The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards: A Golden Key

Scholastic gold key 2What do Ezra Jack Keats, Sylvia Plath, Stephen King, Richard Avedon, Truman Capote, Robert McClosky, and Andy Warhol have in common, besides being incredibly creative? Ding. Time’s up. Each won a Scholastic Art & Writing Award when they were in their teens. Of this experience Richard Avedon, among others, said winning was “the defining moment of my life.” Recognition and scholarships helped launch these talented teens to stardom. Well, okay, the stardom part was their own doing, but it did launch them.

Recently, I was honored to be a juror for both writing and art submissions for the 2015 competition, an amazing and daunting experience. We chose Honorable Mentions, Silver Key and Gold Key candidates and could nominate for the American Voices Award. Top winners from each region go on to the national jury in New York.

You might think that the “Scholastic” part of the title means “high school,” but that’s only part of the story. The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards program was begun by Scholastic, Inc. founder Maurice R. Robinson in 1923. Yes, Scholastic, Inc. is the multi-faceted publishing corporation known for making books available for kids, aiding literacy. That year Scholastic initiated a small writing competition with a $5 prize and six winning applicants to encourage creativity and recognize talent. According to wikipedia, Scholastic Publishing Company’s  first book was Saplings, a collection of selected student writings by winners of the Scholastic Writing Awards. Today, more than ninety years later, the annual competition has grown to twenty-eight categories of art and writing submitted by 70,000 students in grades 7 to 12 nationwide and hundreds of thousands of dollars in scholarships and awards granted. It is an amazing affirmation of many talented young people. Since 1994 the non-profit The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers has helped streamline the participation process for Scholastic’s competition. Hence the enormous number of talented teens who can take part.

My judging for the writing submissions was done on line, so I was able to complete my portion of that process at home and had approximately a month (mid December – January 20) in which to read and rate 200 works. The genres included short stories, poetry, critical essay, dramatic script, humor, science fiction and fantasy, journalism, personal essay/memoir, and flash fiction and there were two jurors for the specific set of works I reviewed. We were each given a rubric to follow which had three categories: originality, technical skill, and emergence of personal voice/vision, with rating help for scoring from one to ten in each category.

The range of content and the skill of these young writers was often amazing. Stories involved wildly different references like asterism, Apollon Bolts, Jack Rogers shoes, Marjane Satrapi’s “Embroideries,” LBLD, and Lizzie McGuire while being about imagined tragedies, immigrant experience, boy love, general life, death, and a wide range of human emotion. I only remember one entry in the humor category, which I wonder might be a reflection of our times? Rating these writings was difficult in part because they were of many genres and also due to my sense of deep responsibility.

There were two other categories of choice: an exceptional work could be nominated for the American Voices award, and there was also a button to be used in the event a work was thought to be plagiarized. One story was so tightly and perfectly written, yet seemed so familiar—as though I had read it before, that I felt it should be checked for any sign of imitation. If it was found to be original, then I wanted it to be submitted for the American Voices award. I tried looking up segments of the story online, but could not find a match. Fortunately, the award program has sophisticated software to search for such a problem, though the juror does not know the end result. The sense that I had read it before was persistent, however. a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, I also was asked to spend two days in January at the Museum School along with dozens of other art professionals, as part of the three days of judging, divided into groups based on genres. Things went well enough that most of us did not need to come for our second day. The others on my team were the director of an art museum, director of a history museum, a high school art teacher, and I am a sculptor and author.

We were shown slides of 500 sculptures by high school or high school age homeschool students. The process involved wooden paddles each of us held up, which had “in” on one side and “out” on the other. A student proctor calculated as we went. We looked through slides of all five hundred sculptures choosing the Honorable Mention works first. Then a second run-through for the Silver Keys, and a final most difficult scan for the Gold Keys. We also nominated one artwork for the top award. There were media and styles ranging from art made from books, to pottery, soapstone, mixed media and found objects, even sculptures made of plastic wrap. One of my teammates had participated the previous day, going through 1,500 paintings with her team. Her comment was that the sculptures were more difficult to rate. Three dimensions versus two does add complexity, but true creativity and skill can be found in any media.

What a brilliant job Scholastic, a publishing firm that advocates for creative kids, has done of spotlighting talent so early. Truman Capote was writing fiction at 11. Did the Scholastic award he received then open doors for him and encourage his talent? Will the 2015 awards be a golden key for success for the 2015 teen recipients, many of whose work I saw and read? I do believe so.

This article also appears on the Writers Rumpus blog.

Have you entered the Scholastic Art & Writing contest? Have you won? Has it been a golden key to your career?

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