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?
Poet and guest judge Yomi Sode described Amaal's story as "so, so perfect in its pace, repitition and tension." When writing an introduction to the story, sixteen year-old Amaal, who has recently arrived in England from Lebanon, said: "This story is set in the Lebanese Civil War, which the Western world has no mind for. I saw a picture of a boy reading a book in the middle of a blitzed street a while ago and I’ve put those two things together to convey my own love of literature in Lebanese turmoil. Words can’t express how important books are to me. And if possible, they’re even more important to the character in my story. They literally save her life. When everything else is gone, words remain the universal safe place. I write from a very personal position with infinite love for books and Beirut."
Amaal's short story
The cover is hanging on by skeletal threads, the spine is cracked like a pistachio nut and the title has faded into history, but it’s perfect. Peter Pan by JM Barrie, the Arabic translation, tucked into the lining of a thirteen-year-old girl’s trousers.
Her name is Zeina but at this time of day she is Nobody – just a shadow smudged against crumbling houses; entire rooms bare to the elements with limp tarpaulin fixtures taking up the rest. On all sides, silence stacks between bullet-peppered walls and piles of concrete. Usually everyone would be in the shelters by now rather than smoking black market cigarettes in their homes or sweeping thresholds. Under their feet, rats rejoice, and someone’s forgotten basket of tangerines speckle grey with mould.
The reason? No bombs today. The radio said it, the soldiers said it and Zeina’s mother said it. Simple as that. If Mama said there are no bombs today, there are no bombs today. Yet somewhere overhead, tender blue sky bruises purple as war planes and sunset crease the horizon. The radio didn’t see them, the soldiers didn’t see them, and somehow, Zeina’s mother didn’t see them. Nobody did, because blind trust is a dangerous weapon so early on in war. There are no expectations. Pity the people, as Gibran says. How can they expect anything in this level of hell?
The book presses into Zeina’s stomach as she scrambles over rivers of dust where pavement is supposed to be. Rubble crests and dips in tidal waves throughout the city. Her mother jokes that Beirut’s population have all become professional rock climbers. Gone is the Paris of the Middle East. All that’s left in Zeina’s world is wasteland, sirens, and books. She often wonders if this is what the end of the world feels like. Yesterday, Ammo Habib’s garage shop was shelled. She has to pass by it to get to the end of the street. Car magazines flutter beneath shards of glass. Engine oil sticks to the soles of her feet. The air tastes of melted car parts and suddenly she has tears in her eyes, because Habib’s garage had been around since cars had been around. A tiny, singed sock belonging to his infant son, Marwan, lays innocently on the ground.
Her destination is a trapdoor, next to a wad of barbed wire that nearly snags her scabby knee, next to an apartment block miraculously unharmed by the bombing. People say a sniper is up there, but every time they go to flush him out, the roof is barren. Zeina remembers a time where her neighbours barbecued sticks of chicken taouk, lamb kafta, crackly onions and fresh aubergines on that roof in springtime when the weather was just right for it. At night, they’d bask in a haze of lemon and mint hookah, powered by the leftover coals of the man’al. Someone would bring out a drum to sing and the others would play raucous games of cards till four o’clock in the morning.
Now, the block is empty save a family of flea-infested cats. Barbecues are unheard of when queues for bread are two hours long. The country is barely surviving on ration cigarettes, let alone hookah. People still sing, though. War can’t take everything away. That’s what Zeina tells herself as she yanks open the door leading to the abandoned basement, cradling her book, hoping no one has seen her. For a moment, the darkness suffocates, but then a match flares and life is once again worth living. ‘Al maktab-elsiriyeh.’ The secret library.
