How Running A Writing Contest For Kids Can Change Your Life (or at least your perspective...)
It all began with a phone call.
"Would you be interested in helping to run the school's annual Reading Night," asked a friendly voice at the other end of the line. "I know you're a writer and..."
How many conversations in our writer-lives end like that. "I know you're a writer and...."
"...can you write this press release for me...for free?"
"...can you write an article about underwater basket weaving and its impact on the global economy...for free?"
"...can you read and provide detailed edits on this 150,000 word manuscript for me...for free?"
Come on. You know it happens to you, too. And I never, EVER mind helping, often for free, but I have to admit...this was one of the first times that I was like, "YES! YES PLEASE! LET ME WORK ON A NIGHT THAT CELEBRATES READING WITH ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILDREN AND SHARE AMAZING STORIES AND YES PLEASE I LOVE THIS THANK YOU FOR THINKING OF ME!"
I'm fairly certain that was my exact response, including the ALL CAPS PRONUNCIATION.
Because what's not to love about sharing books with kids? I'm so thrilled my daughter loves to read and write; sharing that with other kids in her school seemed like a wonderful no-brainer.
My early brainstorming sessions included a grand idea: I'd host a writing contest, sort of like the WAR competitions we've had here at LitReactor, but with fewer rules and much less trash talk. I brought the idea to the Reading Night Committee (there's always a committee at an elementary school) and they loved it! "Run with it," was the message I received, so I did.
First I had to find a story prompt, some kind of picture that could inspire a variety of stories from children aging 6-12. Not so simple; it couldn't be too scary or creepy, and I didn't want anything too obvious. I started Googling "old timey photos" (not kidding, I really did), and I finally found it. The perfect picture. Cute, funny, not creepy but for...well, this was it. I'll let you decide if there's anything creepy about it at all.
I thought it was fun! So we printed up some posters with the rules — write a short story, inspired in any way by this photo, and turn it in to the librarian. There'd be a winner for each participating grade level, and prizes (to be discussed later). We gave the kids a pre-spring break deadline, and to our surprise...we got over forty entries in grades 1-5! So exciting, for a first-time a contest.
I wound up with a folder-full of children's stories on the last day before spring break, and I as I carried them home that day, I will honestly say I had no idea what to expect. I had no idea what those stories could possibly hold.
And then I started reading, and received a refresher course on just what it means to be uninhibited. Creative. Excited. Enthusiastic. It's a lesson from which all writers could benefit.
From that one photograph, I received stories that featured guard dogs, magic banjos, and a child whose missing foot caused him to overcome astounding obstacles. I read stories about men in black suits chasing down children in a tale (almost) worthy of publication in some of today's top noir lit mags. I read tales of the Civil War and westward expansion. I read a story with a song that was so musical and fun it was the clear first grade winner. I read a story with a detailed recipe for a berry stew, and instructions on how to begin gold mining. There was a magic eagle that still, amazingly enough, linked back to the photo. There were ghosties and goblins, too...and even some My Little Ponies came out for a spin.
The stories were as diverse as the student body, as uninhibited as children can be. It was an incredible reminder of how much creativity there is in the world, and how fun it is to share it. Sometimes I feel so siloed, hacking away at my stories day in and day out. Sometimes I feel so tapped of creativity, I can't even begin to remember how many ideas can be sparked by one simple picture.
This contest was a great reminder. Sometimes something simple can provide a wealth of inspiration, if only you take a moment to look at it.
And then came the prizes. Oh, the prizes.
We held a big event, on Reading Night, and the writing contest prizes happened to be one of my most brilliant ideas ever.
I invited an actor friend to rally some troops to come read the children's winning stories aloud at Reading Night. I thought it would be fun...but man, it was better than I ever imagined.
The actors received the stories a couple of days before the event. When I heard they were holding a rehearsal I was intrigued. When they showed up and began reading...my heart melted and I almost died.
Hearing actors bring to life the stories of these children was an experience it'll be hard to top. Watching their little faces blush and glow as loud, clear voices gave birth to characters they'd created...it was amazing. The little girl who wrote a song heard her words sung. The chase scenes of the noir-tale were epic, with actors running around on stage, leaping over one another, and laughing the whole time. The berry stew recipe sounded even more delicious as the actors practically drooled, pantomiming stirring a giant cauldron.
We writers all dream of one day seeing our stories on stage, or on the big screen, yes? I know I do. And somehow, with some amazing actors, these children who are part of my community got to see this dream come true.
It reminded me of how to focus on how words sound when writing them. Read passages aloud to make sure they work. Don't be afraid to test out voices on your characters. In short, while writing, don't be afraid to act.
There were so many lessons I learned from the writing contest entries. So many laughs and almost even some tears. I was reminded to be playful and daring. To take risks. To not write as though someone is reading over my shoulder, but to write what I like, and see where it goes. Those children were all so brave and unselfconscious. It was beautiful.
Look. I love kids. I do. Running a writing contest for kids may not be your thing, especially if kids aren't your thing. But I promise you: stand for a moment in a world created by a child, and your own creative coffers will be refilled for a year. Do it. I dare you.I know you'll love it.
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