Over 500 young people entered a story writing competition that will drive world-leading language research. The young people were invited to write about heroes in all forms - fictional, real or everyday heroes they know personally.
The competition from Birmingham Stories was open to students aged nine to 14 and entries came in from schools as well as individual young writers. Birmingham Stories is a partnership between the National Literacy Trust and the University of Birmingham to spread awareness of the importance of storytelling and literacy at every stage of life.
A judging panel of bestselling authors, local role models and leading academics received a shortlist of entries that had been chosen by 40 University of Birmingham Literacy Champions, students who are trained to support reading for pleasure across the city on a volunteer basis.
The standard of writing was so high that the judges chose to crown two writers winners of the competition:
- ‘She’ by Becca Smith. The panel commented:
“It does everything you want a story do it, it has dialogue, description, plot, great characterisation”
“The writing is incredibly mature”
“The story totally nails the task”
“The story really resonated with me … a great story about self-confidence and individuality”
‘Pain’ by Humaira Savari
The judges said:
“I really enjoyed reading the story”
“The story very effectively draws on the reader’s emotions”
“The plot was unpredictable with a great twist in the end”
“A really good piece of writing”
“A dramatic big end”
Both Becca and Humaira will receive iPads, with one runner-up receiving a virtual visit from Aston Villa Football Club for their school, and others receiving special edition signed books.
All participating schools will be invited to a special writing workshop by Young Adult author Sufiya Ahmed in early 2021.
She - by Becca Smith
Drowning in solitude, she plodded down the dimly lit street, the smell of rain on the pavement flooding her conscious. Delicate beads of water lay atop her dark sea of curls, like billions of stars in the inky sky. Her vision was clouded with fettered tears, boundless chains of insecurity tugging away at them. She couldn’t cry. Not here. Not now. Not ever.
Abruptly, a red flash of light struck the ground, leaving behind a tattoo of ash on the concrete. The girl stopped in her tracks. She could recognise that laser from a mile away. A floating, caped figure with skin like mocha danced around her, roaring with laughter. ‘You should look up once in a while so you can actually see what it’s like to fly.’
‘Please go, Miles,’ she whispered shakily.
‘Sorry princess, I didn’t quite catch that,’ Miles sneered.
‘Leave me alone,’ the girl mumbled, a bit louder this time.
‘What are you gonna do, punch me? Oh please, I could throw you halfway across the planet if I wanted to. I’m glad you don’t have powers; you’d be more of a failure than you already- ‘
‘Don’t flatter yourself, Miles.’ She glared at him. Miles’ expression changed in the blink of an eye, and his feet were now placed on the soaked pavement.
‘What did you just say?’ he hissed, edging closer and closer to her so she could see her deep, brown eyes in the reflection of his red pupils.
‘N-nothing,’ the girl murmured, her pale cheeks turning the colour of his cape.
‘That’s what I thought,’ Miles snarled, looking her up and down like a magazine cover. Suddenly, he gave her an immense shove, sending the girl thirty feet backwards into a crumbling wall. Everything slowed down; a cold pool of fear rippled through her body as she watched the dark figure seep back into the gloom. Suddenly, she hit the wall with a thud, knocking all the wind out of her like a popped water balloon.
She was nothing special. An observer in a world full of contenders. She lived in an age of heroes- humongous hunks of muscle with super-strength, to spotted nerds: schoolboys by day, top secret agents by night. Everyone had a power. Everyone except her. Her friends had abandoned her because of it. Her father left because of it. Her mother died because of it. She didn’t know if she stood out from the crowd or loitered in the shadows.
The girl awoke with a jolt, her head spinning like a whirlpool. ‘Agh…’ she groaned, clutching her head with a scratched hand. It was raining- hard- so hard that it stung her cheeks. Her eyes darted around franticly, scanning her surroundings. The sky was jet black- speckles of stars occasionally peeking through. She was still slumped against the wall- how long had she been there? There was no time for questions; she had to get back to the orphanage. Curfew had probably passed hours ago. Clumsily, the girl stood up, grasping onto the wall for support. Dipping in and out of consciousness, she staggered across the uneven backstreet tiles.
Suddenly, her foot slipped, leaving the girl shaking on her hands and knees. She stared at her dirty, bruised face in a murky puddle, tears of desperation streaming like waterfalls down her gaunt cheeks. There was no coming back. She was an outsider. There was nobody left to save her now.
