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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 28, 2006

Youngest writers of Hawai'i shine in Star Poets competition

By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor

Lauren Egger, a 5th grader at Carden Academy on Maui, reads her poem, "My Papa's Gulch," during the Star Poets reading at Windward Community College. "Papa" is her hanai grandfather, Wilfred Souza.

ANDREW SHIMABUKU | The Honolulu Advertiser

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Our Books for Keiki feature will not appear this month; Jolie Jean Cotton is taking time off. Look for her children's book stories and reviews on June 4.

When Maui fifth-grader Lauren Egger's teacher told her about the Star Poets competition for young writers, she knew immediately what she wanted to write about and the subject became the title of her prize-winning poem, "My Papa's Gulch."

"Papa" is her hanai grandfather, Wilfred Souza, and the gulch in Ha'iku where they often go riding is Lauren's favorite place in the whole world.

"It's beautiful. It's amazing. I just wish I could go there every day," said Lauren, 12, in a telephone interview from her Makawao home. Egger's mother, Penni, explains that theirs is a rodeo family, and since none of her children's grandparents are living, "Papa," a crusty cowboy who is their riding coach, has become part of the family.

When Lauren read her poem aloud at a school program on Maui, Souza donned his best cowboy shirt and came into town.

"He's not totally into writing, but he really liked it," she said. Now Lauren thinks she'll make writing a side career as she pursues a hoped-for medical degree.

Last Sunday, Lauren's family she has six brothers and sisters was among the most vocal of cheering squads at the annual Star Poets awards program at Windward Community College's Paliku Theatre. Young writers, from third to 12th grade, read their winning works aloud before relatives, teachers, fellow students, poetry lovers and executives of Starbucks Hawaii, the program's major sponsor.

Participants, from public and private schools, and even home schools, submit original poems and five winners are chosen in each of seven age divisions.

The annual effort involves a great deal of work: getting the word out to teachers and parents, judging thousands of entries, and putting on the awards event, which includes, besides the readings, workshops on reading, writing and teaching poetry.

But, said Starbucks' Jill Wheatman, the event is the reward "a delightful culmination with these kids on stage, many of them for the first time, reading their poems, and people are clapping and cheering for them, and they realize they have done something."

As Lauren says, "I can put my own feelings into words, and then I understand them better. I can talk about whatever I want."

The fledgling poets receive cash awards in addition to the chance to appear on stage. And their moment of fame doesn't end there: The winning poems are published in the Star Poets Journal, a tabloid distributed in Starbucks stores statewide.

The Star Poets concept came from Windward Community College professor of English and Journalism Libby Young, the competition's project coordinator.

In 1999, Young, mindful of the long connection between poetry and coffee houses, proposed to Starbucks that they help promote the teaching and writing of poetry in the schools. With literacy long a focus of Starbucks' charitable giving, "it was a perfect fit, an opportunity to really encourage kids to start writing," said Wheatman,

The first Star Poets competition drew 300 submissions; this year, more than 3,000 sets of poems were received.

"We have been just absolutely overwhelmed with the response," said Wheatman. "Most of these kids are not the star athletes, they're not necessarily the kids that are always acknowledged in other ways. This has been a really wonderful way to recognize them."

Young said the quality of the work has improved every year so much so that this year five winners were named in each age division, rather than three, and honorable mentions proliferate: "Picking three is just too difficult. There are too many good ones."

One project goal is to provide support for teachers, mentoring them in how to inspire children to write poetry. "We still do get submissions that are lists of 'my favorite things,' for example. This told us that the teachers are getting the kids to think about what's important to them, but then they need some tools for how to take those lists to the next step to build a poem that has some rhythm and some layers of meaning, something more concrete and visual," said Young.

With the demands to focus on core curriculum and raise test scores, Young said, teachers would be disinclined to include poetry among their teaching topics unless they saw benefit from it, and felt confident in their abilities. "Yet it could be one of the most important literacy tools they could have to motivate kids to care about words and to move people with words," she said.

To get teachers those tools, Starbucks has given $20,000 in grants to poetry workshops, conducted by poet Susan Lee St. John, and an online resource guide for teachers. The Web site also includes ideas from teachers whose students have won past Star Poets competitions.

And workshops were added to the awards event open to anyone who is interested and given by local poets and teachers.

At Kane'ohe Elementary School, which had one winner this year and three last year, teacher Sheri Rhein uses the Star Poets Journal as the text for her poetry writing classes.

"I'm not a poet; I read the poems in The New Yorker, and I say, 'Huh?' So if I can do it, I think any teacher can. it's such a simple, lighthearted, carefree, fun approach to poetry."

Reach Wanda A. Adams at wadams@honoluluadvertiser.com.