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Building a Better Bear Story

Erica Kicak-Vanderhoeven loves teddy bears, and has stuffed animals scattered all over her room.

She also loves to write, poems and stories, even writing short stories for science lessons at school.

The 11-year-old Alexandria resident had a chance to combine the two when she entered the Bear Story Writing Contest.

The contest, sponsored by the chain of Build-A-Bear Workshop which lets customers stuff, dress and personalize their own teddy bears and other stuffed animals, celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Teddy bear.

Erica’s story, “The T.B.A.F.A. (Teddy Bear Agency for Adoption),” won first prize for 8- to 11-year-olds in the Eastern Region.

To write her story, about a teddy bear named Chocolate and the tests the TBAFA puts him through, Kicak-Vanderhoeven imagined a kind of human resources department for teddy bears.

“I sort of thought about what it would be like to be a teddy bear,” Kicak-Vanderhoeven said. She imagined that just as people have to be interviewed for a job, teddy bears must be interviewed before they are adopted

A TBAFA BEAR asks Chocolate questions like “Do you mind being squeezed tightly?” The hopeful teddy bear also sits in strange, contorted positions for long periods of time, without being allowed to move. In the end, he becomes the first ever officially perfect teddy bear.

The story was one of six winners in the 8- to 11-year-olds category, two from each region of the country (Eastern, Central and Western.) Six more winners were chosen in the 12- to 14-year-old category, as well as two grand prize winners, one from each age group.

More than 1,700 entries came in for the contest, said Katy Hartrich, spokeswoman for Build-A-Bear. All of the entries were judged based on grammar, originality, creativity, and adherence to theme, by a panel of educators with experience teaching writing or speech.

To Pamela Kicak, it was no surprise that the story of Chocolate and the TBAFA won the contest. “I thought she had written a really good story,” Erica’s mother said.

Her daughter has always enjoyed writing, she said, and almost always chooses to write a story for school whenever it’s an option, going so far as to write a story about calcium.

In case she ever becomes famous, her parents have saved much of what she has written. “We have copies of poems she wrote in second grade,” Kicak said.

KICAK-VANDERHOEVEN found out about the contest when her mother took her to a local Build-A-Bear, to use up “Bear Bucks” she had received for Christmas. “She came home, and that weekend she wrote the story,” Kicak said.

She decided to enter since she liked to write stories, and she also wanted the prize – a $100 shopping spree at Build-A-Bear and a one-year subscription to Discovery Girls magazine.

Kicak-Vanderhoeven wrote and edited the story herself. As with most stories she writes, she didn’t revise the plot much, but just looked for spelling and capitalization mistakes.

Her parents read the story to make sure there were no grammar errors, but left most of the editing to their daughter. “She’s been doing her own editing for quite some time,” Kicak said.

The original 500-word story had to be cut down to remain within the 250-350-word limit, barely making it with 349 words. Some elements, Kicak-Vanderhoeven said, she really didn’t want to cut, but had to.

Her stories often run past word limits, she said. “If there’s a contest with a word limit, it’s kind of hard to stay under it… without losing some of the story,” she said.

WINNING THE CONTEST was an exciting surprise, Kicak-Vanderhoeven said. She has used up most of her prize money to make a polar bear and a dog at Build-A-Bear.

She has many teddy bears and stuffed dogs, along with her two rabbits, Snowball and Caly. Her stories usually involve animals, and she often tried to incorporate the rabbits as well.

“Since most of [my stories] are about animals, I get [my ideas] from my rabbits or other animals I’ve seen,” Kicak-Vanderhoeven said.

When she gets an idea for a story, which happens often, she likes to write it down as soon as she can. She usually sits down and starts writing, instead of making an outline.

Most stories only take about an hour to write, as long as she’s interested. “Once I get a good idea… I get really into it, and can usually get it done pretty fast,” Kicak-Vanderhoeven said.

In addition to writing, Kicak-Vanderhoeven likes to sew and to read, mostly mysteries and books about animals. Writing remains her favorite pastime, though, and she wants to write children’s books when she grows up.

She has also written poems in the past, but finds writing stories easier because there is no rhyme to worry about. “You don’t have to think about it as much,” Kicak-Vanderhoeven said "You just get your idea and write it down.”

THE TBAFA

(Teddy Bear Agency for Adoption)

<lst>Teddy bears are thought of as just cute little stuffed animals, but actually they take their job very seriously.

On Christmas Eve, Chocolate, a little teddy bear, sat in bed with his little girl remembering the Christmas before when he had been tested by the TBAFA (Teddy Bear Agency For Adoption).

As he sat with the other bears waiting to be tested he had wondered if he would ever have a child who loved him. He hoped he would do well on the test. He had worried about everything imaginable.

Suddenly it was midnight. Five larger bears appeared. "It is time for your tests," a large bear said. "The first part of the test will be questions, then you will be asked to do some things you will have to do as a child's best friend."

All the teddy bears had lined up to be asked questions. Chocolate was in the middle of the line. After what seemed like hours a TBAFA representative came up to Chocolate.

"Hello there," the bear said to Chocolate. "Hi," Chocolate replied weakly.

"Let's get started," said the bear holding the clipboard. "Do you mind being squeezed tightly?" "No," answered Chocolate.

"What about being taken everywhere with a child?" "No" Chocolate replied. "What would you do if your child left you out in the rain?" the representative asked. "I would wait for my child," answered Chocolate

"Last of all would you ever tell a human that we can walk and talk," asked the representative. "Not unless absolutely necessary," said Chocolate.

For the last test Chocolate was put in weird positions and was not allowed to move for long stretches of time.

The rest of the night was a blur to Chocolate. When it was time to find out who had passed, the bear from the TBAFA said everyone passed but for the first time ever a bear had gotten a perfect score and that bear was Chocolate.

The next day a woman came to the toy store. She picked up Chocolate and said, "This is the perfect Christmas present for my daughter."