Write Away once more gives students the chance to shine, as Heather Neill reports
ne of the most enjoyable things about working on the TES Write Away literary competition is that one meets so many enthusiastic and committed teachers. While a few seem to be perennially successful in producing winners (Jonathan Brough shares some of his secrets on page 6), many more use the resources published each autumn, often taking pleasure in collecting them year after year. While admiring the pieces written by famous authors, many teachers say that it is the work of other children that they find most inspiring to use with their classes. In the following pages you can read four outstanding pieces by students and, on The TES website, another 16 - this year's Write Away winners and finalists. All 20 writers, each accompanied by a teacher and a parent, attended a prize-giving lunch at Shakespeare's Globe yesterday, followed by the matinee of Coriolanus or a visit to the Globe exhibition. Celebrity judges Michael Rosen and Jacqueline Wilson, who chose the four published here, addressed the young audience, encouraging them to go on writing as they proceed through school.
This is the ninth year of the competition which invites students aged from 7 to 14 to write about their own lives. In September 2005 new commissions by Michelle Paver, Meg Rosoff and Tony Bradman, published in Teacher magazine along with two of last year's winning entries, inspired a variety of responses. Young writers can choose to focus on a person, place or event that has been important to them and experiment with forms such as a diary entry or letter.
Competition judges almost always claim standards were so high that choosing a few entries to be rewarded was a challenge. For Write Away judges, this is not only true, but it is a pleasure. The second stage judges - representatives of The TES and The National Association for the Teaching of English - read only 1 per cent of the entries. All 9,000 submissions, from all over the UK as well as international schools in many parts of the world, are read by panels of teachers organised by NATE in different regions. NATE's continued support is essential to the success of Write Away.
This year, new supporters donated generous prizes: InFocus Corporation and SMART Technologies Inc provided projectors and SMARTboards for the four winners' schools, while Toshiba gave 20 DVD players for the teachers and ICUE presented all the finalists with PSPs. And, once again, Walker Books and Doubleday kindly donated books by the celebrity judges.
Our celebrity judges are staunch friends of Write Away. On his eighth appearance, Michael Rosen - poet, storyteller, broadcaster and author of Shakespeare: his Work and his World - said: "When young people are given the chance to explore the moments and feelings that are important to them, then the results, as here with this year's Write Away, are fascinating, moving and delightful." Jacqueline Wilson, the current Children's Laureate and author of dozens of favourite books, including Tracy Beaker and Candyfloss, judges many writing competitions, but says she is particularly impressed by the standard of Write Away entries, adding: "It's heart-warming that so many young people write with such style and vigour."
Congratulations to this year's splendid winners.
NIGHTFALL By Josie Thum
A pale moon of early spring cast its wan light down upon the face of sparkling waters, touching each wind-driven wave-top with flecks of cold silver. It was late, the water was like tar, so black it seemed solid.
Everywhere was silent. I kept still, waiting for her. As I gazed into the swirling black of the canal, I noticed circular ripples, expanding, stretching out, catching the little light there was and shining a gentle white. I looked up; there she was, grinning mischievously. Her eyes were strong and determined. She withdrew her hand from the water, and nodded.
"I'll be back in about ten minutes," she said. I smiled, and waved.
She turned and raced silently back along the edge of the canal. The moon had drifted behind an ominous cloud, and utter darkness claimed the sky. I was enveloped in it, as if a black blanket had smothered me. I checked my watch, 11:28. Wondering how to pass the time whilst I waited for her, I sat down on the edge of the pontoon, swinging my feet and dipping my sneakers in the cool water.
"The locks must be shut now," I thought.
I closed my eyes. No difference. I might as well keep them shut - it would be just as dark as it was when they were open. An idea seized me, and I started to feel along the edge of the pontoon. Finally, fumbling fingers found smooth, damp rubber; I smiled and slid into the dinghy.
I leant back against the boat's rubber hull, and stretched my arms out, skimming the murky water with open fingers. A strong breeze had picked up, it whistled softly, and stirred the black waters of the canal. I checked my watch again, 11:41. She should be back by now. The blackness still loomed.
