eye

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.

What caught 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 examples.


What 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. 

Consider 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 funny. 

Highlights 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 character.”

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 the world.”

“The 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.”

Passion.  It’s the heart of a story.  Revision.  It’s work that lets the reader feel your heart.


The best 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.”

Children 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.

Many articles 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, Apr. 2006).  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 Australian desert!”

A great 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.” 


Pictures that 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.  

Judge 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.”


Anna Levine’s “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 economically.”

Both Robinson 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.


My favorite 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.

Cover art by Thacher Hurd.


Faith E. Hough said...

I read that article! Did I know you then? I guess not... It's a really great article! (Must have been, for me to still remember it. :)

Vijaya said...

Oh, how great! Nope, I didn't know you at the time. You've had 3 babies since the time I begged for prayers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for re-sharing this wonderful article, Vijaya, it's very interesting!

Barbara Etlin said...

Excellent article. Thanks!

Yanting Gueh said...

Vijaya, I have copied your lines on Passion and Revision into my book of motivation. It's so important to be able to let a reader feel our heart.