There are five of them: Roula, the khodarji’s daughter, who prefers poetry over counting her father’s fruit and veg. Charbel, a boy living with his aunt and uncle but with no real family at all. The twins, George and Ghada, silent till somebody mentions Rumi or Hafiz. And Zeina, librarian and founder of the maktab. They say very little. They only meet up on guaranteed ‘No Bomb Days’ and sit in darkness because of matchstick shortages. They have nothing in common except the fourteen-and-a-half books in the basement. Nothing would’ve brought them together besides this ink on paper and the war planes now circling above the clouds. “Peter Pan tonight?” someone asks. “Yes,” is all Zeina replies. She closes the trapdoor with a thud and whisks them away to Neverland in the remaining inches of candle wick.
Mama was wrong. The thing about bombs is that they just don’t care. All they do is what they’re told. That night, Ammo Habib joined his baby. The unharmed apartment disintegrated. The family of cats lost their fleas. Mama disappeared. Everyone died until the rescue team found the secret library. Beirut whispers that it was luck that saved the children’s lives. Zeina knows that really, it was the books.
In her submission Amy, who is 15 years old, wanted to share her passion for literature and books, after being encouraged to apply for the Creative Student Prize by a teacher at her school. She said, "I think that it's really important to believe in your passion for writing; to write stories and poetry in the hope that it will brighten or enlighten the reader, because it's something that matters to you or that you want to change about society."
Amy's short story
The Collection of Old and Rare Books
Soleil stood in the middle of the bustling street, staring at her reflection in the window of an old bookshop. The sounds of cars nearby faded and she didn’t notice as people brushed briskly past her, rushing across the street and talking distractedly into their mobile phones. She had stood in that exact position after work for the past four days. Now Soleil looked up at the big shop sign, printed in gold cursive letters: ‘Lumère’s: The Collection Of Old And Rare Books’. There was something about the words, or perhaps the design, that caught Soleil’s eye. The shopkeeper always stood near the window, occasionally glancing up with soft eyes to watch the street. With one last quick glance up at the sign, she pushed open the door and walked in.
“Hello, dearie. Finally decided to come inside have you?” The old woman at the till stared intently at her, her friendly gaze attentive as she came closer. Soleil blushed. “The name; it intrigued me.” The woman nodded, pushing the register back into the till with a click. “That’s me, that is. Lumère. Mrs Lumère, I am.” “Ah, I see. Nice to meet you.” “Looking for any book specific, were you?” she asked, emerging from behind the till. Soleil shook her head. “Not really. I just want to look around.” “Well, you just give me a shout if you need anything.” She smiled warmly, brushing her hands together. Soleil smiled and wandered down the aisle on the left, scanning the shelves for anything that caught her eye. There were rows and rows, on shelves ten feet high, of books with old fraying spines; some hardback, others thin and worn. Many were light or dark brown with gold lettering, perhaps from the same collection. Fingering the embellished letters, she gently slid one of them from the shelf. She opened the cover and felt the gold thread that pulled the spine taut. After glancing over her shoulder to check she wasn’t being watched, she brought it up to her nose and inhaled the scent of the pages. How many pairs of hands had felt the cover? Had the story inside pushed its reader to tears, or made them laugh, or be unable to put it down? Closing the cover once more, she carefully pushed the book back onto the shelf.
For half an hour Soleil wandered through the aisles, occasionally pausing to remove a book from its shelf, before returning it once more after she’d scanned the first few pages, disappointed. But Soleil felt she couldn’t leave without buying something, especially after Mrs Lumère had been so friendly. After a few more minutes searching, she felt a tap on her shoulder as she bent down to select another book. “Can’t find anything?” Mrs Lumère smiled, with tired eyes that wrinkled at the edges. Soleil didn’t quite know how to respond. “Don’t worry dearie, it’s quite an unpopular genre; sometimes I think they are perhaps rare for a reason.” She laughed and Soleil felt quite relieved. “I do have a few books of perhaps a more modern nature, if you’d like to have a look? Hold on.” She found a shelf further down and ran her finger along the spines. “Ah,” she said, retrieving a brown, worn book with threadbare corners. “...this might be more to your taste?” Soleil thanked her, and opened the cover. ‘A 21st Century Guide To Feminist Literature: A Collection Of Diary Entries By History’s Bravest Women’. She grinned. “Take a seat on one of the old armchairs if you like.” And so, Soleil sat down on a check wingback chair in the corner of the shop, and turned the first page.
