Well, we did ask - and 10,000 children took up the challenge of entering the TES Write Away awards. Heather Neill explains how the judges came up with six winners, whose stories we publish here
The Write Away awards are always a cause for celebration. In this, their third year, 10,000 children from nearly 600 schools, in Japan, Dubai and Switzerland as well as the UK, entered the competition and many more are using the related materials - a booklet and special Primary magazine section - that were included in the TES last September. As well as new pieces by favourite authors such as Raymond Briggs, Helen Cresswell, Rachel Anderson and Anne Fine, these contained teaching notes, discussion ideas and plenty of inspiration for young writers.
In the following pages you will find the winning entries for this year's awards: six outstanding pieces of autobiographical writing, three from primary age pupils, three from KS3 pupils. These have been chosen from 20 finalists by our guest judges, the poet Grace Nichols and the newly announced winner of the Children's Book Award, Michael Morpurgo. All the finalists will be entertained and presented with generous prizes provided by McDonald's Restaurants Ltd at Shakespeare's Globe in London, today. Each of the 20 schools represented will receive pound;400 towards a writer's residency, to help encourage more high-quality writing.
But there are clouds in this sunny creative sky, identified by the teachers and advisers who drew up the shortlist. At primary level, they say, the literacy hour is to blame. As Angel Scott of the University of Durham, who provided the teaching notes for the booklet, puts it: "Direct teaching of the kind now familiar in the literacy hour would do more to improve writing if children were given more opportunities to practise what they are taught."
At secondary level (soon to be subject to the national literacy strategy at KS3), an inflexible curriculum was blamed for stifling creativity. And, at both KS2 and KS3, Sats were accused of producing formulaic story-writing.
The effects are noticeable. This year we received relatively few high-quality entries from primary schools and not enough from state secondary schools. This is a sad state of affairs. We know from the high standard of some entries that it is possible to use the literacy hour creatively. It is by now a familiar part of the primary day; many teachers have found ways to keep the rules without sacrificing imaginative activities. It was always, indeed, one of the intentions of the Write Away booklets to help teachers do just that. So let us hear from more of you next time.
We are delighted to announce that McDonald's is to fund Write Away for another year and that, once again, the National Association for the Teaching of English will help to run the competition. Look out for the Write Away 4 booklet in the TES this September, and a special Write Away 4 section in the October edition of Primary magazine.
Roll on Write Away 2001.
Heather Neill is arts editor of The TES PRIMARY - A COUNTRY GIRL
I knew that being a country girl wouldn't be the same as being a town girl. We were moving! After spending the first six years of my life in the busy, noisy, south-east of England, we were on our way to the rough green sea, the fields, and the glorious landscape of Devon.
Earlier that year my family and I had set off on a holiday to beautiful north Devon. We visited wonderful beaches and went on delightful walks. We enjoyed it so much that we decided to move there. We exchanged our tiny house in a town for a huge, rambling farmhouse deep in the countryside. We swapped a tiny square of grass for a field, an orchard and a beautiful garden, all belonging to us. The traffic noise was gone. Now we rarely saw more than two cars on the four mile drive to school. I loved living there and I especially loved my Indian painted bedroom with its frieze of elephants, its gold starred ceiling and crooked walls. From the sanctuary of my bedroom I could see the huge flowering cherry tree in the front garden, and in the distance the bleak expanse of Dartmoor.
Winters in Devon were usually wild and windy, but one year I remember particularly well we had snow. I crawled from under my warm duvet in the morning to see a white world. It looked as if someone had laid a giant sheet over the hills. I put on my cosy, warm mittens and my large, thick jumper, all set to go outside. The snow fell and the bitter wind pierced my clothing, but even though I felt very cold I had the most wonderful time. I made enormous fluffy snowballs and rolled them down the hill towards my brother and his friends. We ran and shouted until our noses were red and our fingers were numb, and then we retreated to the farmhouse kitchen where my mother had set chairs next to the range. As we thawed out we hugged our steaming mugs of hot chocolate and gazed at the winter scene through the window.
