To create a stronger bond with children in the area of Petoskey, Michigan, and to foster reading and writing starting at a young age, McLean & Eakin Booksellers founders Julie Norcross and Karen Lang started an annual Short Story Contest that is now in its 20th year.
The contest is open to all Michigan students from kindergarten to 12th grade and is often adopted as a writing project within the schools, said Jessilynn Norcross, McLean & Eakin’s current owner with her husband, Matthew Norcross. Contest entries are divided into four groups based on the writer’s age level: Grades K–2nd, Grades 3rd–5th, Grades 6th–8th, and Grades 9th–12th. Three awards are given in each division: gift cards to the bookstore valued at $50, $20, and $15. One grand prize winner chosen from all participants is awarded $100 cash.
To promote the contest, the bookstore sends fliers to the schools, advertises in the local paper, and features it in its e-mail newsletters. A special e-mail blast also goes out to teachers in the area. In recent years, social media has been helpful in promoting the contest and in reminding students of the submission deadline. The amount of entries the store receives fluctuates from year to year, but in past years, McLean & Eakin has received up to 500.
Each year, the store announces the contest’s theme about six to eight weeks prior to the deadline to give participants enough time to write. This year’s theme is “Never Ending Winter,” inspired by Michigan’s especially long cold and snowy season. Students were asked to explore what it would be like to have a never-ending winter in a story that could be completely made up or based on fact. Stories had to be less than 1,000 words and submitted with a McLean & Eakin entry form. The entry period for the 2014 contest began on February 21 and closed on April 8.
The contest’s judges typically include customers and employees who have agreed to commit their time on a volunteer basis. They meet several times to discuss the entries and deliberate to choose the winners in each category. Judges base their decision on the writer’s composition, plot, creativity, and relevance. Entries are not penalized for incorrect spelling, since the story’s cohesion is the focus, said Norcross. “Usually, there are some real standouts. Once the judges get into the top 10, it gets pretty heated, and they will make a case for specific stories.”
If judges come across a story that may not be a winner in its category, but it features a standout element or detail, such as an illustration, they often create a separate award in order to recognize the author.
After the judges make their decisions, the winners are notified by phone and are invited to an award ceremony held in the bookstore the following week. A retired teacher acts as the master of ceremonies. She announces each winner, reads from his or her story, and discusses why it was chosen. The winners are awarded their prizes, along with medals. This year’s ceremony is scheduled for April 17.
“Every year it’s so heartwarming,” said Norcross. “We never know how many people will show up for the award ceremony and every year its standing room only.”
Attendees include teachers and family members, as well as friends of the store and members of the community. “The fact that it’s not a sporting event –– you know, you expect people to show up for a sporting event –– says something about how important it is to these kids who win.”
Parents often comment on how much the recognition means to the winning children. A current bookstore staff member won the contest when she was younger, and she is now going to school for creative writing, said Norcross.
“We get to see these kids grow up in their reading lives, and see how reading and writing have really played a role. It’s so wonderful to be able to foster that, to be a part of it.”