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The cat's whiskers

Whittling down the 10,000 entries to this year's Write Away competition for young writers was harder than ever as the best just got better. But, explains Heather Neill, the judges finally managed to select 22 finalists, and here we publish the winning six essays

Welcome to the results of this year's Write Away competition and the chance to enjoy some exceptional writing by pupils between the ages of seven and 14. The competition, now in its fifth year, is jointly organised by The TES and the National Association for the Teaching of English (NATE), and generously funded by McDonald's Restaurants Ltd.

Creativity has been a buzzword in education over the past few years, but complaints that an over-stuffed curriculum and government requirements such as the literacy hour are stifling it remain. Write Away proves once again that imaginative teachers can encourage innovation, while meeting the needs of the curriculum. Many of the 22 finalists used the literacy hour to talk about memories and construct their autobiographical pieces .

Yesterday, the finalists celebrated with their parents and teachers at Shakespeare's Globe, where they saw a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream. Each received pound;100, with pound;400 going to their school, to pay for a writer's residency. The schools of the six writers chosen for publication will receive a laptop computer as well.

The work of almost 10,000 key stage 2 and 3 pupils was submitted for the competition earlier this year by teachers who had been using Write Away materials published by The TES and TES Primary magazine last autumn. This year, primary and secondary special needs categories were added to the usual ones: junior (for seven to 10-year-olds) and senior (11 to 14-year-olds).

Pupils were asked to write about a significant incident, person or place in their lives after reading newly commissioned examples by such favourite authors as Melvin Burgess, Brian Jacques, Margaret Mahy and Roger McGough, as well as pieces by two of last year's young winners.

The complicated UK-wide judging process is organised by NATE, which reports an improvement in standards this year. At the final stage, author and broadcaster Michael Rosen (best known for hilarious poetry collections and the classic picture book We're Going on a Bear Hunt) and Jamila Gavin, whose popular novels, including the Whitbread Award-winning Coram Boy, explore multicultural societies past and present, chose six overall winners for publication in The TES.

Both celebrity judges have been impressed. Jamila Gavin writes: "Some were philosophical, some fantastical, some were raw memories, others were treasured moments, but all these young writers showed a marvellous ability to turn their feelings and memories into pieces of creative writing that communicated with the reader."

Michael Rosen adds: "This competition seems to encourage children to write about personal experiences that matter to young people. What's exciting about judging it is that they reach audiences of any age."

Read on and see if you agree. The junior winners will also be published in the July August issue of Primary magazine.

Primary Metamorphosis

Fiona Camm, 9, Copthill school, Stamford, Lincolnshire

Its funny how the world works.

September the 11th changed many people's lives with terrorist attacks all over America.

September the 12th changed mine.

A black cat came into my life.

When I look back to the beginning of September, when the world began its search for Osama bin Laden (who seemed to have disappeared into thin air) and Benny arrived in our house, the coincidence begins to seem too great. I'm not sure when the idea of metamorphosis first came into my head, or if my memory of those early days is distorted, but I keep coming back to the idea: how come the world's only great superpower cannot find one man?

Well, what if metamorphosis is possible? What if he could become this black kitten?

What better way to hide from the world?

No one would look for him in a village farmhouse.

I wonder when I see him asleep on the sofa or the bean bag if he knows that I know who he really is. I wonder when I see him chasing a catnip mouse if he knows that I know that that one white whisker on the end of his nose (that wasn't there when we got him) is really a radio aerial.

Can it be that when he disappears into the pile of straw bales in the farmyard he's really checking on the stash of guns and ammunition that all international terrorists must have?

It's only just struck me that all those black cats he plays with might all be in this with him. I just find it hard to believe that it's a coincidence that Benny can metamorphose and the black cats in the village are strays. They could, just as easily as Benny, metamorphose, too.

It's funny to think that the biggest nation in the world is after him and they can't find him because he's in the storeroom asleep. Is it my imagination or is it just coincidence that he only hangs from the TV when there is news of the Afghanistan situation on?

When I see the al-Qaeda network members wearing their black hoods in Cuba with the slit eyes, I turn round and find Benny staring at the television with his head tilted to one side, the way he does, looking as magical as ever, and I realise just how special he really is.

