February 20, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Three Winners in 2017 Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competition

The city-wide winners of the 2017 Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competition are: (Clockwise from left) The Story of the Mirabal Sisters by Amber Siurano (grade four, P.S. 63 Old South School, Queens); Life of a Brighton Beach Sparrow by Elizabeth Abramowitz (grade six, I.S. 98 Bay Academy, Brooklyn); He Abandoned Us by Jennifer Huang (grade 12, Stuyvesant High School, Manhattan).

For more than three decades, New York City public school children in grades three through 12 have been creating masterpieces and winning prizes, thanks to a partnership between the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation and the NYC Department of Education. The Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking competition gives kids the chance to compete for prize money ($500 for city-wide winners, $100 for borough ones), medals, and certificates of commendation by covering any subject they like in any format they choose.

Amber Siurano

“​This program is designed to encourage creativity and tenacity, not necessarily to follow Keats’s exact style,” explains Deborah Pope, executive director of the namesake foundation. In past years, the competition has seen entries made from paper bags, books that look like dog houses, [and] ones that unfold, pop-up, roll over, and expand, she reports. Topics have run the gamut from fantastic fairy tales, human biology, and outer space to heartbreaking stories about a parent dying of AIDS and the pain of a lost friendship. “Each year the definition of what makes a book is rewritten,” she says.

diversity on display

The winning books and honorable mentions are on display at the Central Library branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, through May 26. “Brooklyn Public Library is proud to showcase the beautifully innovative books made by our city’s talented young writers and illustrators,” Kimberly Grad, coordinator of school age services at Brooklyn Public Library and one of the judges of the competition, told SLJ. “The students who participated in this year’s competition truly embody the spirit of Ezra Jack Keats, who inspired so many readers and writers with his groundbreaking work.”

The Display of Winning Work at Brooklyn Public Library

The 2017 winners have continued the tradition of past honorees, writing about such varying topics as being a tourist in New York City, the temperament of sparrows, and segregation and equal rights. Amber Siurano, a student at Old South School in Queens, took on Latin American history in an inspiring and, ultimately, tragic tale titled The Story of the Mirabal Sisters. The real-life trio fought valiantly against the brutal regime of Rafael Trujillo, one of the region’s most notorious dictators. “I love reading nonfiction and history, especially books about powerful women,” says Siurano. The fourth grader was shocked when she learned she won in the third to fifth grade group—but was very happy, too. “I really want people to learn about these sisters because they are true heroes,” she adds. Siurano has a grand future planned, which includes going to Harvard, a degree in political science, and becoming President of the United States.

the educator Support behind each winner

Elizabeth Abramowitz

Behind every winner, there’s an educator who helped make the victory happen. “The supervising teacher or librarian who has worked with the winner receives a book gift certificate good for 15 titles that’s donated by Penguin Random House, Keats’s publisher,” reports Pope. This year’s winners will be honored at a ceremony on May 19.

Siurano particularly wants to thank her art teacher and school librarian for taking her step by step through the process of making the book. Leslie Bernstein, an art and technology teacher who has taught for 14 years at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, is another participant who deserves recognition. Her background has set her up nicely to supervise the Ezra Jack Keats entries since she often gives a bookmaking assignment as a final project at the end of the semester. “This was my fourth year overseeing the Keats competition, and I was impressed by the wealth of fantastic books from my students,” she says. Some of the books were immaculately crafted, some had an incredibly creative story—and then there were those that showed a unique voice or perspective. “The book by senior Jennifer Huang, the winner in the ninth to 12th category, had all three,” she adds. Huang’s book, titled He Abandoned Us, was inspired by the seven deadly sins and the fact that every character, even heroes, have flaws.

Jennifer Huang

In addition to the many-year history in New York City, the event is also held in San Francisco, Baltimore, and Atlanta. “We’re always looking for other cities or school districts that might be interested in hosting an Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking Competition—all it takes is one person in one institution to make it happen for their students,” notes Pope. We’re eager for more educators to know about the program and be inspired to bring it into their classrooms.”

Jennifer Kelly Geddes is an editor and writer whose work has appeared on the sites of Parents, Highlights, Fisher-Price, and Celebrations.

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