Jo Withers, who lives in Adelaide, South Australia with her husband, four children and 23 pets, has won the 2017 Caterpillar Story for Children Prize with her story Job Seekers’ Club.
Withers, who is inspired to write by her work in a kindergarten, was also highly commended in the Caterpillar Poetry Prize last year.
"I was immensely proud to see my work in The Caterpillar and the recognition gave me the confidence to keep writing," she said. "The Caterpillar is aptly named, as it magically transforms the written word into a thing of beauty. I am amazed and delighted to have been chosen as the winner of the Caterpillar Story for Children Prize."
"Jo's darkly comic take on the plight of evil fairytale characters in their search for gainful employment is just what's needed in these dreary days," said The Caterpillar editor Rebecca O'Connor. "Children and adults alike will delight in the antics of the Evil Queen and Rumpelstiltskin as they practice interview techniques – and the twist at the end is delicious."
Jessamy Corob Cook, an actor living in London, won second prize for her story No Ordinary Stamp. "Set during the second World War, this is a heartbreaking story that carefully draws the young reader into the world of a young girl who has to be brave and set out alone, leaving her family behind her, but she brings with her a sense of hope and wonder, inspired by her ailing grandfather," said The Caterpillar publisher Will Govan. Jessamy is currently working on her first full-length story for middle-grade readers.
Third prize went to Richard J Jones for his story Spell Cat for Appearing. Jones spends a lot of time talking about writing with his dog Daisy – and, now and again, actually settles down to do some. He is a lecturer in EnglishlLiterature at the Open University. "Some of you might recognise Richard as the winner of the inaugural Caterpillar Story for Children Prize," saild O'Connor. "This story is a surreal, sensational delight that will transport its readers into an alternative world where they become part of the narration and the words come alive."
Withers, hopes to make the trip from Australia to Ireland in the next year, to take up her prize of two weeks at The Moth Retreat, and she will also receive €500. Cook and Jones will receive €300 and €200 respectively. All three stories feature in the winter issue of The Caterpillar, available to purchase in select bookstores and at thecaterpillarmagazine.com.
The judges also commended stories by RG Allen (Sweden), Claire Dopson (UK), Stephanie Hutton (UK), Sophie Kirtley (UK), Mike Lucas (Australia), Heather Reid (UK) and Michael Stevens (Ireland).
Details of the €1,000 Caterpillar Poetry Prize, which is now open, are also available at thecaterpillarmagazine.com.
Job Seekers' Club
By Jo Withers
‘Is this thing working?’ He tapped the microphone. ‘Can you hear me at the back?’
Nods from the small group assembled in the hall.
‘Great. Welcome to the first meeting of Job Seekers’ Club. My name is BB and I’m going to take you through your “Journey to Jobs”.’
He pressed a button and ‘Journey to Jobs’ was displayed on the projector screen behind him, with pictures of smiling people doing different jobs.
‘For many of you, the journey has been difficult. People like us have had to work harder to achieve normal things. Many of you feel you’ve been treated unfairly.’
A green warty hand flew up in the audience.
‘Yes, do you have something you feel you’d like to share? Stand up and introduce yourself.’
A humpbacked oafish individual rose from his chair.
‘Hello, I’m Barry. You probably know me as “The Troll Under the Bridge” or “The Grumpy Troll” from the billy goat incident.’
A few people in the crowd nodded.
‘Well, I just wanted to say how unfair it is that, because of one thing that happened a long time ago, I’m labelled for the rest of my life. I’m not always grumpy. I was only grumpy that day because those goats started trip-trapping at six in the morning. Don’t try to tell me that’s normal behaviour!’
The troll looked grumpy for a moment, then realised he wasn’t helping his case and rearranged his features into a crooked smile.
‘It just really bothers me because no one forgets it. I went for a job interview on Tuesday – I wore my best loincloth and everything – but it’s always the same, no one gives you a chance. When I called later for feedback the manager said he found it “disconcerting” that I sat under the desk and leapt out to answer questions. Everyone has bad habits. I can’t help it if I’m more comfortable under things.’
A witch sitting next to the troll reached up and gave him a comforting pat on the hump.
‘Thank you for sharing that experience, Barry.’ BB took over on stage. ‘At least you tried your best. Another step forward in your “Journey to Jobs”.’ He gave a wide toothy grin. ‘Let’s look at what we could do differently next time. Could I have a volunteer?’
A few hands went up in the crowd.
‘You, in the second row, small well-dressed goblin-type man – up you come. Give him a big clap everyone.’
A knobbly, toady little man hobbled onto the stage.
‘Now, we are going to role-play a job interview. I am pleased to see that you are smartly dressed – first impressions count. If you would like to take the chair opposite me, we can begin.’
‘Welcome, my good man,’ said BB in his role as interviewer, ‘I see that you are interested in becoming a sales representative for our company. What is your name?’
The knobbly goblin said nothing.
BB cleared his throat, ‘What is your name, please?’
The knobbly goblin crossed his arms in defiance.
‘How can we conduct this interview if you won’t answer the first question?’ BB was becoming irritated. ‘Are you nervous?’
