By JOHN Y. COLE
Children, teenagers and adults came to the Library from around the country in May for the annual awards ceremony for the “River of Words” environmental poetry and art contest for young people in grades K-12. The contest is designed to promote literacy, the arts and environmental awareness.
Since 1995, the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress has cosponsored the annual competition with River of Words, a nonprofit organization. On the local level, a number of state centers for the book sponsor their own River of Words competitions.
This year for the first time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), by transferring funds through the Center for the Book, joined private donors and foundations in supporting the international contest. Ben Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at EPA, said it was an honor for the agency to be associated with River of Words and praised the program for raising awareness about the importance of protecting the environment.
In the audience for the awards program at the Library were student winners and finalists, their families and teachers, environmentalists and members of the public. As in past years, the moderator of the event was former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Hass (1995-1997), who, along with Pamela Michael, co-founded River of Words. In addition to sponsoring the competition, the organization trains teachers, park rangers, youth leaders and others in ways to incorporate nature exploration and the arts into their work with young people.
With encouragement from Hass, 18 young poets read their poems and 8 young artists displayed and discussed their artwork. Jack Baker read his award-winning poem “Sewer.”
Each year, a River of Words “Teacher of the Year” is honored at the annual awards ceremony. This year that award went to John Robrock, an art teacher at San Benito High School in Hollister, Calif., whose student Josh Vega, won a National Art Grand Prize. Robrock, whose students have won nine California state awards for their art, spoke about his work as an educator and the importance to young people of participating in such contests as River of Words.
About the Contest
Submissions come from around the world, in English, Spanish and American Sign Language (submitted on DVD). The contest is open to any child in the world, ages 5 through 19.
Students may enter on their own or as part of a group. About 100 poems and artworks from national and international students are selected as finalists each year. In addition to the international prize in either art or poetry, eight grand prize winners are chosen from the U.S. entries (four in poetry and four in art, in four age categories), and a special prize is awarded for a haiku poem.
The deadlines for the 2008–2009 contest are Feb. 15, 2009 (U.S), and March 1, 2009 (international). For further details and a complete list of current and past winners and finalists, visit www.riverofwords.org.
“River of Words: Young Poets and Artists on the Nature of Things,” a colorful new book about the project, was introduced at the May ceremony. Featuring poems and works of art that emerged from River of Words’ annual contests over the past 12 years, the anthology includes diverse voices as well as several bilingual poems. Published by Milkweed, the compilation may be ordered in paperback ($21.60) or hardcover at http://riverofwords.org/store/. To view the event, go to www.loc.gov/webcasts/.
2008 River of Words Winners
International Grand Prize (Art): W. Sasini Navoda, age 10, Sri Lanka
National Poetry Grand Prizes: Jack Baker, age 7, Denver, Colo., Maggie Gallagher, age 11, Berkeley, Calif., Patty Schlutt, age 13, Grand Rapids, Mich., Elowyn Corby, age 17, Santa Cruz, Calif.
National Art Grand Prizes: Marissa Salber, age 7, Omaha, Neb., Nina Dorje, age 8, Ann Arbor, Mich., Shauna Black, age 14, Pleasanton, Calif., Josh Vega, age 17, Hollister, Calif.
Monkey’s Raincoat Haiku Prize: Sabrina Wong, age 9, Weston, Mass.
Shasta Bioregion Prize: (Honoring a student from the San Francisco Bay Area): Robert Chan, age 10, San Francisco, Calif.
Teacher of the Year: John Robrock, San Benito High School, Hollister, Calif.
Monkey’s Raincoat Prize (Haiku)
Dew on silken strand
Finer than Tiffany boasts—
Oh Spider, More! More!
Sabrina Wong, age 9
2008 Grand Prize Winner Category I (Grades K-2)
Rats roaming down here.
Water flowing like music from the oboe.
Dangerous gases float in the air
Down here underground.
Jack Baker, age 7
Shasta Bioregion Prize
“The Singing Solar System”
I am the ragged obsidian solar flare
that flies in the bright red sky.
I am the steaming hot spiky crimson
seaweed that soars by my
glowing star hands.
I am the atom floating
in the DNA strip
giggling in the brown nucleus,
shining bright smiles the plant cell,
floating in red orange fluid,
dancing happily in the narrow
parallel segment vein,
sprinting across the American seaweed,
opening a door to the earth,
spinning in the singing solar system,
twisting in silky ways,
jogging by the Milky Way,
and trying to circle the dark red universe.
Robert Chan, age 10
John Y. Cole is the director of the Center for the Book.