At a time when kids spend hours on social media and playing video games, a competition seeks to nurture the next generation of book lovers.

“There is no better way to bring books into the lives of children than to have them make a book and write a story that they are in command of,” Deborah Pope, executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, told BKReader. “It gives them power and an intimate understanding of the books that they read.”

The Park Slope-based EJK Foundation, established by the award-winning children’s book author and illustrator Ezra Jack Keats, announced the winners of its 34th annual Ezra Jack Keats Bookmaking competition on May 5.

For the competition, students in grades 3 through 12 were asked not only to write and illustrate a book but also to construct their book by hand.

Andre Kulikov, 13, won the top prize in the 6th-8th grade category. The 8th-grader attends I.S. 98 Bay Academy in Sheepshead Bay. The two other city winners are Patrick Szewczyk, a 4th-grader at P.S. 63 in Queens, and Nadine Baidan, a junior at Fiorello LaGuardia High School in Manhattan.

Andre Kulikov. Photo: Boris Kulikov.

Each of the three city winners received a $500 award. The judges also recognized several borough winners, who received smaller cash prizes, and other students who earned honorable mentions for their work. All the winners received medals and certificates of commendation.

Andre’s book, The Telephone, is based on “a real life experience” and has a “cliffhanger ending,” he told BKReader.

It’s about a boy who buys an old-fashioned telephone at an antique shop on his birthday. After taking the telephone home, the boy uses it and mysteriously gets in contact with his great-grandfather.

A trip to an antique shop last summer sparked the idea. “I’m really into antiques, the teenager said. “I felt that it was cool to write about it.”

Pope was impressed with the level of Andre’s skills at such an early age. The panel of judges, which included editors, writers, librarians and educators, was equally impressed. Pope noted that the foundation was not involved in selecting the winners.

“He has a fantastic relationship with objects. Andre sees so much history in objects and conveys that to us,” she said in praising his “enormous amount of imagination and ability to realize his vision on the page.”

Andre Kulikov’s The Telephone. Photo: Michael Ian

The competition also requires imagination to construct the books. Over the years, students have used a range of materials— “from paper to cloth, twigs and paper bags to newspaper and cardboard”—Pope said, adding that “without knowing it, they reinvent the book.”

COVID-19 threatened to derail the celebration of the young authors. It forced the organizers to mail the awards instead of having the traditional festive gathering at the Brooklyn Public Library.

“The kids love coming in for the awards ceremony. It’s really quite wonderful. Writing and illustrating a book is a big deal, and we want them to know that their work is really appreciated,” Pope said.

To honor the students’ hard work, EJK and its partners, the Brooklyn Public Library and the Department of Education, created a virtual celebration of the authors on the library’s website.

There’s always plenty of excitement surrounding the students. This experience could set them on the path to creating children’s literature that celebrates diversity, Pope said.

In 2018, among the 3,300 children’s books published in the U.S., only 11 percent featured Black characters, 7 percent featured Hispanics and 8 percent had Asians.

As a children’s book author and illustrator, Keats, who died in 1983, was ahead of his time. His book, The Snowy Day, published in 1963, has a Black boy as its main character.

In celebration of the 35th Anniversary of the EJK Award, the foundation will launch a year-long public awareness and educational campaign in June, which will involve conference appearances, webinars, and the development of multicultural literature curriculum in schools.

Pope added that the celebration will also highlight the role that the foundation has played in “fostering the careers of prominent authors and illustrators who are now creating children’s books that reflect our diverse culture.”

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Nigel Roberts

Nigel Roberts is a New York-based, award-winning freelance journalist. During his career, Nigel has written for several newspapers and magazines. He has extensive experience covering politics and was a...

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