The goblin shook his head.
‘Then what is your name please, sir?’ BB asked again.
‘I’m not telling you!’ shouted the goblin. ‘You have to guess. And while you’re thinking about it you can sit in a tower and spin straw into gold for the king.’
BB rolled his eyes. How did he always manage to pick the odd ones?
‘Okay, Rumpelstiltskin, I think you have a few issues to work on before you’re ready for your first interview. I’m holding a class next week “The Journey Before the Journey to Jobs”. I’d suggest that you sign up.’ He helped the goblin off the stage.
‘Would anyone else like to volunteer?’
A long slender arm stretched up through the crowd. The arm was covered in black lace and ended in sharp, pointed fingernails.
BB gulped. ‘Would anyone else like to volunteer?’ he asked hopefully.
No one else put up their hand.
‘Very well, up you come.’
An impossibly thin woman, dressed all in black, rose slowly from her seat and began to glide in the direction of the stage.
BB shuddered. ‘Hello,’ he said nervously, shaking the woman’s brittle hand. ‘We’re now going to role-play the first day of your new job. Let’s pretend it’s your first day as cashier in a fast-food restaurant. What is your name?’ BB asked nervously.
‘Ah, that leads me to a great employment tip. Sometimes it’s better on your “Journey to Jobs” to not give your actual name. I changed mine to my initials, BB – you could change yours to, erm, Evelyn. Evelyn Queen. Let’s try again. What’s your name please?’
‘Evelyn,’ the Evil Queen spat nastily.
‘Great, nice to meet you. Today, Evelyn, you will be taking orders and giving out meals. As you will be serving food, you are required to wear this little blue hairnet.’
The Evil Queen glowered at BB. She plopped the net on top of her thorny metal crown.
‘Great. Now, I’ll pretend to be the customer. I’ve just received my order but my burger’s cold and I’ve brought it back to complain. Let’s see how you go.’ BB cleared his throat, ‘Excuse me, miss, I bit into the burger you served me and it’s still frozen in the middle.’
The Evil Queen narrowed her eyes and stared at BB.
‘What have you got to say for your poor service?’
The Evil Queen reached inside her robe and pulled out her wand.
BB nervously continued, ‘Apologise at once or I shall complain to your manag-’
The Evil Queen pointed her wand at B.B’s head and shot out a lightning bolt. He leapt out of the way quickly, narrowly avoiding it singeing his ear.
‘It’s early days. It’s normal to make mistakes on the first day. Try to learn from them and do things differently next time. Too many errors can lead to negative customer feedback.’
The Evil Queen took a small pocket mirror from her gown. ‘Mirror mirror in my hand, who’s the best worker in the land?’ She snarled at BB. ‘If anyone beats me I’ll have their head!’
BB grabbed the mirror and snapped it shut before it could reply. ‘Obviously you are the best worker in the land, my dear Queen. Let’s give her a big round of applause everyone. Thank you for role-playing the perfect first day.’ He helped the Queen down from the stage.
‘Before we finish today’s meeting, I’d like to share one of our success stories. The lady who is about to join me on stage has completed her “Journey to Jobs” and has been running her own business for almost two years. Let’s give a big welcome to the Wicked Witch.’
A funky lady dressed in a black tracksuit with several oversized necklaces and a backwards baseball cap danced onto the stage.
‘My name is Witch, I can help you Stitch, I’ll clean your Ditch, it’ll make me Rich!’ she rapped.
BB danced along enthusiastically. ‘Great to meet you again “Wicked” Witch,’ he laughed. ‘Tell us a bit about your business.’
‘I used all the stories about me in a positive way. I’m a great cook – look at the entire house I baked. I keep the place clean – I carry a broom wherever I go. I can deal with fussy eaters – Hansel’s weight doubled while he lived with me.’
There were cheers of appreciation from the crowd.
‘I’m now the highest paid nanny in the kingdom! And I have BB to thank for putting me on the right path and starting my “Journey to Jobs”.’
The crowd rose from their chairs and clapped and whooped in a standing ovation.
‘Thank you all for coming. See you at the next Job Seekers’ Club.’
The crowd collected their belongings and began to leave.
BB turned off the projector. He began to stack chairs.
There was a knock at the door.
‘Come in,’ he shouted without turning around. ‘You’re too late for the session, I’m afraid.’
‘No, it’s not that. I own the bakery next door. I had these cakes left over and I thought I’d hand them out to your crowd – get some free advertising. But I see everyone’s already left …’
BB turned around. A young woman stood in the doorway wearing a hooded red sweater. The sweater said ‘Cathy’s Cakes’ in white letters.
‘I’ll just take them down to the old folks in the retirement village instead,’ the woman continued.
‘Why don’t I help you,’ BB offered. ‘I’m finished here, I’ll carry the basket.’
‘That’s awfully kind of you. I’m Cathy,’ she laughed, pointing at her sweater. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Mr Wolf, but my friends call me BB.’
‘That’s unusual. What does BB stand for?’
‘I’ll explain while we walk. It looks like it might rain. Maybe you should put your hood up.’