Over 74,000 kids sent in stories to Radio 2’s 500 Words competition, so-called because that’s how long the stories had to be.
It’s quite extraordinary if you think about it. That’s 37 million words. A huge team of volunteers whittled this unbelievably large pile down, and I have to say that when I received my top-secret package containing the final shortlist I opened it with some trepidation.
What if they were rubbish?
They were written by children, after all. What do children know about writing? About the world? What do they care? I was worried that I was going to struggle to find six that were worthy to be on the winner’s podium. but when I read the very first story I nearly fell out of my chair. it was extraordinary — moving, subtle, insightful, original, confident, professional — and the quality kept up all the way.
I guess that among the 74,000 there must have been a few duds, and, yes, we were reading a tiny, tiny fraction of the submissions, but, even so, I was blown away.
We hear so many negative things about kids these days, about their education, their literacy skills, their behaviour and how they’re all going to murder us in our beds. These stories show a different picture, and a much more accurate one. They’re sensitive, clever, moving and often very funny.
As a children’s writer I do a lot of school visits, and every time I turn up I’m a mess of nerves. Will this be the school full of the kids I’ve been warned about? Will they throw things at me or sit there looking at their mobile phones? And every time my fears prove unfounded.
The kids I meet are engaged and engaging. They’re interested in writers and writing, they want to share ideas and hear new stories. So don’t listen when someone bores on about how books are dying and kids can’t read these days, the little savages.
Kids do read books, and they buy books (perhaps you’ve heard of Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games?). They’re passionate about them. They talk to their mates about them, they blog about them, they tweet and they discuss them on Facebook.
Books are a hugely important part of many kids’ lives, and through computers kids are reading more than ever.
Maybe it’s not Swallows and Amazons or Treasure Island, but a huge amount of their activities on their computers involve reading and writing. Computers have led to a great democratisation of the written word. Now anyone can sit down, start typing and produce a professional- looking piece of work.
And what stories they wrote for the competition! There was science fiction, humour, the second World War, the English Civil War, ghosts, bullies, heroic pets, cows on buses…a whole world of stories.
The 500 Words winner is announced on Chris Evans’s Friday morning show from the Hay Festival
Go to the official 500 Words site on the day for exclusive interviews with the judges