My face suddenly feels wet. I properly wake up. It's Benny licking my face. Oh what a relief it's just a dream - but, then, is it?

I stare into his eyes and all of these questions are still unanswered in the world and he's still here. Are you really just a black kitten? Oh, I do hope so.

I look back on September the 12th and all the happiness you have brought us and I don't want to believe in metamorphosis any more. I want you to be Benny forever.

Heather Neill writes: Fiona still thinks Benny is rather sinister, and he still has his "aerial" whisker. Fiona would like to be a doctor one day and enjoys natural history, but her favourite subjects are maths, French and English. She is busy out of lessons too. "I do drama and music. I play the recorder, the piano and the violin and I'm in the orchestra". And at home, when she's not writing poetry, she may be reading one of her favourite fantasy novels by J K Rowling or Diana Wynne Jones.

Fiona's teacher, Libby Arkell, is head of English at Copthill school. She thought the Write Away booklet an excellent way to introduce the various ways in which autobiographical writing can be presented and says Fiona's interpretation is especially imaginative.

Primary

My first magic

By Esme Jones, 9, Landscore county primary school, Crediton, Devon I remember, at the age of five, how excited I felt. On holiday in Cornwall; driving up the bumpy track in T-shirt and shorts, bucket and spade in hand, I squashed my face to the window of the car and gazed in awe. Over the cliffs, far, far beyond was magic. Getting out of the car and rubbing on cool, moist sun cream and standing in my dark glasses, licking a vanilla ice. Then running down the path, hand in hand with my mum and dad, chattering excitedly. It seems now like a half-forgotten dream. Down some rocks, kicking sand out of my loosely buckled sandals and there, spread out in front of me like a painting, was something gorgeous. High, grey cliffs in a curve, topped with heather; blue sky, seagulls swooping, white plates of sand; blue sea, rocks, shells and people. It was Porthcurno beach.

We all ran in a dazed slow motion and soaked in the sights and sounds. My dad started building a huge castle in the sand while my mum and I went paddling. As we came out of the sea, a huge black horse trotted up. It stopped and tried to lick my dark glasses. I smiled and put out a hand, feeling warm, downy fur under my fingers. The rider mounted and the pair galloped into the water. Meanwhile, my dad had just finished digging the castle moat. I started to find pretty stones for decoration. Then we dug a big pit and I jumped into it, burying my feet. The tiny plates of sand stuck to my legs, so I went paddling, this time with my dad. We went deep - so deep that my shorts got wet and clung to my legs. Then we put some seaweed on our castle.

The air was warm and balmy. Lights twinkled on the windows of the Minack Theatre reception on the cliffs above. The sand was perfectly white in the sun and the sea was so blue, it could have been solid. I bought another ice cream. This time, it got on my nose, top and shorts. My legs were now caked in sand. People were playing and surfing, but one fat lady in a big, frilly green and yellow dress was waddling into the water and got turned head-over-heels by a huge wave, and ended up drenched and dismayed! I ran, laughing, down to the water's edge, letting the foam wash my feet.

As the sun set, we started to pack up. The beam of a lighthouse started to sweep the sea. Back up the steep path, dragging our belongings. Back to our dear car, which was still waiting for us. Back down the bumpy track, the lights in houses twinkling. Back to our warm, welcoming cottage. But I shall never forget the very first time we went to the place where I found my first true magic, as I know it: Porthcurno.

Esme is just finishing her first novel, about an accident-prone boy called David who lives in Cornwall. She says: "It's a comedy and there are going to be 10 books. It started when I had a dream about a little white house on a cliff. I just let the words come out of my pen. I want to be a writer, but I want to play in an orchestra on a Stradivarius violin as well." Esme likes reading, especially books by J K Rowling and Michael Morpurgo, but her all-time favourite is Sherlock Holmes. "I'm the crime reporter on the Landscore Express, the school newspaper," she says.

Her teacher, Dave Strudwick, is the special needs co-ordinator in the school and takes responsibility for able and talented children as well. He has set up a publishing club and Esme is delighted that her work is being published in The TES. "When she heard she was so excited we had to move her away from the SATs area," says Mr Strudwick.

