500 Words: Richard Hammond on why children’s writing is so powerful

"There is a huge resource of young people's imaginations out there and they're unfettered and untarnished by experience. They're fresh and new and vigorous and brave"

Back in 2011, Chris Evans launched a new initiative on his Radio 2 breakfast show – a short story writing competition that tasked youngsters to pen a narrative in 500 words or under to be judged by an expert panel. Now in it’s third year, the competition has attracted an immense 90,000 entrants, whittled down to a shortlist of 50 to be deliberated over by this year’s judges – Jacqueline Wilson, Malorie Blackman, Charlie Higson, Frank Cottrell Boyce – and head judge Richard Hammond.

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Ahead of this morning’s winners announcement, RadioTimes.com spoke to the Top Gear and Total Wipeout presenter about feeling intimidated by his fellow judges, the future of reading and why he’s too scared to write any fiction of his own…

So, head judge Richard Hammond – how did it feel being in charge of a debate between such established authors? Were you intimidated?

I was quite nervous because you’re walking into a pretty intimidating room full of actual real-life very highly-accomplished writers. But it was also a room full of enthusiasm and passion and it was really good fun. There were no actual arguments, no views held in ignorance – they were all well-founded and justified. Everyone was open to debate and discussion and as a result a lot of stories were re-examined and re-read and I saw things I’d missed. When you start to whittle them down and read them in isolation, you see things tonally or thematically or structurally that you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. You can always feel in the room when somebody’s reading one – that definite sense of, “Oh, hang on a minute – this is something special.”

Was it hard to remember details of all the different stories – there were fifty of them, after all!

To be honest, I thought sitting down to read them was going to be hard work but it simply wasn’t. All fifty are still in your mind because all of them – whether they’re winners, finalists, wherever they fall in the pecking order – at the end of the day are extremely good. So you’re left with a bunch of very strong images, visually and emotionally, that stay with you and can be referred back to so you only have to hear a title mentioned and you can remember it which is a credit to the writers. That’s powerful.

Do you think that’s particularly the case in writing produced by young people?

There is a huge resource of young people and children’s imaginations out there and they’re unfettered and untarnished by experience. They’re fresh and new and vigorous and brave and boy has that been borne out by everything we’ve read from this competition – in the young writers even more so. There’s absolutely no sense of self-consciousness. They’re not writing for effect – they’re simply wanting to tell a story because it’s popped up in their imagination and they want to put it across as best they can. And that means their technical mastery is entirely natural – there’s no affectation to it, no cynicism in the writing of it which is amazing. As a result we sit down and read a bunch of incredible, memorable, powerful, moving, frightening stories.

Nowadays young people are often more likely to reach for a TV remote or games console than a book – what can we do to get them reading again?

I’d like to be wildly optimistic and say I think there’s a self-writing mechanism that exists within us that I think common sense always fixes. Reading is something we’ll gravitate back towards – it won’t ever go away and I think the writing that’s available for younger readers now means they will want to read. And it won’t be able to come simply by offering reward. The reward has to be the fun of reading and it’s geat fun – it can take you to different places and it’s powerful. That won’t go away. Why would it? It might slim down a bit but then we’ll suddenly realise, “Hang on a minute, that was brilliant.” I don’t think there’s any cause for panic because it is with such merit. In the meantime, competitions like this are so important in making it exciting and presenting it to children through those media that they follow, be it radio or television. I think longer term it will be alright.

You’re a big reader yourself – do you have any plans to write children’s books of your own? 

I don’t think I’d ever be brave enough. I’ve written for adults but again, not fiction – it’s something I’d love to do but I don’t think I have the confidence to do that either!

What about all the young people entering the 500 Words competition…

They’re better and braver than I am!

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

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