October 31, 2008

Escape to the Library

I'm passing this information from my colleague and friend, Dana Maloney, who is coordinating this year's NJ Council of Teachers of English 2008 High School Writing Contest. She would like to reach as many teachers and students in New Jersey as possible, so I offered to post about it on several of my blogs.

It's a NJcentric contest, but the rest of you may be curious about the personal essay prompt and our model. It sent me back to a childhood memory that may be one you share.

The contest categories are: poetry, short story, and personal essay. More contest details at the end of this post. The personal essay submissions must respond to this year’s prompt.
Where do you live? Use descriptive language to give the reader a virtual experience of your world. As you do this, let us hear your voice. Share the thoughts, feelings, questions and concerns that arise out of your view of the world around you. Bring your space – your town, your school, your home, your room, your web - to life for your reader. Where you live can be interpreted in many ways, including both literal and metaphorical ways, and we encourage you to take liberty with interpretation.
Of course, you could use that for poetry too. As a model of a personal essay, Dana suggested an essay by another friend, teacher and poet BJ Ward. You might want to read his essay about his youthful home-away-from-home at his local library - it is available online. Escaping to books is probably something that many readers of this post can admit to from their youth.

"During the internet-less, video-game-less, and seemingly endless summers of my childhood, I could ride my bike to the Washington Borough Public Library and within one minute be transported to the world of Dr. Doolittle; The Hardy Boys; and Babe Ruth, All-American Hero. Each book was a planet with a spine. The librarian was an organizing star, keeping all those spheres in their places for future explorers to discover. The library itself was a universe—a macrocosm between paint-chipped walls, below a roof paid for by bake sales, sandwiched between a tattoo parlor and halfway house. It was the most fecund place I knew—a greenhouse for my imagination, where fluorescence had to do with my mind’s branches spreading. O the joyful fire in the astronaut’s skull when divination led to apprehension. "

I was one of those people who had a corner of the children's section of my public library that I considered to be mine. A big, fat, old leather chair in a corner with a dirty window and a wall of books for protection. When they built the new town library - a bigger, brighter, glass-walled
version - I never found a special place there. (The modern chairs discouraged getting comfortable anyway.) Of course, by then I was out of the children's section which almost always is the more inviting part of a library anyway.

Newark Public LibraryI had ventured a few times to the "big library" in my part of New Jersey - the Newark Public Library. It was impressive. Too impressive. I felt lost. Too many echoes in the halls, though I did like seeing in pop up in books like in Phillip Roth's Goodbye Columbus that I was reading. (My own hometown, Irvington, had shown up in some stories and in Portnoy's Complaint and I rode that same bus as

Perhaps, some student will write an essay for the contest about some private place of escape in their world. Do kids still escape to the library? My office is within a college library and it seems to be the place to study and use computers, but escape...?

BJ Ward's poem "Filling in the New Address Book" was featured on National Public Radio’s The Writer’s Almanac. (listen to Garrison Keillor reading it). His latest collection of poetry is Gravedigger's Birthday. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Warren County Community College in New Jersey.

  • Each participating teacher may submit up to 10 entries in each category. Submissions must be accompanied by a signed entry form.
  • Entrants must submit four paper copies and one electronic copy of each submission.
  • Download the entry form which contains information on where to submit the entry.
  • The student’s name must not appear on the submission itself – only on the entry form.
  • Postmark and Electronic Submission Deadline: December 15, 2008
  • At least one student from every participating school will receive an award. Award categories are “Outstanding,” “Prize-worthy” or “Certificate of Merit.” Students in grades 10, 11 or 12 who are named “Outstanding” winners may be eligible for a New Jersey Governor’s Award in Arts Education.
  • Winners will be announced by April 15, 2009.

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