During the summer I enjoyed going on long cliff walks. There was a huge feeling of excitement watching the swell of the sea as it crashed against the lighthouse rocks. I remember watching a fishing boat from the top of the towering rock-face as it pitched and rolled in the waves. With my family I trekked for miles, climbing steep hillsides, wandering through fields of wild flowers and finally ending in one of the isolated inns that dotted the coastline for a toasted tuna sandwich. Summers were playing on the beach, messing with your friends, hiding in the treehouse, and visiting the park.
I attended a village school, where I was one of only eighty-five children. I made close friends and together we got up to all sorts of mischief. We were together through Christmas and Easter, my summer birthday and Harvest Festival, through Halloween and Guy Fawkes, and then my father accepted a job in Dubai.
Our house in Devon still sits there silently waiting for us to return. Every summer we go for a visit and for a short time it is filled with the happy sounds of our laughter. One day I will go home for good.
Harriet Daly, 10 Dubai English Speaking school Harriet says she feels more at home in Devon than in Dubai, although she follows the national curriculum there and has recently taken Sats. "Sometimes I write on my own - descriptive writing is my favourite. I like painting and netball and do quite a lot of swimming. It's the main sport in Dubai where it is very hot." Harriet's teacher, Julia Proud, says she enjoyed using Write Away 3 with Year 6 during the literacy hour, when it provided material for the autobiographical writing module. "They wrote first and second drafts and then I told them to improve what they'd done by using a thesaurus. Harriet loved that. She enjoys drafting and re-drafting, but doesn't much like writing stories to time in exams." Heather Neill
PRIMARY - THE MYSTERIOUS DOOR
I will never forget this day, for this special day let me open the door to imagination. First I did not realise what it would mean, but now when I write my stories or simply dream, then I know I have changed.
I had gone for a rest in Scotland. My brother, Vadim, my parents and I, were staying in a bungalow, near the lake Loch Tay.
In those days, I did what I was told, and was no pain for my mum, but nobody wanted to play with me at school. I did not laugh at jokes, did not talk too much and sat in my room, not reading but tidying it up.
Well, back to Scotland. I woke up one morning, and the first thing I did was tidy my bed up. I did not care at all what the weather was like. Only after I had tidied my bed up, put my scattered books in the drawer and changed into my normal clothes, did I brush the curtain away and open the window-pane a crack. Oh yes, it did look warm and it did look sunny, but there was a slight breeze, quavering in the air, as if shy to greet the sunny morning. Suddenly I heard a groan. It was my mum. She came to the sink and patted my head.
"Good girl. Had some breakfast?" Before I could answer, she went into the kitchen. I finished brushing and sat on my bed.
We dressed into coats, put on shoes, and tied scarves around our necks. We stepped outside and smelled the frosty air.
We walked along the edge of the river, and hired a boat. We stepped inside it and rowed off. The gliding feeling was very pleasant. All around us were high mountains with patches of snow, just like icing. My dad put his hand in the water.
"Brrr! Come on Adelia, try the water with your hand," my father said.
"I'd rather put my gloves on, thank you," I answered.
When we stopped at the opposite bank of the lake, we climbed on the mountain by going on the steps. When we came to the top of the mountain, I felt a cold breeze flowing through my hair. Everything turned into a blue-silver mist.
My head was spinning and suddenly, the commotion stopped as shortly as it started. I opened my eyes, but I did not see the lake.
I see a waterfall, pouring into a tiny pool of clear, still water, then getting carried off by a thin stream. Grass is growing on either side with flowers scattered about. A hut, decorated with roses and painted wood carvings, is standing beside the waterfall. I open the door of the hut. When I come in I see a table. On the table lies a golden key, and beside the table is an arched pine-wood door. I stare at the key and then at the lock. Shall I open the door without any more ado, or shall I peep through the keyhole first?
I pick up the key, turn it in the lock and open the door. A blast of wind nearly knocks me over, I see all kinds of shapes flying past the door, hazy because of the dusty wind. A smile spreads over my face. I feel something inside me. Freedom. Freedom, at last!
A hand took me by the shoulder. But I will not open my eyes, no, nor shall I turn around and say "yes, Mammy?" I do not want that picture in my mind to fade away. I am scared I might turn back into a boring person if I open my eyes, but I have to.
That night, when we reached our bungalow, I went to bed.