I stood up unstably, wobbling slightly as the boat rocked to and fro.
Preparing myself to search for her, I groped out, feeling for the pontoon in the darkness and, as I put my weight on the place where I thought it was, I fell...
The shock was as if I'd been electrocuted. My stomach had been replaced with whooshing air; I groped out, feeling desperately for something to cling to.
Then my other out-stretched hand felt metal under cold slime; I rubbed my fingers together and realised it was a chain. It would be securing a boat, a huge boat. Only grand vessels, furnished with carved oak, had to be tethered to floating buoys with chains. My blood had been replaced with sinister ice, my bones heavily chilled. Our pontoon didn't have anything as extravagant; we and our neighbours had nothing but grubby little worn out dinghies. The dinghy can't have been tied to the pontoon.
I was drifting.
The blackness swirled closer to me, wrapping around me like a ribbon, defining its capture. I shuddered in the harsh cold. This was not our canal...
I floated on unknown waters. Bobbing along midst an unknown place. I shivered, uncertain if it was darkness or cold. Breeze had turned into seething, shrieking wind. Screeching as if in agony; its haunting sound drilled into my ears, my mind. In its wrath the wind hurled aside portentous clouds, claiming its territory. And as the canopy of darkness shifted, the pale moon shone its faded light, finally revealing itself; and with it, so did everything else.
I blinked. She smiled, and seized the boat, pulling it towards the pontoon.
Her dark eyes darted around like birds in a cage. She grasped my hand.
I was safe.
Chiswick Bedford Park Preparatory School
Josie, almost 11 now, is an enthusiastic reader and says she loves writing so much that she does so for pleasure, but adds: "I don't think I'll be an author, although I will always write. I'm thinking of being a homeopath."
Her teacher, Susan Stanley-Carroll, says that Josie has "a lovely feel for words and also writes exquisite poetry". She has used Write Away materials for several years, but not submitted entries before. She is so pleased with Josie's group that she is collecting together a number of their Write Away pieces into a magazine for the school's own Purring Pen Publication.
A SIGNIFICANT PLACE by Jennifer Sulkin
If you open the door to his flat, the first thing that you see is the crystal light reflecting off each piece of glass hanging from the chandelier. Rainbow colours shine brightly on each wall surrounding the dangling crystals and, when the window is open, the gentle breeze causes the light to dance and blend together. If you turn left from where you are standing, you see a large book shelf. The books seem old and heavy, and written by famous authors like Shakespeare and Moli re. Part of the way down the shelf, two books have had their spines cut out and, if you reach your hands in, and pull towards you, you will find a hidden television.
Look up. You will see an enormous painting of an anxious, wild horse.
Reach forward, and pull the painting towards you. You will be surprised by what you see: a projector that is used for showing old films onto a screen that drops from a curtain facing it. The furniture is old fashioned, as if from Napoleon's day, with gold rims and carved wooden feet. The fabric coverings are hand painted with patterns that are hard to look away from because they are like a maze and take you somewhere else. If you sit down in the biggest chair, with the uniquely coloured fabric, you will be told by my grandfather to get out of the chair at once.
If you go into my favourite room, you can often smell roasted peppers cooking in the oven. They will be garnished with Italian olive oil, salt and pepper, and will feel soft once put on the grilled bread and then into your mouth. There is a hidden cupboard which only my grandfather and I know about, that is stuffed with sweets and chocolate. Sometimes I am sent on a secret mission with a five euro note to the nearest store to restock the hidden cupboard. There are bowls of peanuts waiting to be eaten placed in the lounge and kitchen. If you try to be helpful and offer to cook dinner, my grandfather will throw you out of the kitchen. He insists on doing everything himself, even though it takes the whole evening to cook a plate of pasta. There is a cupboard stocked up with pills for the coming months.
If you like music, his Parisian flat is the place to be. He has several stereos and always plays music no matter what time it is, and no matter that he is quite deaf. He turns it up as much he needs to, so he can hear his songs. One of his favourite songs is Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World". Whenever I listen to it without him, I become teary and wish I was there.
If you are unlucky, he will tell you off, as much as a parent does, especially if you are on the computer until the early hours. If you are lucky, like me, he might stroke your hair with his 92-year-old fingers.