Primary

My best friend

Amelia Lester-Hinchliffe, 11, from Castle Cary school, Somerset SteadilyI Stealthily, I crawled through the grass, edging forward, getting ready to pounce on my preyI Actually, it was my sister's grey speckled buffalo teddy which I had secretly taken out of her room to practise my hunting.

I was seven, but not a normal seven-year-old. I was an animal. Yes, some people may think I'm talking rubbish. But it's true. Really. A tiger, that's what I am. My overgrown and wild garden is the savannah and the moss covered bench, my home. ROAR! Oh, there's my friend calling, I must go, you can come if you like!

I ran swiftly on all fours to Number Seven's garden, round the rusty garage, up the gnarled winding tree and on to my perch. I had a tiger friend called Sheila. Some people said she was imaginary, but I knew she was there. Only I could see her.

We used to go everywhere together; climbing trees, catching food, everything. One day I especially enjoyed was when my mum had got the paddling pool out. She had left the hose on and had gone inside to get a nice cool drink, for it was a very hot day. Sheila and I secretly snuck into the garden and started jumping around like maniacs in the pool, like we were trying to see who could get the wettest. We started a game of battleships. Sheila was an enemy ship and it was my job to save the country. I took the hose and fired it at her. (It must have looked very strange to a passer-by, or to my mum.) Again and again I fired my cannon like my life depended on it, until the enemy was defeated! We both lay down on the grass, exhausted. All the water had crept out and escaped from the pool. It had sunk down into the ground and the mud was swallowing us up like a boa constrictor. It was bliss. Nothing could go wrong. Until the day I moved.

It came over me like a cold rush, like I was turning into ice. It wasn't the fact that I was moving, but the fact that I was leaving my companion, my best friend. WeI we were like Siamese twins! Gradually, a shiny force-field formed over my eyes and a large Cox's apple had been shoved down my throat. I tried to go out to Sheila but my mum stopped me. By now my eyes were streaming. My heart was breaking. I crawled upstairs to my bed where I cried myself to sleep.

The next day we moved. I didn't want to, but I did, I had to, I had no choice! Just before we got into the car, I ran swiftly on all fours into Number Seven's garden, round the rusty garage, up the gnarled winding tree and on to my perch. I shouted for Sheila. On and on I called like a swan who has lost her mate. Suddenly, I heard somethingI It was my mum calling me back. I didn't go though. I kept on calling, I wanted to say goodbye to Sheila! However, my dad started calling me. I knew it was time to go. The aroma of betrayal swam in my head. I was melting inside. She hadn't come to say goodbye, but I knewI I knew she wouldn't have meant it. I climbed down and slouched back into the car. I slammed the door shut. My dad started the engine and we drove off.

It's been two years since we left. I haven't been in the garden, yet anyway, but it looks the same. It's grown a bit wild. The grass hasn't been cut regularly and all the plants are fighting for space. I don't mind though, that's how I like my gardens, all overgrown with grass that you cannot be seen in by your mum and dad. Your own little haven. I wonderI I wonder whether Sheila's still there? Maybe... maybe tonight I shall sneak out and crawl through the grass, steadily... stealthily

Amelia says: "Sheila was like a really close friend, very nice to play with. I like big cats; tigers will always be my favourites. I sponsored a tiger once. There are only 2,000 left - it's very sad." She would like to work with animals in future but for the moment sport is her chief concern - gym, swimming, hockey and netball are all favourites. She likes books too and has read The Lord of the Rings.

Her teacher, Susan Fone, the school's key stage 2 co-ordinator, describes Amelia as a talented all-rounder. She found the Write Away materials very useful and says she notices no difference between boys' and girls'

achievement.

Secondary

Hero By Jennifer Williams, 13, Weatherhead girls' high school, Wallasey, Merseyside

The dusk sky was an endless expanse of claret satin and the road was ominously icy as my parents and I drove to Costco in Liverpool. I liked going there because it was so big. I got lost among industrial-sized toilet rolls and tubs of sweets every time I went. My dad was flicking between radio stations and my mum was filing her nails. I remember looking out of the window and watching cars dance past with the remainder of rain from a shower earlier.