"I am not boring anymore, I've just realised!" I wrote in my diary, "and I think I have opened the door to imagination!" Adelia Myslov, 10Yehudi Menuhin school, Cobham, Surrey Adelia speaks Russian at home and writes stories in both Russian and English. She wants to be a professional violinist and has already played at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and Downing Street in London. "I like reading Berlie Doherty and lots of Russian authors. Writing helps me with my music: you need a lot of technique to play well, but then you have to use your imagination." Her teacher Janet Poppe says that she enjoyed using Write Away 3 with whole classes in Years 4, 5 and 6. "It was a wonderful starting-off point to trigger the imagination. They drafted, edited and proof-read their pieces and then word-processed them for the competition."
PRIMARY - MY HOUSE IN THE TREE
The south of France was hot, in Cannes, where we would settle for two years and where I found my house in the tree.
The house, like a shield to the chest, protected a small field of wild farmland. Between the two stood a tree, with its leaves cloaking the trunk and branches. The high grass suddenly stopped behind it like a person in front of a deadly snake.
The tree's dark green leaves hung like a loose rope from the branches almost touching the ground. I was desperate to go and explore the garden, especially the tree.
I ran through the house and out into the hot sunshine. I was dazzled by the bright light as I was used to the dark rooms of the house. I walked toward the tree and heard a sound, the chirping noise of the crickets. Finally I reached the tree and noticed it was larger than I expected. I had just been reading a story about an enchanted tree with some folk called Moonface and Silky. My hopes rose that I would find them and have adventures in different lands. The grass was the colour of straw and higher than my waist as I pushed my way through.
In front of me was an archway in the canopy of the hanging leaves. Inside it was cool and a few streams of sunlight revealed the branches and trunk. But, unfortunately, this was not the tree where Moonface and Silky lived and I was disappointed for that reason. I was happy though because I was out of the hot sun, the temperature was just to my liking and it was peaceful, but I could still hear the chirping of the crickets. As I climbed up I felt the rough surface of the trunk. The bark was falling off, but I was careful not to damage it.
The tree was just like a house. There was one thick branch slanted to one side, which made a bed, and if I lay down on this branch there would be a soft padding of green moss for my head. There was an armchair opposite the bed where two branches on either side of one thick branch curved down to make arm rests. The thick branch in the middle was where I sat down.
On one side of the tree a flatter branch was my slide. It was covered in moss and slippery so I could slide down easily. This was where I had a swinging place, where one thick branch was on top of another thick branch and the gap in the middle was perfect for my body size. I held on to the branch above and rested my feet on the branch below then I pushed off and swung for a while before standing back on the lower branch.
The reading place was where someone had cut out a rectangular shape above my soft pillow of moss. The book I was reading fit perfectly in it and that is where I read on hot days.
As I was about to climb up, I heard my mother calling me so I ran out of my tree and walked through the grass. Suddenly I heard the rustle of hay. The grass in front split and there lay a thick brown snake resting peacefully. I yelled and it spun around so fast I thought it was going to squeeze me but it just slithered off to its home swiftly. I ran all the way back to the house and cried with fright and shock.
Laura Shepherd, 10 Pool C of E school, Leeds "I write a lot," says Laura. "I have a box to keep my stories together." She has lived in France and in Rome where she used to write poems. Now most of her ideas are for "magical stories" and she would like to write such stories for children of her age professionally one day. The incident she describes happened when she was about six. Laura's teacher, Glenys Pengilly has used Write Away publications for two years and enjoys their fresh ideas. "We made a decision when the literacy hour came in to build in our current good practice," she says. "It is important that children should not be put in a straitjacket and lose their enthusiasm." Laura, she says, enjoys the arts, and is also good at maths. HN
THE SUBWAY - SECONDARY
It was late evening and the sky was turning black when me and my dad got off the bus and started to walk hand in hand beside the busy road. The pavement sloped downwards towards a subway, beyond which was our house. You might expect a child of five or six to be scared of such a dark tunnel beneath the ground, but it didn't frighten me. I was past the phase of believing in monsters and, despite repeated warnings from my parents and teachers concerning speaking to strangers or accepting sweets from them, all grown-ups were good in my eyes. I knew some rather nasty children, but adults were always there to sort things out. The news, with its daily reports of crime, meant nothing to me: words like murder or mugging were not part of my vocabulary.
