Every year, young writers across Oxford send us a wealth of imaginative, entertaining, and often moving stories with the hope of winning the coveted Peregrine Prize for Young Writers. This year’s prize-giving – on Sunday 15th July, exactly a year after the first – was a haven of calm creativity in the midst of World Cup finals, tennis matches, and the sweltering heat of July.
Mariah Whelan, Director of Oxford Writers’ House, spoke first, welcoming the children, parents, and guests – over a hundred in total – who had arrived for a celebration of the very best young writers in Oxford. She then handed the mic to Dr. April Pierce, founder of the Writers’ House, who gave her own perspective on what makes the work OWH does so valuable. For Dr. Pierce, young writers in Oxfordshire face two central problems: a surprisingly low literacy rate in a city famous for education and culture, and a lack of opportunities for getting their voices heard. The Peregrine Prize is a rare chance for young writers to get their words – their stories – heard and read by a wider audience, just as it’s a way of recognising just how transformative writing can be for young people.
We were honoured to have Jamila Gavin present to judge and award the prize: her award-winning children’s books often take as their theme the meeting-places of differing cultures, an appropriate topic for such a multicultural city as Oxford. And we were even luckier to hear her comments on each commended story, which ranged from dark, dystopian visions to fast-paced adventures, or moving meditations on coping with grief. “One thing I’ve learned,” she told us, “is that you can never underestimate what young people are capable of thinking, figuring out, imagining, and writing.”
Ms. Gavin’s sensitive, insightful commentaries were the perfect prelude to the prize-giving itself, where the excitement on the faces of many of the winners testified to the imagination and sheer hard work they’d put into creating these stories. The prize for the Fledgling category – for writers aged 16–18 – went to Louisa Rimmer for “Memory Like Water”, a poetic, moving study of the relationship between a girl and her grandmother, who suffers from dementia. Louisa was also awarded with the title of Oxford City Young Writer of the Year, presented by the Lord Mayor.
After the prize-giving we caught up with Louisa to ask her about her inspiration for the story, and what she plans to do next. It was no surprise to hear that reading poetry is a passion of Louisa’s, considering the lyrical, highly expressive style in which she writes prose. But it was perhaps more surprising to hear about the process “Memory Like Water” went through. “I don’t really plan,” she was quick to emphasise, telling us that instead “I write little bits and then connect them together.” This makes sense given that “Memory Like Water” follows a less traditional narrative arc, playing out as a single scene with resonances beyond its beginning and ambiguous, part-conciliatory ending.
Hebe Robertson, winner of the Nestling category – for writers aged 12–15 – also spoke to us. For Hebe, clearly a keen reader, writing is the other side of the coin to reading: “When you’re reading you can be screaming at the page,” she told us, “but when you write you can make the decisions for yourself, and take the character where you want them to go.” That purely creative attitude to writing shows clearly in Hebe’s winning story “Utopia”, set in an alternative future where a totalitarian regime burns all books in pursuit of a greater good.
The youngest category – the Hatchling category, for writers aged 8–11 – was just as full of surprises, as winner Isabella Stevens’ story “The Package of Empathy” demonstrated. Isabella’s story was carefully crafted, with a narrative that takes the reader – and its protagonist, the uncaring Mr. Harper – on a journey from a broken, empty life to one that has purpose and meaning. Isabella is already a keen reader, and told us about her enjoyment of the Harry Potter books, as well as Harriet Whitehorn’s Violet series.
Every year, the standard of writing shown by young Oxford writers impresses and delights us. We can’t wait to find out what next year’s Peregrine Prize has in store.