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Essay contest for kids: It's how Amy Tan got her start

Local library backers are sponsoring a county-wide contest for elementary school children they hope will reignite passion and support for the public library system in Sonoma County.

"It's to encourage children to use the library, to encourage them to read and express themselves," said contest organizer Arlene Mandell, a member of the Santa Rosa Library Advisory Board.

The contest coincides with the 50th anniversary of best-selling author Amy Tan's winning of a similar contest as an 8-year-old at Matanzas Elementary School five decades ago.

"My wanderings in the Santa Rosa Public Library also led to my becoming a published writer. I wrote an essay called &‘What the library means to me.' It was published in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat," she said in a statement. "Many years could pass before I would be published again. But I knew from then on that reading and writing could change my life in surprising and lasting ways."

Tan won a transistor radio as a prize.

In the current contest, open to kindergarten through sixth-graders throughout Sonoma County, the first prize in each of the three grade categories is $100; second place winners will receive $50 and the third place finishers will get $25.

The first 2,000 entrants will win free passes to the Charles Schulz Museum.

"It's so wonderful for a child to be acknowledged in some way for something they do," Mandell said.

Students can enter an essay or piece of art on the theme "Why I Love the Library" through Feb. 12. Winners will be announced in April.

Entry forms and rules are available on the Sonoma County Library web site or at all library branches.

Amid financial cutbacks at California schools, community libraries can augment school media services, said Sandy Cooper, director of the Sonoma County Library.

"California has gradually chipped away at the quality of their school library media center," she said. "The public library becomes more important - it helps a community educate its children."

However, public libraries are struggling against the same financial tide, Cooper said. All Sonoma County library branches shut down for 10 days in December and January as a money saving measure.

Staying open and available to the public is crucial, Cooper said.

"There are many homes that don't have the books and the information resources," she said. "The library has always had very strong services for children. It's an opportunity to engage children."

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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