We slowly pulled up to the traffic lights, which glistened unnaturally from beneath the earlier deluge. I sat there telling my dad to leave the radio alone when the most unorthodox sound filled the air. A high, loud, metallic screech was accompanied by the sight of a Jeep 4x4 with a removable, fabric roof on the other side of the road. The car careened off the tarmac, smashed into the central reservation, flipped 540 degrees and landed on its roof a metre away from the back of our car.

I don't know why, but I think everybody was frozen with shock. Not just me, people in the other cars, too. But not my dad. He jumped out of our car and raced over to help the unconscious woman out of her twisted wreckage of a car. Metal and glass lined the floor and petrol started to skulk its way between the serrated shards. My dad noticed this and doubled his efforts to get the lady out. People in cars parked at the traffic lights jumped out of their autos as a result of my dad frantically shouting, "I need a phone! This car is gonna blow!" Nobody responded. They just stared on in fear.

"I NEED A PHONE NOW!" blared my dad, and six people snapped into action and whipped out their mobiles. All of them rang 999. Cars were strewn everywhere like bodies after a battle. The lights were on green for the third time but nobody was moving. All 20 cars at the lights had completely blocked off a whole stretch of road.

My dad pulled the now conscious woman far away from the car and everyone jumped in their own vehicles and sped away. I didn't know why they were deserting the injured woman, but an immense explosion and orange and red fury answered all my questions. The wreckage lifted about six foot in the air and landed with flames licking all around it.

Our car was still rolling when my dad jumped out again. While he was attempting CPR on the now unconscious woman, two police cars, one ambulance and three fire trucks blared down from Old Hall Street, their blue and red lights choreographed perfectly.

After the smoke had settled and the fire was out, the realisation dawned on everyone that my dad, a 5ft 8in man with greying hair, had managed to save this now conscious woman. Everybody - police, firefighters, ambulance men and passers-by - congratulated him and patted him on the back saying things like, "Good job" and "How brave". It was strange because he was just my dad! The thought of someone as simple as him - a coffee shop owner with three daughters and a double garage - saving this person's life was a bit alien. In the eye of the tornado stood a very placid man. I'd be running around raging to high heaven.

Then dad got back in our car and we carried on our journey, as me and my mum looked at him with perplexity. He shrugged and answered with a simpleI "What?"

Jennifer says that "funny is better than sad" in writing and anyway the incident she describes would have been too frightening if she hadn't found the humour in it. It was all as she describes "except for the explosion and then we carried on to Costco as if it hadn't happened. My dad realised later, after the shopping, what he'd done." Jennifer's teacher, Gemma Curran, says her Year 9 students found the restriction on length a challenge, but that made it a useful exercise, "making every word and sentence count".

She and her students read the Write Away booklet, analysed the qualities of a good piece of writing and talked about effective endings. Jennifer knew that her father had provided her with one. "I thought what he said was quite funny."

Secondary

Voodoo souls By Sarah Fish, 13, Haberdashers' Aske's school for girls, Elstree, Hertfordshire

The tension mounted, sweat dampened my brow. I clutched my lucky charm so tightly my nails dug into my clammy flesh. "Take your marks." My breath caught in my chest, I took my place. Suspense loitering, hanging over my head. The pistol shot ringing through my ears, left the blocks. A hundred metres gone, I mentally urged the scrawny Scot back, he couldn't win, that wouldn't be fair. Competitive blood rushed through my veins as ice cold sweat ran down my neck. Turned down the home straight, my eye on the clock, my eye on the finish, my eye on the Scot. A surge of power, a sprint to the end. The clock was beaten, the record set, under-11 400m champion 1998 in the UK.

Seventy seconds; my eternity. The adrenalin still pumping round my body stifled my scream to a mad squeak. I glanced at my hand to see my fists still clasped tightly together. I eased them apart to reveal a line of scratches. My pulse rate slowed, my muscles began to relax and finally I could scream and cheer as my heart swelled with pride.