Sometimes his fingers might shake a little as he tries to shape your hair into a pony tail.
I will always remember my mum coming into my room and announcing that my grandfather had lung cancer. She made the difficult decision not to tell him what was wrong in case he gave up on life too soon. He thinks that the medication he takes is for his heart problems. The first time I visited him after the news, it felt different because finally I had a secret from him.
NorthBridge House Senior School Christine Callingham, deputy head of Jennifer's school, organised the Write Away entries, but her teacher is Georgina Masefield. Both teachers are fans of the competition. Georgina used Nelson Mandela's autobiography as stimulus material as well as other Write Away pieces, focusing on one by a young writer and one by an adult - Michelle Paver's description of her encounter with a bear. Jennifer's mother is French so she has spent many holidays in France and is bilingual. She has fond memories of her grandfather and, as Georgina says: "The piece is a fitting memorial to him." Jennifer, now 13, likes writing, but she is also passionate about drama and attends the Sylvia Young Theatre School on Saturdays.
AN EVENING IN SOUTHERN BURGUNDY By Millie Perrin
The sun was setting over the tops of the trees, casting a warm magenta glow on the roofs of the houses. The shadows were lengthening and a calm breeze drifted through the old streets on the warm summer's evening. The church bell at the end of the road tolled seven times and one by one the brocantes shop keepers brought inside their dusty, antique chairs and stained tables, gold-rimmed mirrors and their once ornate, now faded and slightly chipped vases, ready to close for the evening.
I walked past the green-shuttered house where my family was staying, past one of the three churches in the village, past the boulangerie and charcuterie, to the dirt track which winds up above the main square and twists round the trees out of sight. Waiting for me at the foot of the hill was Marianne, petite, with shiny black hair and dark brown eyes. I had made friends with her in our first week here. She was French but attended a language school so was fluent in English too.
We set off, discussing our schools and families as we went. We stopped when we reached a crumbling old building which I had seen from my bedroom window and Marianne explained that it had once been a bar, many years ago. She smiled as she told me that half the villagers swear they can still hear revelling and singing at midnight coming from there. I wanted to learn more but the sun had almost set and we still had not reached our destination. We quickened our pace and continued up the track. I stopped at a bend, turning to look back at the old bar with its weathered sign. I was suddenly aware that we were young girls, on our own, entering some woods a good mile from the village houses, with no mobile phone and no-one nearby. I was just about to suggest turning back when Marianne called me, announcing, in flawless English, that we were there.
It was without a doubt the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. A large grey chateau rose out from the woods, with two round towers on either side of an exquisite house. Marianne was clearly pleased with my reaction and pulled me to the edge of the path, from where we had a breathtaking view of the left tower with its turrets, surrounded by a small but enchanting lake, in the corner of which a half-sunken rowing boat leant on the bank. The glass in the greenhouse next to the ivy-clad wall was shattered and the beautiful plants in the cracked pots were overgrown and wild. At that moment of tranquillity, the sun went down behind the hill completely and we were surrounded by darkness. In the distance I could hear the squeaking of bats hunting and a dog barking. The lake rippled gently as the wind rustled through the trees. I thought of the old bar, once full of merry villagers, now half ruined. Although reluctant to leave this magical place, I allowed Marianne to usher me back down the hill, to the village.
That night I awoke to the church bell chiming midnight and the wind was blowing the thin cotton voile at my open window. I got out of bed and went to look out. I could just make out, in the moonlight, the old sign hanging from the bar swinging gently. Was it my imagination, or could I hear the sound of people laughing and singing? Maybe I will never know.
The Lady Eleanor Holles School
Millie, now 13, is a keen musician. She plays the cello and the piano, but also loves writing, usually stories but sometimes poems. She is thinking of being an author or a film and stage director, keeping music as a hobby. An avid reader, she devoured The Da Vinci Code non-stop and loves Jacqueline Wilson's books. Caroline Richardson, Millie's teacher, says that creative writing is important at the school and there is a club which meets in the lunch hour. She enjoys using Write Away materials as a stimulus to discussion as her students are encouraged to enter competitions and to write with a view to publication.
