For the Love of a Book

by Meg Petersen, Professor of English

The National Writing Project in New Hampshire is an affiliate of the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards to manage the awards for the New Hampshire writing region. This means we are responsible for publicizing the contest, for collecting submissions, for assembling a panel of qualified judges as well as awarding gold and silver keys and honorable mention awards to students attending schools in New Hampshire in grades 7-12. We are responsible for submitting the gold key winners in time to go on to be judged at the national level.

We are not, however, responsible for creating an anthology of the winning works. I think we are the only affiliate who does this.

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It’s easy to see why other affiliate sites don’t take this on. It’s an enormous amount of work that consumes absolutely unbelievable  amounts of time, and there is no money in it. First we have to compile a spreadsheet of all the winning works, then painstakingly download them one by one from the Scholastic website, reformatting them as we do, and inserting a heading with the student’s name, grade and school, as well as the title of the work. When this massive volume has been assembled in draft form, we take it through an intensive editing process, formatting and using a style guide we have developed over the years. Then comes the often frustrating process of creating the table of contents and then reformatting and uploading the book to the publishing site and designing the cover. This year, I spent a desperate afternoon at the PSU help desk during which, at one point, I may have threatened to throw myself off a bridge if they abandoned me. By the time we get to this stage, we are always rushing to be sure the books will arrive in time for the awards ceremony, and the book usually has to be reprinted. Of course, every mistake or omitted piece is a disaster. It’s a high anxiety process all the way through, and even when it’s done we find mistakes…

So why do we do it?  There is nothing like seeing one’s own name in print, in holding a book that contains your work. At first, there is the pleasure of showing your work to friends and family, of being able to say that you wrote that and there it is, being honored in publication. But the thing is, it doesn’t stop there. This book gets read. It ends up in classrooms for free reading; poems, stories and personal essays are printed from this text to be used as mentor texts to inspire next year’s middle and high school writers to enter the contest.  

But more than even this, the words these students write touch people, move them, make them think. I will not forget Kellyn Johnson’s piece “And Let Your Very Flesh be a Poem” about the red and black tally marks of love requited or not. I felt if she were writing to me. Or Georgia Flanders piece “Talk” in which she discovers that her talk is a mirror, or Jason Frank’s critical essay about “The Smurfs and Other Homophobia.” You need to read that one to get the connection. And powerful poems, like Nico Colon’s “The Oracles in My Brain,” Anastasia Demopoulous’s “Apparently,” and Nicholas Plourde’s “Like a Cigarette.” There are so many more that I could read the table of contents and tell you how each piece moved me. I read every piece several times in the course of editing, as do my fellow editors, and honestly, these pieces touch me. Some are raw, honest, rough. Sometimes they tell unpleasant truths. Sometimes I feel as if I know the authors through their words, although most often we have never met. This writing doesn’t flinch. The writing moves me. I think about what I read. I know I am not alone. I know I speak for the other judges, and for my own students, and for the editorial assistants who format the work. When I use the book in my classes, my university students are impressed and touched by what they read. They use the book in their classes as well. And then I see students in schools across the state responding to what young people their own age have written. This summer, our institute for young writers will use this book as its main text.

Without the book, none of this would happen.

So we keep doing it.

So for the love of this book, for the love of the work of these students, some of whom I feel as if I know intimately through their work, for the courage it took for them to write it and to send it in for us to read, for all of that and more, we keep doing this.