I still remember that early spring morning in first grade. My mom had woken me up early and insisted I wear my pink and green jumper with the white collared blouse to school. The one with the pink polka dot trim on the cuffs, the special occasion outfit. "Why?" I remember asking, "it's just a Wednesday."* It was mid spring and my jumper was probably going to be too warm for recess. "Oh, no reason," my mom said, "I just think you should look nice today."
It didn't dawn on me just then--I was probably worried that my nice outfit would keep me from participating in gym class and I didn't want the teacher to yell at me again--but this was the day Jane Yolen was visiting the school. All grades, Kindergarten through sixth grade, had entered various poems and short stories to Mrs. Yolen, an author in our town, for the writing contest she sponsored every year. Jane Yolen is an award-winning writer, for both children's books and novels, and has been described as "the Hans Christian Andersen of America and the Aesop of the twentieth century." Each year she hand-picks a number of winners from the submissions and awards them prizes for their writing. This was the day she was announcing the winners of the 1994 installment.
That morning, all of us brought our sit-upons (carpet square samples donated from a local home improvement store were the sit-upons of choice) to the gym and shifted restlessly as elementary school children are wont to do during an assembly. I believe I remember a friend sitting behind and braiding my hair, which was down to my waist at the time and even curlier then than it is now. "Ashley!" my friend Shannon hissed, "your mom is here!" I turned around and there she was, my mom in her nurse scrubs, waving enthusiastically at me and beaming. A bouquet of flowers and my favorite candy bar were hidden behind the seat.
"Why is she here?" I wondered, "this is sooo embarrassing! It's not like I'm going to win!"
But, I did.
|The book I won the second time I won the contest|
(I LOVED horror so it was a GREAT prize!)
My book, "My Garden and the Humongous Flower," had won the honor of "Dearest Tale," one of the many awards given that day. My prize was an autographed book by Jane Yolen herself. I was floored. The story was based on my family's garden plot we rented a town over, as I had recently became obsessed with growing my own veggies. In the tale, the garden grows the largest flower in the world, and the little elf who lives inside gives me a crystal rose that I give to my mother for Mother's Day. I am pretty sure "Humongous" was spelled incorrectly, as neither my teacher nor I knew how to spell it in these days before spellcheck. I had also intentionally included a grammatical error, because a "popular" girl in my class often made the same error and for some reason my 6 year old brain thought this would help my first grade popularity somehow.
The contest had opened my eyes to something I had never considered before (writing!) and despite not winning the grand cash prize, my little kid ego went through the roof: "A famous author picked ME for a prize. I must be an AMAZING writer." And that was all it took to start me writing. I filled hundreds of journals with thoughts and stories. I wrote everything from fantasy to fan-fiction to personal essay to horror. I read anything I could get my hands on in order to note how other authors wrote, and upon finishing a book I would write my own story using inspiration from what I'd just read. I taught myself web design at age ten and began to blog before I even knew what it was. I breathed in words through my eyes and exhaled poetry and prose through my fingertips. My little kid ego with its illusions of grandeur had started it all, but once the passion for writing took hold there was no letting go.
I went on to win a prize again as a 6th grader, and when I graduated high school I was awarded the Jane Yolen Scholarship for students who are pursuing a degree in the literary arts. I picked Emerson College because it was the one college I found with a degree specifically in writing.** And now, years and years later, I am whisper-close to publishing my first book, with a few magazine articles and two fiction stories published already. I credit Jane with sparking my passion for the written word, and have been so grateful that she gave me that award nearly 20 years ago.
|My favorite Jane Yolen book, which I am |
kicking myself now for not finding for her to sign!
Imagine how honored I was when Heidi Stemple, Jane's daughter and also a widely published author herself, found me on Facebook after my newspaper article in the Greenfield Recorder about my agency representation with Lisa Ekus was published, and invited me to this year's award ceremony. I had mentioned in my interview how the contest had inspired me to start writing, which is how Heidi found me.
|Jane Yolen to the far left, this year's contest winners, and me on the far right.|
So this morning I spoke at the award ceremony that started it all. I wasn't prepared to speak, as Heidi had told me it wasn't necessary, but when Jane handed me the microphone I knew I had to say something. I usually pride myself in my public speaking abilities, but flying on improv skills alone I was a bit nervous and my voice felt shaky. I asked if anyone there likes writing. Nearly every hand flew to the air. I asked who REALLY likes writing, the hands went higher. I think the three of us beamed at that--so many budding writers!--I mentioned how I had won a prize in the contest twice, and how I went to college to be a writer and now I am working on publishing my very first book. I told them to write, and never stop. Don't be discouraged if you don't win the contest, if you love to write, just write. I hope it encouraged them. I thanked Jane for having this contest, and for inspiring me. When we posed for a picture the little girls on the end were motioning for me to stand near them. My heart melted.
I watched as excited children received their awards, the autographed books, and the checks. I saw children hugging and cheering on their friends, parents snapping pictures (now on iphones instead of cameras) and handing out hugs and kisses and flowers. I smiled as widely as I would have had they been my own children, though I am likely years from having any of my own. I remembered what it felt like, that first spark, that first little seed of encouragement that THIS was something I enjoyed more than most things. This was something I was good at and more importantly, loved doing.
I hoped at least some of those winners, the tiny hands clutching shiny new books, I hoped some of them were feeling that same spark I felt so many years ago.
*Full disclosure: I don't remember if it was actually a Wednesday, but today is Wednesday, so I decided to pretend I remembered it being Wednesday.
**My official degree is a BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing with my focus in fiction and magazine and book publishing.
Bourbon Bacon Jam
(Adapted from Martha Stewart's Recipe)
- 1 1/2 pounds sliced bacon, diced small
- 2 medium yellow onions, diced
- 3 garlic cloves, crushed
- 1/2 cup cider vinegar
- 1/2 cup packed dark-brown sugar
- 1/2 cup pure maple syrup
- 3/4 cup brewed coffee
- 2 beef bouillon cubes
- 1/4 cup bourbon
In a large skillet, cook bacon over medium-high, stirring occasionally, until bacon is lightly browned and cooked through but not crispy. Transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Reserve 1 tablespoon of bacon fat from skillet and swirl it in the pan. Add onions and garlic and cook until onions are translucent. Add vinegar, brown sugar, maple syrup, bouillon cubes, bourbon, and coffee and bring to a boil, being sure to deglaze the pan of any browned meat bits. Add bacon and stir to combine. If needed, add additional brown sugar and maple syrup, to taste.
Transfer to a 6-quart slow cooker and cook on high for 4 hours. Transfer to a food processor; pulse until coarsely chopped. Let cool, then refrigerate in airtight containers. Will keep in the fridge for a little over a month.