IN MY MIND'S EYE By Rhiannon Jones
Only half of me is me. It has been like that ever since I was six. At that time I had what I thought was a best friend. We did everything together. On Wednesdays, before being taken to Rainbows, we would play at one another's house. When she came to mine we would drape shawls and scarves over my wooden bed, and act out fairy tales.
But then, suddenly, she left me. The reason why was because a new girl came to our class. She had flaming red hair, and freckles dotted all across her nose. I liked her a lot, but my once-best-friend got there first. She started going around with the new girl, and I was more and more left out. I felt like I was an old toy, perhaps a rag doll, and the person I once believed to be my friend had become bored with me, and cast me aside, ready to play with new things.
That night I had cried myself to sleep, but woke from a dream about having a friend again. Then I knew that although she was no longer my best friend, at some time I could have a best friend again. I began to sculpt my new best friend, paint a picture of her in my mind. She would be called Diana, and be everything that I wasn't.
I started with the hair, and began to move down her body. She would have long, glossy black hair, which hung in sheets as black as midnight down her sides. I knew I would never have hair like that. Mine is fair, and tangled, and never stays straight. Then I moved on to the eyes, nose and mouth. My cheeks are rather big, so hers would be the exact opposite. Her nose was dainty and small, her eyes like deep, dark pools, her mouth thin, and never would a bad word come out of it. Diana was slim, not too thin, but just right. I have terribly big hands and feet, hers so small they could have belonged to a fairy.
When I had finished, I looked her up and down in my mind's eye. Yes. She was perfect.
In a terribly tricky maths test, I am stumbling on a question to do with algebra. Diana answers it as easily as if it was three plus four. In other situations I am losing a race on sports day, whereas Diana is beating all competition. At times I am teased for being slowest in my swimming group; Diana overtakes people left, right and centre.
I wish I was better at sports. I wish I was better at maths. Diana doesn't worry about things like that. When I need a friend, she is there. When I need help, she is there. When all I want is not to have a care in the world, she helps me find that place where I can be that person. She is really my only true friend. I still play with her, even now, four years on.
When I am lonely in the playground, we will talk together, and play. We will ride bikes together, the wind in our hair.
There are so many brilliant days we have had together, but the best by far was the first day. The day I knew I still had hope. The day I knew I had a best friend.
St Martin's Primary School
Rhiannon, 10 when she wrote this, says that Diana is still very real to her: "She gets older as I do." She enjoys writing fantasy, sometimes with a boy hero because she relishes the challenge. She also tells stories to her little brother, making them up as she goes along. She plays the violin and, not surprisingly as she lives on Guernsey, enjoys swimming. Her teacher Liz Mahy says that Rhiannon is a budding writer. She uses Write Away materials, especially pieces by children, to "jump start" her class's creativity and sets the competition as a challenge. She spends four or five weeks on autobiography, including speaking and listening exercises where pupils share memories.
Rhiannon Jones St Martin's Primary School, Guernsey
Josie Thum Chiswick Bedford Park Preparatory School, London
David Carter St Aidan's CE VA First School, Skelmanthorpe
Charlotte Crompton St Brendan's RC Primary School, Bolton
Alyssa Dayan City of London School for Girls, London
Chloe Hequet City of London School for Girls, London
Jemma Leech Palmerston Primary School, Cadoxton, Barry
Ollie McLellan The Perse Preparatory School, Cambridge
Olivia Reeve St Paul's CofE JMI School, Kings Langley
Damask Talary-Brown Summerfield Combined School, Bradwell Common
The Lady Eleanor Holles School, Hampton
North Bridge House Senior School, London
Alice Ahearn Nonsuch High School for Girls, Cheam
Wirral Grammar for Girls, Bebington
Francesca Grace Gerrett Bancroft's School,
Wilmslow High School, Wilmslow
Callum Kelly Windsor School, JHQ Rheindahlen, Germany
Glynnis Morgan Nonsuch High School for Girls, Cheam
King's Hall School, Taunton
Friends' School, Saffron Walden
All 20 winning entries can be read at www.tes.co.uk