‘Participating’ in a Children’s Writing Contest

I was recently asked to judge my writing group’s annual Children’s Contest for 3rd and 4th graders.

We received167 entries from children in St. Charles County schools. Thankfully, I didn’t have to read all the entries. My critique partner Camile Faye was the contest chair. She, a former college English professor, and two retired elementary school teachers read through the entries and then each sent me their top ten.

For three days I received new entries in the mail. Like presents wrapped in manilla envelopes. Those were three days of happiness. Then I realized I had to pick a winner. Great gnashing of teeth ensued.

How was I supposed to pick a winner from stories that featured such wildly creative ideas like a well-spoken beetle, a dreaded vampire squirrel or flying dinosaurs. I was also surprised to find stories that addressed complex issues like the grief of losing a friend to cancer and the courage needed to face a bully.

The first time I realized I might be good at this writing thing was when as an elementary schooler, I won a children’s writing contest. Now as a judge, I had the power to inspire – or not – a child not unlike my past self. That thought was intimidating.

To keep myself from being intimidated, I formulated a ranking system for each child’s entry. They received points based on their story elements, plot and story structure, grammar and spelling, and  following directions.

This past Saturday, we held an award presentations for the winners. (You can see pictures from the ceremony on the Saturday Writers’ Blog) The parents treated their kids like mini-movie stars. Their devotion to ensuring their smiling child was forever captured in digital format, seemed slightly absurd, but I couldn’t blame them. I expect myself to be the same way as a parent.

Some children were absent. Afterward, I gave their certificates to their teacher. As I handed them over to her, she asked me, “Where are the rest of them?”

“Pardon me?”  What did she mean by the rest of them, I thought?

“I was told all the children who entered would receive participation slips.”

I know she saw my look of disbelief before I could straighten my face. If only agents and editors gave participation slips for submissions.