It was two hours until Soleil finally looked up from reading, and that was only because the rain was pattering against the windows, the sky a dusty orange for the sun had begun to set. As she glanced round the shop, she noticed that Mrs Lumère was no longer at the till. “Mrs Lumère?” she called, peering through the gaps in the shelves. There came no answer. Soleil got up from her seat and walked down every aisle, but could not find her. “Mrs Lumère?” she called again, louder this time. “Yes, dearie? What’s the matter?” Soleil spun around. There, at the till, stood Mrs Lumère, about to lock the register. “There you are. No, nothing’s the matter. I just couldn’t seem to find you.” “Couldn’t find me? I wasn’t the one entranced by that dusty old book.” She winked and Soleil gave a brief laugh. She returned to her seat to put the book back, brushing her fingertips across the embellished letters once more. It was getting dark outside, after all.
Israel Adebare Adekoya
When asked to about the inspiration behind the below poem, Israel said: "I read the prompt and the first thing that came to mind was that my future has always been limited between the pages of a book by my teachers and parents. It is a topic that hits me deeply because I've been told poetry and spoken word doesn't pay the bills and my passion should be discarded. So I wrote the poem in accordance to what I feel."
I'm sure you've heard that the rest of your life depends on your GSCE's,
Well, that's the problem you see,
I don’t know how they got to that conclusion,
That when you’re writing your exams you’re also writing your future,
School has killed more talents than poverty in most situations,
A child's passion is in dancing yet you ask them to solve quadratic equations,
They expect one student to excel in 6 or 7 classes and be perfect,
But still say one teacher cannot teach all of the subjects,
Let them do whatever they want, sports, sing, dance, cook,
Stop limiting our success between the pages of a book,
Even when what we want in life is apparent,
We still have to go out out of our way to please our parents,
"School is the most important" is the foundation they have laid,
Your child’s mental health is more important than their grades,
The mansion you think you're building with education could end up becoming a cave,
Even with your master's degree, you could end up becoming a slave,
Because after graduating you learn what the real world is about,
You have to put your certificate aside and hustle like a drop out,
So after wasting years in school and still not being able to live a life that you really want to,
Then you haven't failed school, it's the school that has failed you.
Keira is a 16 year-old passionate activist and avid reader, who loves writing, and especially poetry. Keira said: 'I am increasingly intrigued by how impactful the written word can be and wanted to write something that captured this... and maybe inspired something in the reading itself.'
A book is just a seed,
A sapling lately freed
It will grow into a tree- it’s grandeur, picturesque
(It will wisen but not wizen)
And then fall like the rest
A book is just machines,
Many mindless routines
Buttons brandishing a burnished body without a brain
The paper chain.
A book is just ink
Poised letters that link
A swirling, bottomless void of nothing
(Dark enough to see the stars)
With a vision it is something
A book is just a commodity,
A product to sell for a fee
You stock and sell and restock again - even when they’re flying off the shelves
(Birds fleeing from the nest into a new home)
We adore them, hoard them for ourselves
A book is just writing,
But it’s what you find in the words,
Entire worlds can be be comprised of 300 pages
But never are they compressed in a minds eye
So look upon the words and what do you see?
Life changing lyricism for the world to believe
Maybe it’s forests, fairies, elves or trees
Gruesome murders committed in factories
Maybe it’s starry skies or bookshops in Britain
The pen only wins if people read what is written
Words can spark inspiration that wafts into a flame
So colossal it could burn the trees from which the book came
Revelations and revolutions grapple for spaces within the covers
For those words can stir hatred in one and acceptance in others
A young girl stood on a pedestal, fist in the air
Gained that confidence from reading the words that were there
And a boy kissed a boy on the promenade today
All because a writer told them it was ok
So even though I imagine so much more when I read,
Maybe, after all, a book is a seed