A spark glinted in her heart, for just a moment, and disappeared into the depths of isolation again. ‘Nobody left to save me now…’ she whispered under her breath. Her eyes sparkled in the clouded water- just like her mother’s did. Before she knew it, a smile slowly swept across the girl’s face. She didn’t need to be saved. She wasn’t a damsel in distress, waiting for her Prince Charming to come and rescue her. A small orange flame ignited in the furnace of her heart once more as she steadily stood up. She had been through so much in her life, and somehow managed to pull herself through, with a shy smile, every time. She didn’t need any powers to be a hero. A warm glow emitted from inside her as she began to walk, the rain pounding on her. Then she began to run, run as fast as she could, throwing her arms up in the air and laughing with all her soul. She was her own hero.
Pain - by Humaira Savari
The dictionary states that a hero is a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities. Right now I was regarded as exactly that by the general public merely because of brief displays of courage that I had shown over the years. Soon I would be regarded as the opposite. One would assume that I would despise being reviled and spoken of with rancour by world once I made the transition from being a so called hero to a cold-blooded murderer but as I ran closer and closer to Silas I realised more and more I wouldn’t care. Not once had I agreed with the belief that I was a hero, for I never shared the same definition of a hero that everyone else did. I believed that a hero was someone who made good choices without a moment of hesitation. A hero was something that maybe once upon a time I could’ve been, maybe if certain events had never occurred and I was still happy but now, with the urge to murder the person- no, monster in front of me, I could never be. The fact that my sister’s murderer was less than a few metres in front of me made me exhilarated because I could soon murder him proved my reasoning right. This isn’t to say I always a large amount of bad intentions because I don’t. I just simply have too much to be regarded a hero. His tourmaline eyes branded my soul like I was a sheep as he looked back at me with a vile, smug look in that made my insides churn. I ran faster and faster after him, ignoring the burning sensation in my muscles and the pain of a stitch that was beginning to form in my abdomen. If I could run just a little bit faster I would be able to reach him and end him. Just a little closer and this nightmare would end.
I stopped. A dark plume of Smoke was coming out of the building closest to us. Where there was smoke there was always fire. He must’ve set it alight with a spell. Despite my anger I was ensorcelled. His magic was evidently quite powerful if he was capable of setting an entire skyscraper alight through the use of a non-verbal spell. I wanted to run after him. My soul ached to run after him. To make him suffer and to see the light leave his eyes the way they left my sister’s. To make him gasp for air and fight to live the way my sister did. To engulf his family with the anguish I felt the past 3 years. I tried to step forward, to continue to run but I found I couldn’t. My feet were planted onto the spot as though I was a wolf and I needed to protect my cubs – the ones that were letting out tortured, agonised cries as they burnt inside the building. He knew what he was doing. This was a distraction- his smirk told me as much. And I would let him get away like the fool I was because I couldn’t turn a blind eye to the trapped people pounding on the windows, begging to be rescued as their lungs screamed for oxygen. I gave one last wistful glance at him running off and then I sprinted into the building.
There was a sea of people running in random directions screaming and I wanted to scream with them. Eniko was already there, trying to blast pools of water from her palms at the dancing flames that wanted to engulf them with smoke. She was also simultaneously yelling instructions to people on how they should leave the building to safety and those who listened fervently nodded. I vaguely heard others I dragged myself up the stairs but I collapsed after a few flights of stairs. I wanted to run and help them I truly did. But I was drowning. I felt sluggish and I couldn’t make out anything. No voice was clear and I couldn’t see anything over the smoke. Eniko was too far away for me to call her to extinguish the fire over here. Even if she was close I wouldn’t have been able to muster the energy call her. I felt like I was dying. I was burning all over. The despair from losing the opportunity to kill inundated me and so did the stitch from all the running I did. All I could do was clutch my abdomen and crawl up the blood stained stairs. There were dead bodies scattered everywhere. Pale, blood-blanketed bodies. I would join them in death soon – no one would be able to survive this type of excruciating pain. I lay down weakly besides them on the landing and groaned as I clutched my abdomen. I wanted to die but I couldn’t just yet. I had figured out why everyone else’s voices were being drowned out. Someone was screaming but it was no ordinary scream. It had a sharp, pained edge to it. Someone was still alive amongst the bodies but they would clearly die soon in the fire. I dug my hands into my nails to draw blood. Maybe pain in another area of my body would reduce the pain in my abdomen and allow me to be able to stand up. It did . I almost stumbled as I stood up and walked towards the screaming teen but I managed to get to her. Her face was covered with blood but the one facial feature of hers that the blood couldn’t mask was her sea green eyes. Eyes that resembled my sister’s so greatly that had I not seen my sister die in person, I would’ve thought it was her. There was no way I could leave her here. Not now that I had seen those eyes that had resonated with me instantly. I picked her up and limped up the stairs into the closest room that had a window- well it didn’t have glass anymore so it wasn’t really a window , it was a gaping hole in the wall.. By now Eniko had evacuated everyone outside and there were ambulances. I yelled her name. She glanced upwards and paled at the sight of the girl in my arms.
