A line illustration of an open book with a star coming out of it. The illustration is in black lines on a purple background, and the star and other accents are bright yellow.
Social Impact

Creative Student Prize 2021: shortlisted essay and short-form prose

Read Leah Findlay's shortlisted essay, and short-form prose from Elias Daryani, runner up for the 2021 Creative Student Prize.

The following Creative Student Prize submissions were shortlisted from over 400 entries from 14-18 year olds across the UK and Ireland, all responding to the question: what place do books have in your world?

Elias Daryani (runner up)

'Here we have a writer who has confidently expressed their voice, their story and their passion.'

Originally from Iran and now living in England, 17-year-old Elias is one of two runners-up for this year's prize. Elias's submission (below) was described by guest judge Mireille Harper as "invigorating as a read... this feels energetic, vibrant and engaging."

Dead, dry, dull, boring, 
Too long, no time, not interested.
Ages 8 to 15,
Reading wasn’t my thing
I couldn’t sit still
Plus, none of the characters looked like me, 
Talked like me,
Or had the same beliefs as me,
What was the point?
But, one day,
After my neek of a sister dragged me into Waterstones,
A book caught my attention,
Mike Tyson’s autobiography.
His eyes pierced through my soul
With shiny gold writing on the front cover,
I asked my sister to buy it for me
And she told me to:  “Get a real book”,
But little did she know
That this would be the realest book I had ever read.

I spent that whole Christmas holiday
Gobbling every page Tyson had to offer
And although I couldn’t really relate,
Seeing a person of colour
Shine like the gold on the cover
Captivated me
I later realised
That fiction could have the same enchanting effect
Taking me to places I’ve never been, 
But never want to leave, 
Really seeing me, 
When I never felt seen, 
And feeling me, 
When I thought I forgot how to feel

'This question really flicked a switch in my head. Since I started reading books again they have played a great role in my life, but I never gave myself the chance to reflect on my journey with literature.'

This year I set myself a challenge 
To read 30 books before 2022 
I’m on number 26 
And we’re over halfway through   
In 2019, including school books, I only read 2
So big ups Malorie Blackman
For engaging my mind, 
The Kite Runner for making me cry,
And Deepak Chopra for the laws of life.
Not to mention Caleb Femi 
For lyrics of beauty, 
Agard’s poems for being unruly, 
Open Water for the rhythm and words
And The Good Immigrant for hearing my hurt
Currently, I’m reading ‘The Alchemist’
Trying to follow my dreams of creating art
But who would’ve thought Mike Tyson
Would be the one to light the spark.

Katherine Delano

Katherine's Creative Student Prize submission (below) is an essay on black representation in literature, detailing her experiences with fiction books, and her connection to, and then alienation from, literature. In her spare time she writes a fictional horror podcast named Thornville, centred around three Black teens in a town that's 'quite literally trying to kill them'. 

Katherine's essay

A Book is a Mirror:  Black Representation in Fiction     

What is a reader? What is a book to a reader? And what is a book to a black reader?

All my life I’ve been obsessed with stories: I’d read entire series in one week, and re-read them in another. I was well acquainted with my school’s library - I distinctly remember arriving late to a lesson, apologising sheepishly with a pile of books piled just under my chin, footsteps planted as firmly as I could make them so as not to topple the treasure trove of light and imagination nestled in my arms.

When you picture a reader, what do you see?  Do you imagine brown eyes, and dark skin? Kinky hair, broad nose? I’ve always marvelled at the way books can construct entire worlds in my mind, simply by putting words on a page. But as I trekked deeper and deeper into these imaginary universes, my fascination became more than frivolous, and I began to wonder where I fit in... why everyone else managed to see their person reflected in fiction narratives, and I was left with shards of glass that didn’t quite fit right.

As a child, I told the tales of girls who did not look like me. Here were the pre-existent terms of my every story - the prerequisite of my prologues: There once was a girl named Emerald (or Ruby, or Sapphire). Emerald had three horses. Emerald was a beautiful princess, kind, good, and fair. As my love for books grew from childhood to adolescence, so did an uncanny sense of alienation that manifested in the edges of my mind’s eye as a creeping void. A few years back, I discovered an alternative definition of the word ‘fair’ that I’d somehow managed to avoid in my younger years (taken from the Merriam Webster dictionary): marked by impartiality and honesty; free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism; pleasing to the eye or mind especially because of fresh, charming, or flawless quality; having little color or pigmentation; very light - // fair hair // fair skin // a person of fair complexion. Something in my stomach sank. It wasn’t that I thought my use of the word as a kid ruled out the first two meanings I invoked - it didn’t. It was that, in my young mind’s eye, those meanings were only true when accompanied by the third.

'My adolescence saw me trading in negative space - on reading any character that had little to no physical description I'd scramble to think of brown eyes, dark skin, kinky hair, a broad nose, quick!'

Looking back, it’s almost eerie to see the way these books shaped my identity: or lack thereof. My adolescence saw me trading in negative space - on reading any character that had little to no physical description, I’d scramble to think of brown eyes, dark skin, kinky hair, a broad nose, quick! before they took the shape of a white protagonist in my head. I would turn each book this way and that - not flipping between pages of prose, but twisting them towards me: tilting the mirror to see if this time, I might glimpse a reflection that looked something like my own. 

