When Allie Hirsch started the third grade, she was switching schools and immediately had to adjust to a new class.
"It was different because there were a lot of different types of people there," said Hirsch, now a 17-year-old Oakton High School senior. "I remember being a little nervous … and wondering how all these different people could have the same interests as me."
Nine years later, she would draw from that experience to write and illustrate an original children’s book and receive national recognition for addressing diversity and differences from the international human rights and Jewish advocacy group, B’nai B’rith International. As the first place winner of the contest, announced last week, Hirsch was given a $5,000 scholarship as well as a published run of her award-winning book, "Elephants and Empanadas."
Hirsch’s work is a shining example of what the contest, in its inaugural year, hopes to continue to inspire, according to Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International. In addition to the Washington, D.C metropolitan area, young writers were also awarded in Los Angeles and New York, he added. More than 100 submissions were received locally.
"With Allie and all the other students who entered the contest, it shows us that there’s a critical mass of people who are out there to join us in standing up and rejecting intolerance," Mariaschin said. "She and the rest of the students who participated all over the country are role models for the kids that will be reading their books."
A copy of her book will be donated to every public library in Fairfax County and placed in the libraries of every public and private elementary school in the region, according to Melanie Marconi, director of corporate partnerships with B’nai B’rith International.
"ELEPHANTS AND EMPANADAS" tells the story of Julia, a young girl who goes to a new school and has a difficult time adjusting to the array of cultural differences of her classmates. After she has a dream showing her what it would be like if everyone in her class was exactly the same, she awakes to realize that diversity and differences provide new ideas and perspectives, Hirsch said.
The title reflects the cultural items that she is exposed to by her fellow students.
"The book is about accepting differences and learning that it’s OK to be different," she said. "It’s supposed to show kids that diversity and differences can be good things and that not all people are supposed to be exactly alike."
Hirsch, who is Jewish, first learned of the contest when her mother, a local guidance counselor, saw it come across her desk and knowing that her daughter was interested in writing, forwarded it on to her. It took about a month of writing and illustrating to finish it, she said.
To best reach out to children, Hirsch said that she looked to other children’s books from her past and thought of how she wished they were different.
"I really loved reading when I was little and when I thought about it I couldn’t find anything that was really realistic" when it came to embracing differences, she said. "They weren’t able to get down to the core ideas and speak to kids … it was always about animals being different from one another or something like that."
When she began to write her book, she decided to focus on simple and clear ideas that children were able to directly relate to, she said.
WHILE IT IS not her first award for writing, "Elephants and Empanadas" is the first published work for Hirsch, who will begin school this fall at Oberlin College in Ohio. The soon-to-be creative writing major is aiming to one day become a professional writer of both children’s books as well as other fiction.
"It’s really fun to write for kids, they’re not as skeptical … they have a bigger sense of wonder," Hirsch said.
Bringing new ways for children to deal with diversity is her biggest objective in writing her book, she said.
"I don’t expect any kid to completely change from reading a book," Hirsch said, "but at the very least it will allow them to think about these issues in different ways."
News of Hirsch's award was not a surprise to Oakton High School English teacher Susan Sullivan, who had Hirsch as a student last year in her advanced placement English class.
"It was easy to see the writer in her emerging just by hearing the questions she asked in class," said Sullivan in an email. "I remember wondering near the end of the year if Allie wasn't already pulling together strands of a story we would read in the future."
The amount of talent and ability to creatively display tolerance and compassion displayed in this contest by Hirsch as well as her peers is inspirational, said Mariaschin.
"We see [cultural intolerance] around us in so many different ways, especially recently with some of the things going out over the airwaves and in the world," he said. "To battle this … it starts in the community, it starts in the synagogues and the mosques and the churches."
"I think these young people will be the future leaders of our communities and our country and its great to see so much attention being paid to these issues."