So I approached the subway with no apprehension. To my surprise, my dad tightened his grip on my hand and quickened his pace so that I had to almost run to keep up with him.
I had been there before, in the day, but at night it was quite different. The overhead lights had been broken, and the crunching sound of our footsteps on the shattered glass echoed sinisterly around the tunnel. As my eyes adjusted to the dim light I could just make out the puddles on the ground, and the graffiti on the grey, damp walls.
"What does it all mean, Daddy?" I asked, tugging at his sleeve, but my voice was drowned out by the sound of a motorcycle entering the tunnel behind us. It sped closer and closer until the roar of its engine was deafening, making the snarls and threats of its riders incomprehensible. As I turned my head, the motorcycle swept past my side, scraping my arm with its handlebar. I yelped in pain at my scorched arm, while the riders raced away, chuckling.
My dad bent down to inspect my grazed and bleeding arm anxiously. "Is it all right?" he asked. It felt like it was on fire and my eyes were brimming with tears, but I nodded, willing to say anything just to get away from this horrible, horrible subway as quickly as possible.
We started walking again but at the end of the subway, illuminated in the flow of a streetlamp, were the two men, sitting on their motorcycles menacingly, blocking our exit. They growled at us angrily, their faces twisted into resentful expressions, and occasionally shouted things I didn't understand.
Would they try to stop us getting out? Would they ride straight at us again? My dad sensed my hesitation. "Just keep moving," he said, "we'll be home soon."
Sure enough, when we approached, the motorcycle drove off, with a last few shouts. As we walked out of the subway, relieved, some small stones flew through the air, landing at our feet.
"Why didn't those men like us?" I asked my dad. "It was nothing... not important," he mumbled, not wanting to ruin the faith I had in human nature. But it was too late. The idealistic image in my head had been shattered.
Nahid Samsani, 13 Notting Hill and Ealing high school, London borough of Ealing
This incident happened when Nahid was about six. "I take an alternative route now," she says. She likes writing, is learning the piano and plays tennis. "I'm thinking of being a lawyer - that probably comes from watching too much Ally McBeal." Sue Ashby, Nahid's teacher, says that entering the Write Away competition gave her pupils an extra purpose and she thought it could nurture incipient talents. Autobiographical writing can, she says, be a useful means of expression for the quieter ones. HN.
* SECONDARY - MUSIC MADE BY EMPIRES
My first public performance. The audience hushes to an uneasy silence, and I stand high above them, illuminated by the spotlight. I am alone and scared. A million eyes are watching me. They have come to hear me play but for me it is a bigger experience. Tonight I must decide who I am and which music flows through my soul. Which Jennifer am I?
I pause as I put my English violin firmly under my chin and raise the bow of my Chinese inheritance. Sometimes, when both parts of this instrument are played together, the music from my blood mixes. They flow into each other, bringing the beautiful sounds from one country and the understanding from another together in peaceful perfect harmony. They create a melody so powerful, it takes over my very being and gives me strength to play on.
ButI Not always.
For in my household the Chinese Emperor is living with England's Queen. A loving marriage but still two different cultures, histories and life styles. Mum and Dad both love each other and me, but their understanding of life, their ways of expressing love, their way of building a relationship between parent and child can sometimes be so different, so great. When that happens I can find that the cultures clash in my very existence. Am I English? Chinese? Both? Neither? The uncertainty can destroy any melody that is held within me, developing into a discord so powerful it can threaten to destroy my soul, stopping the music.
The audience is still hushed in its uneasy silence, and I still stand high above them, still illuminated by the spotlight. I am alone yet something has changed. I am surrounded by love reaching back through the generations and the cultures. A million eyes are watching me. A million people love me. Chinese, English, they have come to hear me, Jennifer, play. And the music begins.
Jennifer Bailey, 11 Loughton middle school, Milton Keynes
Jennifer's piece began as a poem, but she changed it to meet the rules of the competition. "My motheris from a Chinese background and I have played the violin in public once or twice." She enjoys reading: "I've just read Jacqueline Wilson's The Illustrated Mum and I'm halfway through Jane Eyre. I wouldn't mind being a writer or a scientist." Jennifer's teacher, Linda Wood, found the Write Away booklet helpful, especially the idea that it was acceptable to change what happened to make a more finished piece. HN
SECONDARY - TRAPPED
I watched the fire burn. Dinner's leftovers had been emptied into it and the charred remains of a potato was almost the only thing still burning. As my father rose to shovel more coal into the fire, the wind caused the outside gate to slam shut. Rain was pouring down the window, and it was dark. I was glad I was in a warm living room, watching the latest sketch from the Monty Python team.
