The Houston Chronicle published its annual Young Writer's Fiction Contest two weekends ago, featuring short stories by local teens and preteens. It's a noble effort to encourage creativity and literacy.
Somehow we didn't get around to reading any of the entries that Sunday. But now we're wondering if any of the judges did, either.
One of the awards in the middle-school category went to a 12-year-old for a story entitled "The Straw Ox," a touching tale of a starving rural couple who build a fake ox that traps wild animals who then trade riches for their freedom.
A couple of sharp-eyed Press readers thought the tale sounded awfully familiar, and one found a version of it on a Web page called www.thekids.com. A version, by the way, that is identical to the one published in the Chronicle.
The saga is an old Russian folk tale; versions of it show up in various fairy-tale collections, such as Tomie dePaola's Favorite Nursery Tales, a Putnam book published in 1986.
Apparently the judges of the Chronicle contest -- including a dozen or so educators, children's author Joan Lowery Nixon and such Chron luminaries as assistant managing editor Susan Bischoff, editorial writer and columnist James Campbell and features editor Jane P. Marshall -- didn't find it unusual that a modern-day 12-year-old would be writing about "spinning flax" or using the word "distaff" in its rarely used definition as a flax-industry tool.
"This isn't one of the most famous stories, but it's a theme that shows up a lot in folklore," says Kathleen Karr, a Washington, D.C., author and expert in children's literature. "There are some things that should have rung a bell."
Perhaps more surprising than the fact the judges let the story slip by is that the centuries-old tale managed to come in only second place. The winner was a beguiling story about a poor girl with an evil stepmother who wears a glass slipper to a fancy ball but loses it at midnight.
Not really. (Note to Chron judges: The previous paragraph describes something called Cinderella.) The first-place winner was a description of a town in India.
Bischoff did not return a phone call about the contest.
The Ozone, Brought to You by Chevrolet
The splashy new redesign of the official magazine of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department made its debut last month, with improved graphics, an attractive layout and new columns.
And, you might be surprised to learn, a new corporate partner. In celebration of the redesign, editor Susan Ebert told readers, in a two-page inside-front-cover advertorial, that Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine is "thrilled" to offer new subscribers a $1,500 rebate on buying or leasing a new Chevy Suburban.
That's the 18-foot-long Chevy Suburban, the 5,000-pound sport utility vehicle that gets a stunning 14 miles to the gallon in the city. That's the Chevy Suburban that is the granddaddy of all SUVs, those gas-guzzling behemoths that are to the '90s what the Lincoln and Cadillac land-yachts were to the '60s and early '70s.
Should a state magazine ostensibly devoted to enjoying the environment get into bed with the ultimate symbol of fossil-fuel madness? No problem, according to Ebert.
"The response from our readers has been overwhelmingly positive," she says. "We've had scores of letters and thank-you notes from people who used the [rebate] certificates to get a Suburban. But I know you can't please all the people all the time."
Chevrolet has been very active in supporting the parks department, Ebert says. "We know that the Suburban people put their money where their mouth is when it comes to supporting programs, so it's easy for us not to paint them with the broad brush that paints all SUVs," Ebert says.
The April issue also features an item rating binoculars, a piece that features prominent pictures of Swarovski and Nikon products. Swarovski and Nikon also happen to have full-page advertisements elsewhere in the magazine.
"I wouldn't say flat out that there's no connection," Ebert says. But the review and photo selection was finished and "locked in" before the ad staff knew anything about it, she says.
"At that point, when it's locked in, the ad staff can go say, 'Your product is being reviewed, and maybe it's a good time for you to have an ad,' " she says. "Newspapers never do that, right?"
Well, not the good ones, anyway.
Down These Mean Streets
People who live in the Heights know they probably have to be a little more aware of potential criminal activity than residents of some guarded and gated community way out in the burbs. But little did they know just how bad the problem was.
The Chronicle's May 19 zoned edition for the Heights included, as it does every week, a "Most Wanted" box describing a fugitive being sought by the FBI or the Houston Police Department.
The May 19 item described "an Arab man, 6 feet 4 inches to 6 feet 6 inches tall, 140 to 160 pounds, with a thin build, and [who] walks with a cane."
Just who was it that Heights residents should be watchful for? None other than Usama Bin Laden, the man indicted for bombing U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
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"He is a former construction executive and the current leader of a terrorist group known as Al-Qaida, 'The Base,' " the item noted.
In case you see him browsing at the antiques shops on 18th Street, however, don't try anything fancy. "He should be considered armed and dangerous," the story said, perhaps unnecessarily.
Things returned to normal the following week, when the zoned edition listed a guy wanted for possession of marijuana, something perhaps more common in the Heights than international terrorism.
Seen the good, the bad, the ugly of Houston journalism? Want to share any highlights or lowlights? Write Richard Connelly at the Houston Press, 1621 Milam, Houston, Texas 77002, or e-mail him at email@example.com.