When I set up the Children’s Short Story Competition a couple of weeks ago, I never imagined it would garner so much interest. I started with six judges – Anne Griffin, Helen Cullen, Cecelia Ahern, Paul Murray, Claire Kilroy and myself – thinking that we might get a couple of hundred entries at most.
A week later, that number was approaching 6,000, and many of Ireland’s best-known writers – Dermot Bolger, Eoin Colfer, Roddy Doyle, Sarah Webb, Joseph O’Connor, Kevin Power, Louise O’Neill, Alex Barclay, Anne Enright and Donal Ryan, not to mention a team of readers from Penguin Random House Ireland – got involved to lend a hand.
I’m grateful to all of them for being part of this, to Joe Duffy and Liveline, who did all they could to publicise the competition, and to National Book Tokens, who doubled the original prize fund of €3,600.
What I’ve learned from this experience
1. Given an unexpected break from school, the children of Ireland do not necessarily want to lie on the sofa doing nothing, but are eager for activity, engagement and, most of all, to be listened to.
2. Their imagination is boundless. As seen from the three category winners published here today, the stories ranged across genres, with each writer finding a way to express him or herself through ideas that were introspective, eccentric, funny, sad, inexplicable… but never boring.
3. Of course it’s the times we’re going through, but they’re thinking a lot about mortality right now. “Nothing like being a teenager in a pandemic,” Anne Enright wrote in her email when she returned her list of winners. “They are all obsessed with death.”
4. Boys in the 6-10 category love writing about those parts of the body that are usually hidden beneath underwear. Apparently, they all want to be doctors.
5. If you run a competition, don’t move the deadline forward when you become inundated with entries. And if you do, move it back as quickly as possible. Don’t ever mess with parents when they’re trying to keep the kids quiet for five minutes.
Many of the judges expressed how much fun they had reading these pieces, much of the enjoyment coming from the fact that young writers refuse to censor themselves. They’re as happy creating stories about pandemics as they are about “the Varadakator”. They like mysteries, gruesome schools and rugby-playing robots. They’ll write notes on grief and create dinosaurs who love pizza. They’ll imagine what it’s like to live inside a snow globe or to make a pass at one of Timothée Chalamet’s cast-offs. They are ceaselessly inventive.
Hopefully, this competition will encourage kids to stay creative while we go through this shared experience. After all, no one has to stay two metres away from their imaginations and you can’t self-isolate from a good idea.
Winners of the competition are posted on johnboyne.com and will receive their book tokens, by e-mail, within the next two weeks.
CATEGORY: 6-10 YEARS OLD
WINNER: Tom O'Flaherty, age 9, Ballyagran National School, Limerick
Eddie is a whole 60 years old, bent over with a hump. His long coat won't close in the cold wind. He wears a flat cap that he lifts to scratch his head, which is crawling with nits. They run down his neck, around his collar. Itchy, scratchy, itchy, scratchy.
At night he sleeps in the shop doorway using a charity blanket. He feels very cold when he wakes up. As the day goes on, he becomes hungry and bored. Eddie rummages for food in the street bins. He mutters curses. If you pass him, he will swear at you, lifting his cap. Itchy scratchy, itchy scratchy.
Eddie lost his job, money and his home. He couldn’t afford to pay the bills. It wasn’t long before he was living on the street. What he wants more than anything is food and a home.
One day as Eddie walked, itching and scratching, itching and scratching, he saw something shiny. It was a brand new €1 coin. He held it in his hand, deciding what to do. He would spend it in the Centra! In the shop, instead of buying food, he bought a lotto card. Gripping the card, he scratched it with his dirty nails. Itchy scratchy. He won a whole €80! Laughing, he hid it under his cap. Itchy, scratchy, itchy, scratchy.
He decided to buy a tent, a sleeping bag and food. The shopkeepers were glad to see him leave as they started to go itchy scratchy, itchy scratchy.
Eddie pitched his tent and someone else pitched beside him. The stranger lit a fire and called to Eddie, offering heat and Eddie offered him food. The lotto brought more than money to Eddie.
You can see them there now. Itchy scratchy, itchy scratchy.
CATEGORY: 11-14 YEARS OLD
WINNER: Ryan Coughlan, age 14, Waterpark secondary school, Waterford
We walk into the conference room.
Our shuttle had recently arrived back to our home planet from our long travels to the incredible new solar system X-25. We had been tasked with landing on and researching a planet dubbed XT-14, from where we had received an interesting signal.
As captain I will be answering any questions.
We take our seats at the stage. New planets are always important, so the GSA always make major announcements publicly by the crew.
“Firstly, I want to thank the Global Space Agency and everyone who supported us on our voyage.”
News cameras film us silently as the crowd applaud. One hand raises silently.
“Captain, can you confirm life on XT-14?”
“We can confirm life on the planet. We have even brought back some plant samples.”
More hands raise.
“Captain, there is one main question everyone wants to know. Can you confirm sentient life?”
I sigh. I knew this was coming. We had spent months on that planet and it still breaks my heart.
“There was indeed life on that planet. They were very intelligent. We found satellites and even a space station, much like our own, orbiting XT-14. Using skeletons and various paintings, we know they are a cousin species to us.”
Pictures of various skeletons and digital recreations appear behind me. They were much like us but had large differences, such as their skin colours or hair.
“They seem to have gotten to the technological stage we reached 150 years ago. They mastered communication and weaponry but hadn’t quite reached biological enhancements. Like other species, they caused their own demise due to nuclear fallout.”
Slowly, one hand raises.
“Have you found the planet’s local name?”
"According to computers we found, they called the planet Earth. The species were called Homo Sapiens."
CATEGORY: 15-18 YEARS OLD
WINNER: Emma Broderick, age 17, Muckross Park College, Dublin
The Little Red Balloon
There once was a little boy
Who had a red balloon.
He took his red balloon everywhere
To the park
On the bus
He tied it to his bed when he fell asleep.
The red balloon loved the boy
But she also dreamed of the sky.
When the boy played in the park
The red balloon would look up
And see the clouds
White and fluffy
And the sky
Big and blue
And would wish
Her string wasn't so short
So she could fly
Up and up
And meet the stars that kept waving at her
Through the gap in the little boy's curtains
When he was fast asleep.
The red balloon got smaller and smaller.
She was getting old
And knew she would never touch the sky.
So she would cry
And shrink a little more.
The boy didn't understand why the red balloon
Was so sad.
He tried to make her happy
By throwing her a party.
At the party
She met loads of different balloons
All different colours and sizes
But none were the same colour as the sky.
The next day
The boy went to the park
And brought the red balloon with him.
He went on the swings
And flew higher and higher.
The balloon looked up
And saw the sky
Closer than ever before.
Suddenly a gust of wind
Blew through the playground
And into the little boy's hand
And grabbed the string
And tossed it high into the air
And the little red balloon flew
Up and up
And up some more
Touching the sky the whole way
If you are reading this article on The Irish Times app, click here for full list of winners.