Marking a load of exercise books cannot always be described as a pleasure. But reading some of the best of primary and secondary children's stories entered in a national literary competition is precisely that.
Along with distinguished fellow judges, including Jenni Murray of BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour and author Harriet Castor, I read the stories of more than 100 finalists out of 6,500 entries for the Heinemann Library "Get Published" competition. It gave a real insight into the literary talents of the nation's youth.
The brief for the entrants was simple: write a story for five to seven-year-olds on the theme of "wishes". If your story wins, it will be illustrated and published, just like any adult author's book, in September 1998. You get the royalties, while your school receives pound;500-worth of books (which should exempt you from detention for a few years).
It was an attractive challenge that brought in entries for the two categories (7-11 and 12-plus) from more than 800 schools.
The standard of entries was generally impressive and, although artwork was not required, some children sent in high-quality illustrations as well. Writing for a specific audience is something that this generation does better than their parents and grandparents did in the days when most of us wrote for our teacher.
The best of the stories showed that the writer understood the audience of five to seven-year-olds. They were well written, the language was appropriate, and they often used humour. Not too far from the target age group themselves, these children remember what excited them, or made them laugh.
Most notable among the winners was their ability to be different and unusual in some way, distinguishing themselves from the more predictable interpretations of the theme "wishes".
One of my few disappointments was the many children who wrote about a genie granting three wishes. It was just too safe and obvious. I hope the great national drive on literacy, laudable though it is, does not lead children to lose that maverick spark of originality that has made Britain the inventing capital of the world.
One of the two primary-age winners, 10-year-old Philip Davison, of Newlands school in Gosforth, Tyne and Wear, provided a neat lesson in how to take a three-wish theme and give it a twist.
The hero of the story meets Zit, the wish bug, floating in a puddle. Zit has the power to give him three wishes, but after the third wish, Zit has no purpose in life, so must die. Our public-spirited hero keeps everyone in suspense through the first two wishes, before giving his third wish to make Zit his lifelong friend.
Teachers should encourage children to write stories for competitions. Here are four suggestions that occur to me after reading so many good efforts and near misses: 1 However much individual work children put in, it is well worth their working in groups to criticise each other's stories. The construction of a short story is vital, and a friendly reader can often make a good suggestion. Bethan Sadler, 12, of Dr Challoner's High School in Buckinghamshire, one of the two secondary-age winners, came up with a striking "mirror-image" story. The first half is about Kara the tiger asking different species of animals to be her child; the second half is about a baby tiger asking different species to be her mother. Mother and child meet in the middle of the book. A clever idea, but not too many children will think this up on their own, so brainstorming can help.
2 Why not get children to read their story to the appropriate age group? This should not be too difficult in a primary school, and even secondary pupils should be able to find a class of five to seven-year-olds. Audience reaction can often improve a story. It is a valuable experience for a young writer to have an audience and see at first hand how the story appeals. Handled well it could boost confidence and heighten interest in writing.
3 Many promising stories that we judged had a lame ending. Once more, reading to an audience and bouncing ideas off colleagues could help strengthen the ending. It is worth teachers asking children specifically to think about how their stories end. Too often it is an afterthought and a potentially good narrative fades away weakly.
4 Finally, explore and savour originality. It is a precious quality, easily nurtured, but easily destroyed. Discuss with children what sort of ideas they have and then challenge them to look for the distinctive, the different, the risky, the unexpected, and the downright zany.
Further details from Sonya Rance at Heinemann. Tel: 01865 311 366.Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter.