500 Words: Chris Evans – we have to make written stories better than TV and computer games

"If young people win 500 Words it isn't going to change their life. If they take part it might. It's actually the opposite way around"

Back in 2011, Chris Evans launched a writing competition on his Radio 2 breakfast show. Three years later 500 Words is back and bigger than ever with a massive 90,000 entrants to this year’s competition. After much deliberation an esteemed judging panel consisting of Jacqueline Wilson, Richard Hammond, Charlie Higson, Malorie Blackman and Frank Cottrell Boyce – and chaired by Evans – has selected winners in both the under nine and 10-13 categories to be announced on Friday 31 May at the Hay Festival.

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Following the heated debate to decide on the winning stories, RadioTimes.com sat down with Chris Evans to discuss the reasons behind his competition, what he made of his judging panel and what can be done to get youngsters interested in reading…

Chris, you’re a high-profile advocator of children’s reading and writing – why did you launch the competition?

I invented it because it’s really important to get kids involved in reading and writing early on – I was a rubbish reader at school and even though I could read, for some reason I didn’t engage in it and then when I started to write a couple of books, I really enjoyed the process. I think the more you put in, the more you get out and if you engage in reading, you are the director, the audience and all the actors. You have to do all that when you read a story and you have to do it even more so when you write something. I think that is brilliant for getting kids out of their comfort zone and if you get out of your comfort zone in life, when you go back to what you do usually, you do it so much better. It’s about stimulation, it’s about aspiration… and it’s about perspiration.

Can you tell when different books have influenced different writing styles?

Yes, which can be bad as well as good because they can get overtaken by style or subconsciously imitate some of their hero authors. For me I like the more original ones that are a bit more clunky because it reminds me of myself.

You appointed Richard Hammond as head judge – how would you rate his performance?

Richard was brilliant. He was so engaged in the process and it was so obvious he had read each story in depth.I read all the stories twice but I couldn’t recall them in the detail he was recalling them. It’s not my job to do that because I’m not a judge but that’s important. I thought he was brilliant and he’s very welcome to do it again next year if he wants to.

Do you find it hard to take an impartial role as chair? You must have favourites…

You always go for the David Dimbleby approach as chairman – if you have an opinion, turn it into a question so it doesn’t sound like an opinion. I did that a few times!

What do you think can be done to encourage young people to read?

It’s all about environment – giving them heroes. The Danny Boyles and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s of the world. Not only can you write a book but you can also write the Olympic Opening Ceremony. What’s really important is not so much the kids listening or reading, it’s us being able to tell good enough stories to actually capture their imagination. So it’s up to us to write stories to engage kids. You’ve got to make your written stories that children are reading better than computer games and better than telly. That’s a challenge for everyone and we’ve all got to get on with it. 

Do you find it hard saying no to all the young writers who didn’t win?

The important thing is the fact they’ve written a story. This is such a positive process that there is no downside to it. There are so many people entering and it is such a difficult thing to do that I think the expectation of a child winning – and I could be incorrectly presumptuous here – is miniscule. And besides, if they win it isn’t going to change their life. If they take part it might. It’s actually the opposite way around.

Read what Richard HammondMalorie Blackman and Jacqueline Wilson had to say about their experiences of judging this year’s 500 Words entrants.

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