By Erin Dueñas
As much as she loves reading books, Leah Cussen said it never occurred to her to try writing one. But leafing through the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library newsletter over the winter, Cussen saw an announcement for the Helen Stein Shack Picture Book Contest, which called on teens in grades seven through 12 to create a children’s book. “I wrote assignments for school and a few stories on my own, but creating a book was new to me,” Cussen said. “It seemed like a cool challenge.”
Taking inspiration from her 5-year- old brother’s bookshelves, Cussen wrote a book called “Lenny the Lion,” a story about a misfit who can’t roar as well as his brothers. Lenny sets out in the jungle looking for a family to fit in with. When he can’t swing from tree to tree like a monkey and reach the top leaves of a tree like a giraffe, Lenny realizes that he belongs with his lion family. “I liked the theme of being true to yourself,” Cussen said. “He realizes that his family loves him no matter what.”
“Lenny the Lion” won the Helen Stein Shack Picture Book Contest, along with the story “Lilabet” written by 17-yearold Wendy Wahlert. “Lilabet” is a story about a colorful young girl who lives in a “black, white and blah” world. Lilabet spreads her color around to change the town. Wahlert said that she got the idea for “Lilabet” based on her own thoughts about living in the suburbs, which she called black and white. “‘Lilabet’ is kind of how I feel. I’m the colorful person in the suburbs where every house is the same as the next,” she said. “There’s a reflection of myself in the story.”
Wahlert said she is more of an artist than a writer, illustrating “Lilabet” with large sweeping swaths of color inspired by paintings she saw at a coffee shop in New York City. “I like pop art, conceptual art,” she said. “I like a graphic and bold style with a flow of simple shapes. I tried to do that and I guess it worked,” she said of her story.
Chosen winners from a dozen entries, both girls received a $500 scholarship and read their books to a roomful of children at an awards reception on April 26. The library printed and bound a copy of each story to be included in its “Local Focus” collection. Both stories will also be turned into e-books. Honorable mention winners included Samuel Kim for his book “Freddy the Fish and the First Day of School,” Anny Weisenberg for “Red Boots for Rainy Days,” Kiera Alventosa for “Heal Our Mother Earth” and sisters Sarah and Karen Jiang for “Pengy Goes on an Adventure.”
This is the first year for the Helen Stein Shack award, according to Shack’s daughter Sherry Cleary, who said that her mother would volunteer to read to kids and teach them to read in her spare time. “My mother loved this library. She would always say to people, ‘You should see my library’ or ‘Let’s go to the library,’” Cleary said. “She used to say if you could read and read for joy, you would have a successful life.”
When Shack passed away more than a year ago, Cleary and her siblings approached the library looking for a way to mark her life and the idea of the book contest came up. “We just wanted to honor her,” she said. “The students in the community rose to the occasion. These are just stunning books.”
Cussen said that winning the contest means a lot. “I want to do writing when I’m older so now I’m thinking what if I could write stories,” she said. “It broadened my ideas for my career in writing.”
Wahlert said being a published author is “pretty awesome.” “It gives me more confidence that people appreciate what I’m doing,” she said.
Library director Ted Gutmann said that all the entries showed great talent and the one word that came to mind in reading the stories was imagination. “Imagination will take you everywhere,” he said. “These kids have the imagination and I hope they never lose it.”