Imagine if I'd actually been in the race! For all that emotion I'd only been a spectator. I hadn't run. A bystander, why so involved? Was I merely a face in the crowd, or the ninth competitor? I may have lacked the kit and the torn paper number pinned carelessly to the blue and gold strip, yet the adrenalin, suspense, and the mental urge! My nailed skin showed the agony of the race, his race, so how could it have been mine?

For as long as I can remember we have always shared everything, we had to. I didn't know anything but pairs and halves. The Christmas cards, addressed to us both; the chocolate bars, cut three pieces to two; those awful hand-knitted jumpers from Nan, one in pink and another in blue. The date of birth, we shared the same.

Twins, the word brings to mind two adorable, identical small girls, dressed the same and with the same mole right there on their left cheeks. No one remembers the other type, non-identical, they lack the novelty factor, don't look quite as good dressed up the same, can't play the identity tricks.

He's cracked open my head, I've twisted his arm; he bought me a blanket, I made him a sling. You give what you take and take what you give. No matter what's happened, he has stuck by me throughout. Inspiring, I'm not sure how he manages it, I doubt he does either. Maybe it's his cheeky, gormless grin or his quirky manner.

Physically it's hard to even note the family similarity; mentally we're two very different people. What happens in the womb, in every child, what comes before the face and mind? What did we share for 34 weeks that bonded our hearts? What didn't split in the nine minutes between our births? I've felt his pain before I've seen it in his eyes. I've felt his fear before his hair has stood on end, I've felt his joy before he's had a chance to smile. He rarely shows his emotions, a real tough guy, never seen crying, never seen afraid. I hardly see them myself, he won't talk of them or hint of their existence. Sadly for him, he can't hide it from me. You don't have to see what you can already feel.

In the old game of voodoo, emphasis was placed on the look of the doll. Maybe pain isn't felt through the body, maybe it's felt through the soul. Hurt the doll, hurt the person; hurt one twin, hurt the other. Voodoo dolls are a Wicca trick causing untraceable pain. What happens when the doll becomes a living, breathing person? It stops being a game. Can pain transfer from one soul to another, or are the two souls simply one? I don't have the mind of the champion, I don't have his face or his winning feet, but I can share his emotion, I must share his soul. Does that mean I helped win the race? Did I actually win it? When does soul stop and mind begin? Does my voodoo doll live with me; or as me?

Sarah says she's still close to her twin brother James, although he has his own interests and is more scientific than she is. Sarah likes drama and sport, especially athletics and netball, but she doesn't go in for running as seriously as James. He has read bits of her piece about him and, says Sarah, "he didn't seem to realise I was so involved in the race".

She enjoys writing and no doubt her interest in psychology helps her to achieve such a high standard. Her teacher, Andrew Long, says he has had a "happy association" with the Write Away booklet and likes the fact that it is not too prescriptive. He wasn't surprised at Sarah's success, as he knows she can combine analysis and creativity to great effect.

Secondary

My holiday - the naked truth

Anna Bucks, 14, James Allen's girls' school, London borough of Southwark July 23

Am spending two weeks in the south of France with family. A perfect fortnight with good food and weather. What could go wrong?

Later Have just found out we are staying for one week in a friend's house and the other - on a canal boat. Having second thoughts.

July 24, Annecy Lac d' Annecy. A fantastic excuse for a swim. Ah, now exactly where did we pack those swimming costumes? No matter, will skinny-dip.

Later I somehow don't think anyone appreciated the sight of my dad, naked.

July 25, Mont Blanc Nearly froze to death. Will never go up Mont Blanc in shorts ever again.

July 26, somewhere near Montelimar Arrived at house in the dark. House v. dirty and v. scary. Rat poison everywhere. Dad dropped bottle of tonic water. Am going to look for dustpan and bucket.

Later

Can't find dustpan.

Much later

Nor bucket.

Even later

Found old bucket in garden. Didn't notice hole in the bottom until it was full with water. Have never laughed so much in my life.

Song of the day

There's a hole in your bucket, dear Simon, dear Simon.

July 27

Cycled to the top of a huge hill with the promise of ice cream at top. In fact, there was nothing; no houses, no shops. Nothing.

