Pinky Pie

The Publisher’s Prize Patrol & Me

Posted on: April 15, 2010

Once a year, I get to be Matt Hessel-Mial’s mother. I’m always his mother, of course, but on this day I am very publically his mom.

This is the same day that I get to be the Publisher’s Prize Patrol, although the prizes I hand out as writing awards are somewhat smaller than those given out by the other Publisher’s Prize Patrol.

This year that day was Wednesday. No one shouted, “Thank you, Jesus!” as a woman does in a commercial for the other Publisher’s Prize Patrol. It is, after all, a public school.

But the La Crosse elementary school kids are equally excited when I give them a small gift certificate to a bookstore, a copy of Matt’s book, a certificate suitable for framing, or our hardy handshakes.

Honoring the winners of the annual Matt Hessel-Mial Writing Contest is an absolute joy. It’s a contest named after my son, an incredibly talented 8 year old who dreamed of being a famous writer when he grew up.

While he was on bone marrow transplant unit at the University of Minnesota Hospital, we made his dream come true. We published a collection of his writings called The Great Planet Swap and Other Stories. Matt had a blast selling and autographing his books from his hospital room.

After Matt died in 1986, his “royalties” were donated to his school library. Articles about his book were published in newspapers across the country via the Associated Press. Suddenly there was a call for more of his books so more were printed via the Ronald McDonald House in Minneapolis.  We figured it was a way for the house to make some money. It would be unseemly for us to have any of that money when it could do good for others.

We decided to create a creative writing contest to inspire other kids to write and feel really good about themselves. It was a way to create to proverbial lemonade out of the lemons that his leukemia handed Matt and us.

Each year, we give first, second, third places and honorable mentions to students in second through fifth grades. The district’s supervisor of high performance learning and I make the rounds of the schools where there are winners.

It is one fun day.

Over the years, there have been students who have bugged their teachers for weeks about when the awards will be given. Sometimes kids are so excited that their eyes bug out and they jump up and down. One principal told me years ago about what a difference the honorable mention made in the life of a girl living in a foster home.

I have talked with high school seniors who have described winning the award as one of the highlights of their school years.

And let me tell you the prizes are small.

Sometimes winners run in families, with young siblings eager to win the awards like their big brothers and sisters.

Occasionally funny moments occur. At one elementary school a few years ago, the principal– who happens to be African American – asked students if they knew who I was.

“Your mother,” one student answered innocently.

Mrs. Siegel and I immediately hugged. “I’d be honored to be her mother,” I said.

She sent me a Mother’s Day card that year and on Wednesday said, “Mom, I haven’t seen you since last year.”

The highlight of Wednesday’s Prize Patrol was a very excited girl, who said, “This is cool.”

I couldn’t agree more. Once a year, I get to make kids feel good about themselves.

Not a bad way to remember a son who is loved and missed every day.

Spence Elementary School award recipients Ashley L and Morgan H with Nancy Sikorsky and me.

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3 Responses to "The Publisher’s Prize Patrol & Me"

Thank you for the wonderful story about Matt and the students.

A lovely tribute to a kid who would have been a great writer. Wonder if it was genetic?

Thank you for the window into the life of your extraordinary child and the joy he continues to bring to your life and many others.

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