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Claremont author helps youth find voices through writing

Nobody ever told Querida “Q” Pearce that she couldn’t. And now, looking back on a career in which she’s published more than 150 books, the award-winning Claremont author is in the business of passing that gift of encouragement on to young writers.

Ms. Pearce, along with Judy Nelson of Mrs. Nelson’s Toy and Book Shop, established Mrs. Nelson’s Young Writers Award 19 years ago. On Sunday, April 17, the women will hand out the 2016 awards at the dA Center for the Arts in Pomona.

Mrs. Nelson’s Young Writers Award contest began as a way to give back, said Ms. Pearce who, along with her husband Bill, has lived in Claremont since 1989. The couple’s daughter Kaitlyn, a recent graduate of San Francisco State University, lives in the Bay Area.

Helping young people find their voice though writing has been rewarding for Ms. Pearce. She related the story of one young author, Josh Schlachter, 14, who has been winning in the program for the past five years.

“I can see him move through. I see how he’s developed. And I know he’s going to go on and do amazing things. I just know it,” she said. “And I feel like, ‘Wow, I got to be part of that.’ It’s just this little thing, you know? Encouraging him. I can’t help but think somewhere in there, this little nod to ‘Yeah, you can do this,’ helps to encourage that.”

It’s a tough job, picking the best from the dozens of entries.

“There’s so much heart there,” she explained. “There’s so much beauty. Sometimes they make me laugh hysterically, and sometimes they make me cry. Sometimes it’s really hard to make a decision.”

Ms. Pearce sited another example, a poem from the 2013 competition entitled “god,” (excerpted below) by a then 17-year-old Kennedy Valenzuela of La Verne.

“So, i downed the pills with my own

tongue, slashed each wrist with my

own fingers, tied the noose with

precision and jumped off the bridge,

turned on the faucet,

and swallowed the bullet,

just like i vowed.

because i hate

breaking

promises.”

 

The ache of the young writer poured from the page, full of visceral, unsettling imagery.

“It hung with me. I see an entire journey in that piece. A teenager who is touched by the darkness that we all see so many of our teens go through. And yet she works this whole thing through, and comes out the other side, not saved, but with a course of action. In this one poem, she goes from darkness to the light. It’s just really, really stuck with me.”

Ms. Pearce was near tears after reading “Mockingbird,” a powerfully moving poem from this year’s group three winner, 17-year-old Marissa Yvette Armstrong, a Pico Rivera resident.

“Elbows kissing knees,

I sit

Curling, twisting a single strand of auburn hair

I watch my little girl

With her cotton candy cheeks and teacup smile

Her coffee eyes bore into mine, and I realize

She is half me

Yet far more than half me

‘Baby’ I tell her, ‘don’t be like me.’

Don’t shrink in your chair every time a substitute teacher calls out your lemon-flavored last name

Just because your father’s father’s father’s father happened to be white

But everyone else around you

Is not

‘Baby’ I tell her, ‘don’t be like me.’”

 

“Amazing, huh?” she said. “That’s the thing with writing: It lets you get these things out. It’s really hard to get these things out otherwise, unless you write them on the page.”

Ms. Pearce recalled her own start as an eight-year-old second-grader, when her scary story won a writing contest at her Florida elementary school.

“I loved scary. I used to scare all the neighborhood kids,” she reflected. “One mother asked my mother to tell me to stop it, because her daughter was having nightmares.”

By seventh grade, Ms. Pearce and her family had relocated to Palm Springs, where she won another school writing contest.

“And from then on, I always wrote,” she said. “And then I learned that there were people who did that for a living. So I was really curious about that.”

Her curiosity led to countless submissions to Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone Magazine (1981-1989), none of which were published.

“I must have submitted every other month, probably 20 or 30 times,” she explained. “I never got anything in it. But I just loved it.”

The writer’s perseverance finally paid off in the late 1980s when, after a friend recommended her to Los Angeles publisher Lowell House, she published her first book. The How and Why Activity Book for Dinosaurs was the beginning of a prolific career writing primarily for young readers. She went on to pen 10 volumes of her Scary Stories for Sleepovers series, with sales in the millions. And now, with Mrs. Nelson’s Young Writers Award, she is in a position to help other young people feel the excitement of competing—and winning—in a writing contest.

“It was big deal,” Ms. Pearce said. “And it still is.”

Ms. Pearce and two other judges—this year they are Mt. San Antonio College English professor Leah Key Ketter and Jacqueline Levering Sullivan, former director of academic writing and director of Claremont’s Pitzer College Writing Center—sifted through dozens of entries this year from kids ages six to 18.

There are winners in each category. Group one is for kids ages six through nine, group two is ages 10 through 13 and group three is comprised of young people ages 17 through 18.

Sunday’s ceremony will honor first, second and third place winners in each group, along with several honorable mentions.

The winners in group two, who tied for first place, are 10-year-old Eli Morgesen (“House of Owls: Chapter One”) and Michelle K. Williamson (“Old Lady Marabelle”), 12. The top writer in group one is seven-year-old Meilan Busteed for “Ninja Spy.” Marissa Armstrong’s “Mockingbird” took the prize in group three.

Ms. Pearce is the author of more than 150 books, including the Scary Stories for Sleepovers series. With Gina Capaldi, whe is the co-author of Red Bird Sings, which was a National Endowment for the Humanities Best Books of 2012 selection, a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award winner, a California Reading Association’s Eureka! Honor Book Award recipient and a 2012 Carter G. Woodson Book Award-winner.

Mrs. Nelson’s Young Writers Award ceremony, which is free and open to the public, takes place Sunday, April 17 at 2 p.m. at the dA Center for the Arts, 252 S. Main St. in Pomona. Information is available at daartcenter.com or (909) 397-9716.

Ms. Pearce is currently writing new episodes of her Scary Stories series that will be available online. More information on Ms. Pearce is available at qlpearce.com.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

 

[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story both in print and online identified Marissa Armstrong as a “Pico Rivera resident and young mother.” That information was incorrectly related during an interview for the story and his since been corrected. We apologize for the error. —KD]

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