“I’ll throw her down to you; take her to the ambulance immediately!’’ I yelled and she nodded frantically. I gave one last look at the pitiful girl in my arms and threw her down. Eniko’s strong arms caught the girl and she ran to a nearby ambulance. I collapsed in a heap on the floor again. There was no energy remaining inside of me. I curled up into a ball and waited for death. Sweet, merciful death. The burning was getting worse and as I clutched my abdomen I noticed my once soft and dry cotton shirt was soaked– I was probably sweating. But as I lifted my hand I noticed it was covered in a metallic smelling red substance that made my nose wrinkle. Blood.
The pain in my abdomen wasn’t from a stitch caused by running. It was from a massive wound. “It hurts doesn’t it?” His baritone voice rung in my ear as he said those words. I glanced at the corner of the room and found Silas sitting there grinning in an insouciant manner. He had harmed me with a spell-it was no stitch. It was as clear as day but evidently my eyes only saw the dark and obscure night. I wrinkled my nose. The smoke was beginning to make my lungs burn. My throat felt dry and hoarse. ‘‘Get lost” I rasped. He shook his head and laughed, thinking I was just merely mad at him. What a fool. I knew he hadn’t noticed. The roof was about a minute away from caving in. His magic wouldn’t save him at all. It granted him power but not immortality. I frowned as I looked at him. How ironic that I wanted him dead but now that the opportunity of having him killed had presented itself I no longer wanted him dead. I felt like I was going to throw up. How sickening. I didn’t want someone to die and that someone was a murderer. I, who wanted to be a murderer merely 15 minutes ago now couldn’t let someone die without at least trying to save them. My sister didn’t tell me to run away to save myself just so I would go and inflict the same pain she received onto someone else by killing them, even if it was him.
I somehow made myself stand. Wincing, I motioned for him to come near the window, knowing he’d come because he even though he was confused, he knew I couldn’t kill him in this state. Tiredly, I peered down and noticed Eniko had returned. How convenient I mused. With the last of my strength, I pushed him out of the hole, knowing Eniko would catch him. He screamed as he fell but I knew he’d be fine. The same couldn’t be said for me.
I thought of my sister as I fell back onto the floor one last time. I was wrong. A hero wasn’t someone who made good choices without hesitation. A hero was someone who saved people by making the right choices despite their worst, darkest wishes and desires.
I closed my eyes as the roof finally gave way.
The judging panel
Sufiya Ahmed is an award-winning author. She regularly visits secondary and primary schools to talk about her love of reading and writing. She also discusses her previous career in the Houses of Parliament to educate and inspire pupils about the democratic process and discusses how her political activism influences her writing. She is a public speaker on girls’ rights.
Anna Cermakova is a corpus linguist and currently works as Research Associate at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.
Ruth Gilligan is a bestselling author and academic from Dublin now based in the UK. She has published five novels to date and works as Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing at the University of Birmingham. She is also an ambassador for the global storytelling charity Narrative 4.
Natalie Haigh is a player and coach for Aston Villa Football Club.
Michaela Mahlberg is Director of the Centre for Corpus Research at Birmingham University and will use the entries to this competition to inform her research into textual patterns in children’s writing.
Harinder Matharu is Hub Manager for Birmingham Stories, a campaign run in partnership with the National Literacy Trust and the University of Birmingham. Working directly with communities and schools, the Hub spreads a love of storytelling across Birmingham.
Claire Stoneman has worked as a school leader and teacher of English in Birmingham and the wider Midlands for the past 20 years. Her current role is director within St Thomas Aquinas Catholic Multi-Academy Trust, where she leads the DfE-funded Exemplary Leadership Programme.