‘Just looking for heart’: Schoolchildren, author delight in Hatfield’s writing tradition

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  • Author Jane Yolen talks with students from Hatfield Elementary School after they delivered a large paper flower, made in art class, and a bouquet of lilies and hydrangeas to her on Monday in appreciation for her annual review of their writing submissions. Among the seven students were, from left, fifth grader Oscar Higuera, fourth grader Tanner Levin (only hat visible), fourth grader Vivian Higuera and sixth grader Keighley Gworek. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Hatfield kindergartner Joe Charette, accompanied by his mother, Jennifer Charette, a sixth grade teacher at the elementary school, asked author Jane Yolen about the drawings in her books during a visit to her Hatfield home. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Students from Hatfield Elementary School delivered a thank you card, a large paper flower and a vase of cut flowers to author Jane Yolen at her Hatfield home on Monday in appreciation for her annual review of their writing submissions. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Author Jane Yolen speaks from the deck of her Hatfield home on Monday about the annual writing contest for the town’s elementary school students that she has judged for some three decades. Seven students had just left her house after delivering a thank you card and flowers in appreciation. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 5/6/2021 12:44:17 PM

On the porch at Jane Yolen’s Hatfield home Monday afternoon, several elementary school students presented the children’s book author with an oversized card signed by the entire school, a large paper flower made in art class and cut flowers, an appreciation for her annual review of their writing submissions.

For Yolen, the long-running contest, in which she evaluates the students’ works of fiction and nonfiction, storybooks and poems, is about finding writing that moves her or makes her laugh, and perhaps identifying someone who will become a professional writer.

“It’s actually fun every year to see what you all do,” Yolen said to those who dropped by, lamenting that she couldn’t find a way to do the contest in 2020 due to the pandemic. “It’s wonderful for me to look at your work. It’s just a joyful time.”

Later this week, Yolen, the author of “Owl Moon” and hundreds of other books for children and adults, will recognize students through a virtual, rather than in-person, awards ceremony. There will be a winner in every class at Hatfield Elementary School, she said, with students receiving an autographed Yolen book, typically matching the theme of their own work, with the grand prize winner getting a $25 check and two honorable mentions a $10 check. She encourages teachers to let the kids write however they want.

“I’m just looking for heart, the story the child wanted to tell, not the story the child was told to tell,” Yolen said.

The contest typically culminates in a packed auditorium with parents and grandparents, but this year there was uncertainty about its return until fifth-grade teacher John Higuera got in touch with Yolen about its resumption after reading a news article about Yolen’s 400th book.

Generations of Hatfield students have participated in the contest. Jennifer Charette, a sixth grade teacher, recalls it being part of her elementary school experience in the 1990s, and now her own children are getting the same opportunity.

“This has been such a nice tradition,” Charette said. “It’s such a memorable part of growing up in Hatfield.”

The children who came by got to interact with Yolen for a few minutes, asking her about her best-liked genres. “I do love poetry. That’s my favorite,” Yolen said, adding that she has also written lyrics for bands, though doesn’t expect any of those songs to become popular.

She also credited the famous and wonderful illustrators for helping her stories come to life.

Fifth grader Oscar Higuera, 11, said it was “pretty cool” to meet Yolen outside her home.

With a classmate, Oscar created a picture book that tells a story about the COVID-19 pandemic. “It’s about how I liked spending time with my family more,” Oscar said.

Participating in the contest again was sixth grader Keighley Gworek, 12, who wrote a mystery book about a boy who got lost in the woods one night.

“It was exciting to come to her house and meet her in person and talk to her,” Keighley said.

Cal Gworek, also 12 and in sixth grade, wrote about a girl who moved into a new home and heard knocking in the basement before going to explore.

“I like that she takes time to read our essays and books,” Cal said of Yolen.

Yolen said once in hand, it takes her about two days to read and then re-read the entries and sort them into piles to select those as winners.

“It’s fun. It’s also a lot of work on everybody’s part,” Yolen said.

Yolen’s daughter, Heidi Stemple, a writer in her own right, coordinates the planning and has made sure that the prizes are at the school so the children will receive them.

“It’s a warm and loving ceremony,” Yolen said, remembering the excitement she has seen in the past, like a child who ran down the aisle exclaiming to everyone about his win.

The competition. Yolen said, opens children up to a world of possibility and keeps many interested in writing throughout the year. She observes some have thought about topics all summer, fall and winter until they make their submission.

“This is a marker for our spring, as well as theirs,” Yolen said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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