"Go and get some more coal from the shed, would you love?" said Dad.
"But look at the weather, Dad!" "Yes, but if you don't go and get some coal, it'll be cold in here as well."
I rose, scowling, angered at his logical frame of mind and stamped through to the back door. I stretched up to find the key, lying on top of the Welsh dresser. The key was stiff in the lock, and the door was hard to open because of the wind. As I walked across the garden to the shed, I was blown sideways. I could barely see because of the heavy rain and I was already soaked to the skin. When I made it to the coal shed, I had to pause to catch my breath. I hated the coal shed. It was pitch dark, cold, smelled funny and I was always tripping over great big lumps of coal in the dark. There was a wicker basket in behind the door, so I began fumbling about for that. I didn't want to close the door, because to be quite honest I was petrified. I found the basket, and made for the top of the coal pile to fill it.
I heard the wind howl, pausing for a moment to decide that I would still rather be outside than in here, then the door slammed shut. I jumped with fright, but the noise must have disturbed a sleeping bird. It began to panic and flap its wings furiously, bashing against the walls in fright. It flew just above my head, and smacked into the wall. Absolute terror gripped my body. I began to run for the door, or at least where I thought the door was, but I slipped on a round lump of coal. I fell, smashing my side into the coal pile and ripping my trousers. This must have really frightened the bird, because it became even more frantic. I could feel my heart beating, and there was a ringing in my ears. Tears were streaming down my face and my side was extremely painful. Bruised, I got up and made for the door again, but the bird flew into me. I felt it fly into my stomach, and I tried to hit it away. It flapped and flapped, now flying around my head. I threw my arms at it, never connecting with it. In a fit of fury and terror, I swung my arm and hit it. Now the only thing I could hear was the wind outside. I stood there, in complete darkness, and I realised I was gripped with shock. I could not think straight and I stood there for a moment, breathing in short gasps. My side ached, I was in a state of shock and my eyes were wide open.
I groped for the door handle, unable to penetrate the darkness. I grew frustrated and started to become even more scared. After what seemed like ages, I found it and flung it open, and ran flat out for the house. I was having trouble breathing and when I reached the door, I started to gasp for air. The door was stiff and, in a fit of rage, I stepped back and kicked it as hard as I could. In an almighty crash, it slammed against the wall. I screamed in pain as a searing pain surged through my foot and my father looked round in astonishment. He had been getting something from the dresser and dropped whatever it was on the ground.
"Steady!" he shouted, then took another look at me. "What happened to you?" he exclaimed.
"In the coal shed - door slammed shut and a a bird flapped and I was scared and..."
"Slow down, son. You're a mess, come here."
Gasping for air, trying to structure a simple sentence, I walked over to him. He wiped my face with a tissue from his pocket and walked me through to the lounge. He sat me down in front of the fire, which although out was still quite warm. My mother saw me and gasped and said "Oh dear, look at you! I'll go and get you a warm drink. You sit there."
Still in shock, I sat down and warmed my hands. As my father left to get something warmer for me to wear, I heard the words: "This parrot is dead! Deceased!" "No he's not, he's just asleep."
Even after that ordeal, I still found this funny. The customer banged the parrot against the counter, then threw it at a wall and demanded a refund. I laughed until I forgot how sore my side was and how my foot throbbed.
Greg Henderson, 14. The Glasgow Academy
Greg likes including aspects of real life in his stories."I do like to see old sketches like the Monty Python one and I enjoy watching drama. I play cricket for the school. I'm not the best cricketer, but I enjoy it."His favourite subjects, though, are physics and chemistry. Greg's teacher, Maggie Price, says her classes took part in a number of discussions based on the Write Away booklet, "about the endings of pieces and the use of language. We don't feel constrained by exams here; creative work is part of the Scottish system." Winning a competition, she says, is a great boost to a young writer's confidence. HN