December 5th, 2006

Another Judgment Day

’Tis the season for writing contests. I guess.


Last night I headed out to help a local group of SCBWI members judge a writing competition that they put together. (There was a coloring competition too, but I didn’t mess around with that.)


The topic: The Night I Got Locked in the Library. (What a great kid fantasy that would have been! Although when I was little, my “locked in” fantasies were pretty much limited to the grocery store. All the Hostess cupcakes I could cram in my little mouth—what a glorious thought!)


The age range: k-8.


The verdict: holy cow.


I started out with the fifth-graders, and it was instantly depressing how poorly these kids string words together. Revision is evidently not stressed in this school district, which is a pity—because when a person writes stream-of-consciousness, lots of verbs and nouns get left by the wayside. I perked up when I realized that a good number of the contestants were likely not native English speakers, but plunged into melancholy again when I read a particularly dreadful entry by someone with a particularly non-ethnic name. Sigh.  


On the other hand, they are only 10 or so; maybe I should cut them some slack.


The stories were filled with books flying off the shelves and ghosts materializing from library walls. Also demons exploding out of opened books. (Lots of demons.) Just about every story included a lengthy detour to the library cafeteria, and loving detail about the snacks consumed therein. (That’s what you get for having a fancy library. No food whatsoever in the Orange Public Library branches—although when they finish the new Main Branch in a couple of months, who can say what sort of espresso drinks and puff pastry treats may be available?) Most of these stories were written first-person, which made me wonder if they were all required to turn their entries in before lunch—hence the preoccupation with nibblies.


A good number of them concluded with the narrator waking up when the guard opened the door in the morning. (Library guards—see what I mean about fancy? No one guards the Orange Public Library, I can tell you that.) They were pretty evenly divided as to whether the ghosts/ demons/ flying books were a dream or not. And some of them didn’t conclude at all, which made me think that the writers were particularly earnest kids who took the 350-word limit very, very seriously.


I did wonder about the ominousness that pervaded so many of them. One entry was particularly dark: the kid was stuck in the New York Public Library (a foreign location, yet!), trapped in a space with no windows, where he could see no one and no one could see him; eventually he managed to break free, and determined never to return—but then he did return, and now his prison has become a sanctuary.


Another kid finally escaped from the library, and ended his story thusly: “Now I’m safe. OR AM I????” Below these words he’d sketched a picture of himself trapped behind bars.


Some of these kids had killer vocabularies (not all of them used properly, but it’s best not to be too persnickety), and some had great ideas. In my favorite piece, a girl trapped in the library met Alice in Libraryland, and couldn’t prevent herself from chomping some appealing heart-shaped candy even though she knew it would make her shrink. Then Aladdin and Aurora (the fifth-grade girls are big fans of Sleeping Beauty) sprang out of their books, and they nibbled the candy and shrank too. A big fictional character party ensued.


Oh—there was another girl who became Sleeping Beauty. There was a particularly brilliant twist in this one. She met Prince Phillip, pricked her finger, fell asleep, was kissed by the prince, and then they got married—“Only I didn’t marry him,” she added. (Okay then.) She had a great conclusion, too. When she awoke from her dream, she spotted another library book she’d checked out. “Cinderella, here I come,” she crowed.


My favorite line came from one of the more ominous stories (natch), in which the narrator encounters a witch. Prepare yourself—this is classic:


She asked me if I preferred a snake or a rat on a stick. I politely said I was not hungry.


Would I wish myself back to fifth grade? Not in a million trillion years. But it is nice to take these little field trips back in time and remember when being locked in a public place sounded like a big adventure, and it was fun to imagine various traumas and how I would handle them. (Did you ever fantasize about your funeral, and how they’d all be sorry then? Oh, how I wept while daydreaming about my lovely corpse and all them who’d wronged me and could never beg forgiveness now. Hmmm—sounds like another blog entry. Better stop here and save it for later.) 

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