Note to self: never believe Mum.

Night time

Thunderstorm. V. hot and v. awake. Need loooooooooo. Ah, just turn on bathroom light. Oh god, all the lights have gone out.

MUUUUUUUUUUUUMMMMMMMMMMM!!

Later

Dad just went outside, naked, to get the table in. Wonderful spectacle for the poor, drunk, Frenchman coming home from the pub.

July 30

Am v. desperate for loo. Tap is stuck in bathroom. Plumber can't come until tomorrow. Had to turn off water. No shower or loo until then. Might be forced to go in bushes. Hmm, maybe not.

August 1, French motorway

Have made worst mistake of holiday, so far. Travelled from house to boat on day EVERYBODY in France goes on holiday.

One hour later

Stuck in traffic jam.

Two hours later

Still there.

God knows how long later

Dad: Oh stuff this. Going to drive up hard shoulder.

Evening, Canal du Midi

Appear to be staying on a large, floating bathtub. Going to bed.

Later

Bed is half size of normal bed. What have I let myself in for?

August 2, in the pouring rain

Cycled to and from small village for food. Returned to discover boat adrift and blocking the canal. Snotty-nosed Englishmen, on other bank, complaining about people not mooring their boat properly. Oh, the humiliation.

August 3

Am going to cycle to nearby town to buy a new bike. Old bike has bits falling off it.

Later

"Nearby", my arse. Town is a racetrack. So many cars, so few bikes.

Seven shops later

Have found new bike. Now to cycle home.

Evening

Dad just set fire to whole of the riverbank with his barbecue.

August 6

Not very experienced at locks. Dad managed to drive neatly into back of someone else's boat. Big, scary French woman, in multi-coloured swimming costume and old-fashioned hat, started screaming at Dad. Oh God, am going to hide in cabin.

Afternoon

Soaked. I, well, erm, fell in the canal. Thank God I just passed my mile badge.

Later

Spent two hours trying to moor but was stopped by tree roots. Whole village turned up to watch. Very embarrassing.

Day to be officially named Unlucky Thursday.

August 7

Am going home. YESSSSSSSSS!!!!!!!!!!!! Next year to spend very peaceful holiday in somewhere like Afghanistan.

Anna says her diary is "all completely true". She chose the diary format because she "wanted to include the whole holiday - well, the funny side of it - and there weren't enough words otherwise. But I am a Bridget Jones fan as well." She is keen on humour, and once learned three whole joke books off by heart. Her experience of drama, which she is doing for GCSE, was to play Sir Andrew Aguecheek in Twelfth Night at primary school. "Everyone called me the wally." She enjoys J K Rowling, but is a Philip Pullman fan too - "very strange, very scary" - and has read most of the Dark Materials trilogy.

Her teacher, Janet Parkinson, head of English, says she liked using the Write Away booklet. " It is good because it's autobiography, so they've all got something to say and they like to talk about what makes you remember something. I welcome anything that encourages children to write creatively."

Winners all

THE OTHER FINALISTS ARE:

PRIMARY

Laura Callaway, St Mary's primary school, Bridport, Dorset; Kate Ellis, Bute House preparatory school, London borough of Hammersmith and Fulham; Tegen Evans, Bishop Gilpin first school, London borough of Merton; Anna Malan, St Michael's school, Otford, Kent; Ellie Nunn, Bute House preparatory school; Sophie Rosenheim, Bute House preparatory school; Hafsa Zayaan, Colman middle school, Norwich

Secondary

Victoria Beckett, Idsall school, Shifnal, Shropshire; Polly Crossman, Tormead school, Guildford; Nicola Cusworth, The King's high school, Pontefract; Oliver Gray, Royal grammar school, Newcastle upon Tyne; Jack Holden, The Corsham school, Corsham, Wiltshire; Nic Kennedy, Huish Episcopi school, Langport, Somerset; Sam Sieniewicz, Ivybridge community college, Ivybridge, Devon

Special needs

Primary

Jotham Hulland, Benenden CEP school, Benenden, Kent

Secondary

James Zsibrita, Northease Manor school, Lewes, East Sussex

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