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CA Neustadt Scholars learn from world’s finest writers

by Dr. Jon Vogels and Tom Thorpe

For the eighth consecutive year, Colorado Academy Upper School faculty and students participated in an exciting literary celebration known as the Neustadt Litfest. Held annually in Norman, Oklahoma, on the campus of the University of Oklahoma, the event is sponsored by the renowned magazine World Literature Today and features the presentation of two of literature’s most valued awards: The Neustadt International Prize for Literature, commonly known as “America’s Nobel,” is offered in rotation with the similarly prestigious NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature.

This year’s winner of the NSK Neustadt Prize for Children’s Literature is Margarita Engle, a Cuban-American author of more than two dozen books for readers of all ages. She was honored specifically for her contributions to Young Adult literature, including her recent memoir, Enchanted Air. An optimistic and inspiring person, Engle sees herself as someone who is “always writing about peace,” no matter what the chosen topic might be. She gravitates towards writing for young readers, because she “hopes to communicate with the future.”

Four CA Neustadt Scholars

Every year, the CA English Department includes the work of the Neustadt winner in appropriate courses and then sponsors a writing contest that in some way emulates the work of the author. The 12 entrants in this year’s contest were judged by the full department. Ultimately, four Colorado Academy Freshmen—Campbell O’Neal, Kai Wang, Sadie Ward, and Madeleine Worrall—were selected as the 2019 CA Neustadt Scholars. The award includes an all-expenses paid trip to the Litfest, where students and faculty get to spend time with faculty from World Literature Today, the members of the award jury, the winning author, and the author who made the nomination.

This year’s writing contest sprang from a challenging and compelling assignment that all Freshmen completed. After reading one of Engle’s books, The Firefly Letters, students wrote their own historically-based poems from multiple perspectives, just as Engle does in her book, which is set in 19th century Cuba. The winners looked at events as diverse as the San Francisco fire of 1851, the Mount St. Helens volcano eruption, Amelia Earhart’s ill-fated last flight, and a convenience store robbery from contemporary news. All of them found ways to capture these events from three distinct perspectives and brought their characters to life in authentic ways.

The students had a great time and had multiple opportunities to interact with Margarita Engle and the author who nominated her, Lilliam Rivera, the author of The Education of Margot Sanchez and a new book, Dealing in Dreams. “It was really cool just to meet the writers,” says one of the Ninth Grade students. “Especially Lilliam, who was so nice to us, and we even had the chance to read her new novel sitting next to her.” On many occasions, the students were recognized as “our visitors from Colorado” and had access to a “behind-the-scenes” view of the university.

Looking ahead to future awards and reading

This tradition of attending the Neustadt Litfest dates back to 2012 and has been made possible by a generous gift from former CA parent Kathy Neustadt, mother of Tess Hankin ‘16 and Josh Hankin. The competition and CA Scholars awards are funded in perpetuity by the Neustadt Humanities Endowment. Since its inception, this program has allowed 28 different CA students the chance to interact with talented writers from around the globe.

At the conference, Kathy Neustadt delivered the announcement about next year’s Neustadt Award. For 2020, the Albanian writer, Ismail Kadare, will receive the prestigious prize. Like some of the Neustadt winners, Kadare is not particularly well known in the United States, but he is a world author of exceptional renown and talent. Indeed, he is considered the most important Albanian author of the last 100 years, and his works are widely appreciated throughout Europe. Next year’s CA contest will be based on Kadare’s work, which students in Grades 9-12 will read, and again a group of teachers and students will make the trip to Norman in October of 2020.