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Kid Cartoonist Pushes Scholastic Art Contest to Reconsider Its Copyright Policy

Sasha Matthews, 13, didn’t want to sign away the rights to her drawings. Instead, she critiqued the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in a cartoon and on Twitter.

13-year-old cartoonist Sasha Matthews (courtesy Scott Matthews)

Every year, thousands of teenagers submit their work to the annual Scholastic Art & Writing Awards — and, in doing so, they sign away the copyright of their submissions to the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, which administers the contest, as the rules require. But a 13-year-old cartoonist from New York intends to change that. In fact, she may have already convinced the organization to review its policies.

The publishing company Scholastic originally founded the Art & Writing Awards in 1923, but these days serves only as their sponsor. Over the years, the non-profit Alliance for Young Artists & Writers has given its awards to the likes of Cy Twombly, Richard Avedon, and Kay WalkingStick.

Teenage cartoonist Sasha Matthews, whose hand-drawn response to the Parkland school shooting was recently featured on Hyperallergic, was all ready to submit her application to the contest late last year, when her dad, Scott Matthews, noticed the copyright stipulation in the terms and conditions: “The student irrevocably grants an assignment transferring to the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Inc. (‘Alliance’) all right, title, and interest (including all copyrights) in and to the submitted work (‘Work’), such that the Work, and all rights relating to the Work, shall be the exclusive property of the Alliance.”

Matthews explained the situation to his daughter and let her decide what to do. “At first, I was like, ‘Oh no!'” Sasha said, in a phone interview with Hyperallergic. “We worked on the application for so long. But it was a pretty obvious choice. Legally, I would have to say it was ‘property of Scholastic.'” (More precisely, submissions belong to the administrators of the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, not the publisher Scholastic.) Given that Sasha was already a prolific cartoonist in her own right, she certainly wasn’t ready to surrender any of her copyrights.

Cover of Sasha Matthews’ Everyday Superheroes comic book (courtesy Rumble Comics and Sasha Matthews)

Although she’s always enjoyed drawing in general, Sasha said she didn’t start making cartoons until the 5th grade, when she was given the option of drawing a comic for a school project. Sasha was studying the Civil War at the time, and she wanted to focus on a topic they hadn’t covered in class, so she settled on the life of Sitting Bull. From there, she made more and more comics — whole books on everything from Pompeii to Steve Harvey to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in the form of a social media conversation.

The work Sasha wanted to submit to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, Everyday Superheroes, is a collection of almost 100 commissioned drawings of real people as superheroes; their superpowers are the things they do in their everyday lives, like picking up garbage while hiking or working in astrophysics. Sasha used the project to raise more than $11,000 for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last fall.

Instead of participating in the contest, Sasha tweeted about it in December. The Scholastic Awards eventually responded with a link to an FAQ page. A couple months later, Sasha published an article about her experience on Boing Boing, an essay she’d originally written for her humanities class as an example of muckraking journalism. (Sasha’s mother is the New York Times journalist Amy Harmon; Sasha says she got 99/100 on her assignment.) Sasha also posted a pointed cartoon on social media.

“[The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards] finally sent us an email saying they intend to revise their terms,” Scott Matthews told Hyperallergic in a phone interview. “They’ve indicated they intend to change them — but we’ll see.”

In a statement for Hyperallergic, Virginia McEnerney, Executive Director of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, did not confirm that the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards plans to change its copyright policies. But she said the possibility would be considered during an annual review this summer, and changes could be announced before the next program year’s launch in the fall.

The whole point of the awards, she added, was to support young creative people. “We feel confident that any changes to the terms will help us achieve this goal,” she said.

Sasha Matthews’ reaction to the Scholastic Awards’ copyright policies (courtesy Rumble Comics and Sasha Matthews)

While the Scholastic Awards look into their policies, Sasha continues drawing comics. “A lot of art is for school, I promise,” she said. “Right now, after this phone call, I’m working on another school project. We read All Quiet on the Western Front, and I’m doing four drawings from scenes in the book, and writing about them.”

In her recreational drawing time, Sasha is working on “a team of superheroes I made up, a summer camp of gifted youngsters.” The leader’s superpower is controlling plants, she said, while one of the other characters has power over the “speed of particles,” able to compress and accelerate water particles in the air and “steam burn you.”

Whatever the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers decides to do, the organization has missed out on at least one teenage cartoonist, according to Sasha’s dad. “I don’t think we’ll ever enter the contest,” he said.

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