I’m reading stories this week for the American Library of Paris’s Young Author Fiction Festival. It’s the fourth time I’m a judge for this writing contest. From twenty-six short stories by authors aged eleven to twelve, I am to select my five favorites and provide feedback.
I must admit that I sometimes sit down for the read, a few stories per day, with a bit of resentment. Days are short and instead of spending time with the words of such inexperienced authors, I’d rather read a chapter from a master like Vivienne Gornick, whose memoir Fierce Attachements teaches me how to write my own work in progress. But the stories submitted to the contest always change my mood. They not only entertain me with their fabulous plots, they also enlighten me.
As a children’s book author, I learn from reading these stories how the age group I’m writing for thinks. What occupies the minds of these young authors? What are their concerns? Their wishes? Their daily struggles?
As a writing in general, I learn from reading these stories how they fail or succeed in seducing me. Why do I immediately set some of them aside as favorites, and why do I reread others with a more critical eye, weighing redeeming qualities against weaker points?
Voice, Narrative, Character
A strong opening sentence or a unique voice in the first paragraph gets me every time: Yes, I think, here’s an author who knows how to talk to me. It could be a metaphor or stylistic trick that captures my eye, a telling detail or a character’s feeling. Something hooks me.
A clear narrative structure, impresses me, too. I want to understand where I am in a story and encounter markers such as “One day…,” or “After the accident…” It makes me trust the author: This person knows how to spin a tale. A short story that takes too long to begin or has no resolution, can leave me unsatisfied. This is more true for classical stories than for experimental fiction, of course.
But a good voice and narrative alone are rarely enough to make me favor a story. Once I’ve finished reading all the stories from beginning to end twice, I ask myself what the authors tried to tell me and how successful they were in communicating that to me. I’m not necessarily looking for messages, but I value stories that offer me something true: an insight, a vulnerability revealed, a change of perception.
What I learn from reading these stories, is that character arcs matter most to me. I value a good voice and appreciate a plot. But what makes me fall in love with a story are the characters and how they grow.
So let that be my lesson for today, as I turn my attention back to my memoir. It’s not just about what happened. It’s about how what happened has changed me.
The Young Authors Fiction Festival (YAFF) from the American Library in Paris is free of charge and open to all students ages 5–18 in the greater Paris area who write in English. In 2021, YAFF had 888 entries submitted from 50 schools and writing programs. The YAFF team consists of Library staff and volunteers and includes the involvement of over 120 judges from the Library’s community and beyond.