As the awards presenter stepped up to the podium on Monday, the nominees suddenly began chattering excitedly among themselves. Some showed their impatience by snapping bubbles with the gum they had held secretly in their mouths, tugging at loose threads hanging from their sweatshirts or scooping an occasional bug off the ground and placing it on the nominee next to them.
Unlike the other awards ceremony that would take place in Hollywood later the same day, this one was not a televised, black-tie affair watched by millions. Still, it was an event this particular audience had been waiting for. In a few moments, after months of hard work, they would learn who among them had been recognized as being the cream of their literary crop.
"The first place winner for first grade, from Room 4, is Alexandra Colgin!" the presenter announced over the loudspeaker to enthusiastic applause.
For the sixth consecutive year, Serrania Avenue Elementary School in Woodland Hills has held a book-writing contest for its students, with the goal of promoting creative expression through experiences the children have had. That idea, according to Serrania Principal Alphonse Edwards, recently caught the attention of the Los Angeles Unified School District.
"Last year, all schools in Region E (the San Fernando Valley) were asked to adopt a similar contest, since written skills are considered by the district to be one of the leading indicators of academic achievement," Edwards explained. In May, he added, a gala awards event will bring together the winners from each school in the district to recognize their written achievements.
The awards recognize first- through fourth-place winners from kindergarten through fifth grade, as well as foreign students in English as a second language classes. Serrania Avenue School has students from Korea, Iran, Israel, Mexico and the Philippines.
Unlike books of years past, however, this year's entries proved a little different.
"In recent years, the books have been filled with an inordinate amount of violence--killing, blood and the like," said fourth-grade teacher Fay Hold, who presented the prize medallions to the children gathered on the playground.
"When kids watch a lot of television--and a lot of them do because they have parents who work and can't always supervise them--they pick up all kinds of violent things. We didn't want that this year."
To discourage the young authors from embarking on such themes, Hold said, "We told them that, if they wrote about violent things, they probably wouldn't win. Then we told them that, if they wrote about nice things, or about interesting people who have interesting things happen to them, they probably would be considered for an award."
The children also were instructed about techniques for setting a scene, introducing characters, creating a problem or conflict within the body of the story and concluding the story.
Because of that guidance, Hold said, most of stories were blood- and killing-free.
"Trapped," by fourth-grader Michael Shinoda, was a second-place winner and described two long-lost friends who find each other again after the main character lands on a deserted island. It was dedicated to Shinoda's dog, Butterscotch.
"Jayce F. Charles was your average everyday surf maniac until his best friend crashed his plane and fell into the ocean near the rocks in a large reef barrier," Shinoda wrote. "Now, he fears the sea."
The main character finds himself getting into a plane heading over the ocean.
"He zoomed down the runway. His plane roared into the sky. He was in the air. Suddenly the cockpit started to smoke up and he pressed the parachute button. He shot out into the sky, into the middle of the ocean . . ."
"The Unexpected Hero," by fourth-grader Eric Gutman, won first place.
"It was the day I had marked on my calendar. I was finally going to my cousin's wedding, which was being held on a yacht," Gutman wrote. "Michael, the groom, was very pleasant. He had brown hair and blue eyes and was pretty cool."
The plot thickens quickly. "Unluckily, Blackjack, the pirate was coming near the wedding ship. I politely asked him to leave. I said, 'Get away from our ship and get out of my life.' Blackjack said, 'No. Prepare to die.' "
The books, illustrated by the children and attractively bound by school aides, were judged by more than 35 members of the community, including several writers, retired teachers and a professor of education at the University of California, Los Angeles.
After a short time in the school's library, the books will be taken to the Woodland Hills Public Library, where they will be put on display.
Hold says some children win consistently over the years.
"One girl . . . won every year. She says she's certain she wants to be a writer," Hold said. "The goal, though, isn't to make every child want to be a writer. It's to encourage their imaginations through writing."
Hold ran her fingers lightly over the stack of multicolored books, piled in boxes on a table in the school's library.
"I tell the children, 'In 20 years, your mothers will read these and cry.' "