Still now, I scrabble at any representation I can get, and that representation is few and far between; a study in the New York Times’ Just How White Is the Book Industry? (December 11 2020) found that, out of 7,124 of the most popular books, 95% were penned by white authors. I cling to N. K. Jemisin, Tracy Deonn, and Tomi Adeyemi as impactful Black authors I can look up to. On getting my copy of Children of Blood and Bone, I just looked at the cover for a long, long time, gazing at Zélie’s face. She has bone-white hair and eyes, but that wasn’t what my fingers traced. Finally - finally here was a story about a little Black girl, with dark skin, kinky hair, and a broad nose. A resonating warmth spread under my palms; a sense of rightness traveled through my stomach. I was looking into a mirror. Reading Adeyemi’s novel, bringing her story to illumination, there was this constant dissonance. Here were our protagonists: and they were like me. The shock and joy of it bloomed in me every second - fading as the image became obscured by void, and then blooming in me again upon reading prose or descriptors. On the inside cover, here was the author and she looked like me.

Writing my own works, that resistance remains, the void threatening to overtake my mind’s eye and cloud it. But mostly, there’s a vehement wonder and victory in creating a replica of the cultures I grew up with, the people I grew up around. When the void overwhelms me, I take a deep breath. I close my eyes. And I imagine a reader with dark eyes, and with kinky hair. And I picture a mirror gleaming as I place it into her hand with the stories I write. 

Leah Findlay

Leah is a Scottish teen writing about how books help connect her with family members and loved ones, as well as helping her through hard times.

'Books helped me to escape into fictional lands for a little bit, and they then helped me find my place in the world when I was ready to come back.'

Leah's essay

My parents read to me when I was small. Fairytales and fantasies, books about princesses, pirates, witches and dinosaurs. They were my favourite. I knew the words to my favourite storybooks by age five, and I was immensely proud of that.

When I was seven, I read a dictionary on a caravan holiday after ploughing through the stacks of books I had packed. Age eight, I read the entire Harry Potter series in a matter of weeks after borrowing them from a family friend.   Age nine, I would enter bookstores with my parents in tow and exit carrying armfuls of books... Books are not just things to me. They are snapshots of my life, whether it’s a Julia Donaldson picture book reminding me of my dad, an inspirational memoir reminding me of lockdown, or a tatty Rick Riordan novel reminding me of primary school.

Books have been my lifelong joy, and I’ve tried to share them with everyone I know. My friends can attest to this. I send them home with borrowed books in their bags, or endless lists of recommendations they’ll never finish. I have started multiple book clubs over my fifteen years, and am a regular customer in my local book shops. Put simply, if I had to choose between my family or my book collection... I would probably choose my family, but it would take me a while to decide.

'Books have been my lifelong joy, and I've tried to share them with everyone I know.'

But books are not just a fun pastime to me. When my dad was diagnosed with cancer in 2020, I read constantly. Books took me away from my terrifying reality. They helped me to forget the fact that my beloved dad was deteriorating before my eyes - wasting away. The fact that he was losing everything that made him my dad, but was still trying so hard to put on a brave face... I don’t think anyone  knew how badly he was hurting. My dad was the strongest person I have ever met. I am constantly in awe of the strength he must have had to bear his pain the way he did. Books were my relief from my own pain. When I was lost in a book, I didn’t have to think about my fraying family, or my declining mental health. I could disappear into fictional worlds, and forget about my troubles as long as I read.

When my dad died, I buried myself even deeper in my fantasies. I cried for the characters in my books, and pretended that I wasn’t crying for my dad. I imagined myself as these battle-scarred yet triumphant characters I read about, hoping that I could triumph too. Maybe, with the help of my books, I could emerge from my battles victorious, and everything would be fine.    Books helped me to lose myself, but they also helped me find myself. Pouring through the pages of my books, I discovered myself piece by piece. I learned what meant the most to me, what I was passionate about, what I wanted to do with my life. Every time I opened a book, another piece of myself fell into place. My books helped me figure out myself when I was struggling the most. They helped me process my grief over the death of my father. They helped me deal with all of my teenage struggles – friend drama, mental health, school stress and everything else! Wherever I was, I knew that I could always pick up a book and everything would be fine.

'I remember everything that went wrong - and how books made it feel ok.'

So, when I think about what books mean to me, I remember 2020, and the tears I cried. I remember everything that went wrong – and how books made it feel ok. I think of my dad, spending hours reading with me when I was little, and then unleashing me in a bookstore so I could find my next fixation. I remember my mum treating me to a book when I was crying over a difficult exam, or telling my relatives that for my birthday, I was not asking for toys like other kids – I  wanted books. I remember my little sister opening a gift on Christmas to see a book full of illustrations and true stories about some of the women who helped to shape our world, and the delight that we shared as we rushed through the pages together. I think of the excitement I felt when my little brother started reading the same books as me, and the joy I felt when I began leaving books out around the house, hoping he’d lose himself in one like I did. I think of everything books have helped me through, and all the wars we have fought together. But most of all, I think of how grateful I am that my parents read to me when I was small.  

Sign up to the Penguin Newsletter

For the latest books, recommendations, author interviews and more