The essay and oratory contest, sponsored by the Friends of the Secaucus Library and the local schools, was open to all fifth and sixth graders in Clarendon, Huber Street and Immaculate Conception schools.
Three semi-finalists were picked from each school to present their essays at the library on April 10 as part of National Library Week.
Two students from Clarendon School won first and second place.
All nine finalists received a $100 bond, three of these donated by the Secaucus Rotary Club, three from the Secaucus Kiwanis Club and three from Kipnis Orthopedic Center in Secaucus. All nine also received a book from the Friends of the Library.
The second place award winner also received a $200 savings bond donated by the Friends of the Library along with a basket of books, and the first place winner got a $300 bond from the Secaucus Library and Business Resource Center along with a basket of books.
Those who attended the oral presentations said there were several touching moments, including when Sean Buckley from Immaculate Conception named his father, Secaucus Police Captain John Buckley, his American hero.
Nancy Cashnelli, reading specialist at Huber Street School, said the writing of the essays was part of creative writing classes - but she stressed how writing, reading and oral presentation go together.
"Children need to develop writing skills," she said. "When they have an interesting topic, they get more enthused and involved, and that generates more interest in the writing."
Library Director Katherine Steffens said finalists presented the essays orally at the library on April 10 in the Panasonic Meeting Room.
Students, according to Cashnelli, could choose a public figure or a family member as their American hero.
The panel of judges included the Friends' President Josephine DeGennaro, Clarendon School Reading Specialist Irene Dewland, and Sister Eileen from ICS. They evaluated the essays based on the oral presentations.
Dewland said there were many essays submitted, and that runners-up to the finalists received a $25 gift certificate from the school to the Barnes & Noble bookstore.
"Many of the essays had mothers and fathers as heroes," Dewland said. "Some had soldiers who are in Iraq."
Andrew Colaneri, who was one of the three finalists from Clarendon School, picked his grandfather, Tom Gaetono.
"He was always there for me," Colaneri said.
Keya Joseph won first place, and Ena Todorovska won second place.
Todorovska during an interview on April 17 said her hero was Emily Dickinson.
"She knew how to put emotion into words," Todorovska said. "She showed that even if you are a lonely person, you can still write."
Todorovska, who writes poetry of her own, said she learned a lot about Dickinson's life during research on the Internet for the essay.
"I learned that she was lonely and she never married," Todorovska said, noting that the memorizing the essay was the hardest part of the project - which took about a week.
In selecting a hero, Todorovska initially thought about Shakespeare, then Elizabeth Browning, but found something in Dickinson that touched her.
Keya Joseph did her essay on Abigail Adams, the wife of the second president of the United States and mother of the sixth. She was considered the first fully emancipated woman in American history, and her writings on women's rights and other issues are unsurpassed by any women writer of her era.
"She was a really great person," Joseph said, noting that she stumbled upon a quote on the internet one day, "and I was hooked."
Joseph said she learned a lot from the oral presentation and was intrigued by the need for poise and use of hand gestures. Although both girls have different teachers who helped and encouraged them in this contest - Joseph had Mary Tighe and Todorovska had Mary Amato - they are the best of friends, and, in fact, both want to become paleontologists (scientist studying dinosaurs) together.
"I want to learn about my ancestors," Todorovska said.
Joseph said she had had several career ambitions before deciding on seeking out dinosaurs.
"First I wanted to be a singer, and then a writer," Joseph said, "but when Ena [Todorovska] moved next door to me, I decided I wanted to be a paleontologist."