The winners of a creative writing competition aimed at raising awareness of the need for better support for vulnerable older children have been announced.
Gender identity, the burden on young carers and mental health struggles were among the issues highlighted by the winners of The Children’s Society’s competition, some inspired by moving personal experiences.
The competition was part of the national charity’s Seriously Awkward campaign, which aims to secure more help for vulnerable 16 and 17-year-olds with everything from support with housing and access to education and employment, to the risk of child sexual exploitation.
Entrants were tasked with crafting a fictional story of up to 2,000 words based upon the ups and downs faced by teenagers of this age.
Judges included best-selling author Emma Healey, who was inspired to get involved by her own experiences of teenage depression.
There are two joint winners in the 16-25 category: Jamie Moody, 16, from Tetbury, Gloucestershire, for their story My Name Is Connor Mayhew and I Am A Man, and Rebekah McDermott, 25, from near Brixton, south London, for her piece Mud. The winner in the over-26 category is Jess Holliday, 51, from Eastbourne, for her story Night Call.
The winners will receive expert advice and feedback on their writing from literary agencies – Jamie from Darley Anderson Children’s Book Agency, Rebekah from AM Heath Literary Agents, and Jess from David Higham Associates.
Jamie, who said they were ‘surprised and delighted’ to win, tells the story of a teenager, Connor, who wears dresses, but whose questioning of his gender leads to domestic abuse and forces him to leave home.
The story was inspired by Jamie’s own personal struggles with gender identity. Although they didn’t go through abuse like Connor and maintained a positive relationship with their parents, they experienced bullying at school.
They describe themselves as being assigned female at birth, but changed their name to Jamie aged 13 after identifying themselves as non-binary – meaning they don’t wholly identify as male or female. Jamie had earlier come out as bi-sexual.
“I’ve always wanted to write stories like this and help put more of a spotlight on this issue,” said Jamie. “It’s really vital for young people to get the support they need because without it there can be a big long-term impact.”
Rebekah’s story tells how a girl, Judith, and her parents, respond to the arrival of a Polish family in town. Despite coming from a seemingly supportive family Judith faces emotional difficulties caused by the kind of pressures faced by many older children.
Rebekah, who works for Bloomsbury Publishing and writes under the name Rebekah Fellows, said she was ‘thrilled’ to win. “I enjoyed writing the story and found the theme inspiring as a writing prompt, so I’m very pleased that others enjoyed reading it,” she said. “Luckily, I grew up with a supportive network of family and friends. But I did want to depict that sense of isolation that I think everyone at some point feels in their school life, in that period between being a teenager and becoming an adult.”
Jess, who is in the second year of an Open University creative writing MA, said she was ‘really delighted’ to have won with her story about a girl, Emmie, getting up at night to help her mum, who has multiple sclerosis.
“I was the girl in that story, a young carer looking after my mum Sally and it’s based upon an experience we shared one night many years ago,” she said.
Sally was a single parent, and Jess said that although a district nurse visited her mum, there was no support for her or her three siblings as young carers.
“It’s similar for young carers today – it’s a lot of responsibility and it can be difficult to cope,” added Jess. “There are organisations which help but it’s so important to have links outside the home and to raise awareness that lots of young people experience this. So to be a part of doing something about it is important to me.”
Emma Healey, whose latest novel, Whistle in the Dark, tells the story of a teenager, Lana, who went missing, said: “All the competition stories I read touched on how frightening the world can be for young people, and how difficult it can be to admit that, or find someone helpful to talk to.
“This definitely corresponds to my own experience of adolescence, and more needs to be done to provide young people with the support they need.”
The Children’s Society wants to see more help for vulnerable older children – including those designated by councils as being ‘in need’ – and would like to see support continue when young people turn 18 where it is still needed.
Matthew Reed, Chief Executive of The Children’s Society, which ran the competition in partnership with Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House,said: “We had a fantastic response to our competition, and the theme struck a chord with many aspiring writers who understand how difficult life can be for 16 and 17-year-olds, some inspired by moving personal experiences.
“This age can be a tricky time for any young person as they approach milestones like leaving school, or seeking work. When these coincide with significant issues like mental health problems, domestic abuse or the risk of homelessness, things can be really overwhelming.
“Yet too often these vulnerable children are wrongly dismissed as troublesome teenagers who are old enough to deal with their own problems.
“That’s why our Seriously Awkward campaign is calling for better support for these young people to help them address these issues before they escalate and give them a better chance of a happy future.”
The winning stories can be read here.