Challenged to answer the question “If all the books in the world were about to disappear, I would save …” approximately 2,000 students citywide entered this year’s San Diego Public Library Student Essay Contest. And La Jolla’s Riford Library had two winners. La Jolla High sophomore William Dorst won “Best Overall Essay” and La Jolla Elementary fourth-grader Ellie Levine won the grand prize in the elementary school category.
William chose “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak for his essay, while Ellie chose “Pollyanna” by Eleanor H. Porter.
The grand prize ceremony was held earlier in mid-May at Balboa Park. Each semi-finalist received $20, and the 14 Grand Prize winners (selected from the 50 top entries this year) each received a computer from Computers 2 SD Kids, a medal and a certificate.
As winner of the Best Overall essay, William also won $500.
“I was really surprised to win the whole thing,” he said. “At the award ceremony, I heard everyone read their essays and they were all really good.”
As to why he chose “The Book Thief,” he explained, “I love the book itself, it’s about a young girl in Nazi Germany but it’s nothing out of the ordinary, it’s grounded in reality. It’s a story about ordinary people in a strange time. It has a message about the importance of being an individual … the main character has no inhibition about standing up to a Nazi soldier and telling him exactly what she thinks.”
Connecting to the essay theme of saving books, William said the story mentions book burnings that took place during the Nazi occupation, and the main character steals books that the Nazis plan to destroy in an effort to preserve them. “It seemed appropriate for me to ‘save’ this book given that the story addresses that same idea,” he said.
For 10-year-old Ellie, she said she chose “Pollyanna” for her essay because of its positive message. “There are a lot of bad things going on in Pollyanna’s life … but she’s always optimistic and she chooses to be happy. You have to choose happiness. I really like that message,” she said. In the story, orphan Pollyanna is sent to live with her unfriendly aunt in a new town, where she introduces “The Glad Game” – finding something to be happy about in every situation — to the community.
The contest is organized around a city branch library and its feeder schools. Students submit the essays to their library, and that branch’s “Friends” group selects one essay at each grade level (4, 8 and 10) to go forward for consideration as a Grand Prize winner, said contest founder Wendy Gay. “Semifinalists are chosen at the branches. From these semifinalists, the Grand Prize winners are chosen by a panel of professional writers, English teachers and librarians,” she said.
The themes change each year, and those who would like to enter next year’s contest can look for entry forms and contest rules in late September/early October, which are sent to all city libraries and schools. Essays are due in mid-December.
“Our goal is to encourage students and their parents to think about and use their Public Library. The process is also intended to foster cooperation among all the libraries in the city, and local schools,” Gay said. “In the process, we hope to strengthen reading and writing skills in San Diego students!”