Voices of West Virginia’s young writers

CHRIS DORST | Saturday Gazette-Mail
Reese Brown, a third grader at Shepherdstown Elementary School, and Garrett Hutson, a West Taylor Elementary School third grader, participate in a writing workshop taught by children’s book author Cheryl Ware, Friday. The event was part of the 2014 West Virginia Young Writers Day at the University of Charleston.

Every year, West Virginia students in all grades have a chance to sharpen their writing skills in the West Virginia Young Writers Contest. This year’s winning entries are printed here.

Paul Epstein, co-director of the Central West Virginia Writing Project, which helps sponsor the contest, said the goal is to better the teaching of writing in West Virginia. After more than 20 years of involvement with the project, Epstein steps down as director this year.

“I’m very proud of the work I did over the years and the relationships made with teachers, helping them becoming writers,” Epstein said. “We believe teachers must be writers in order to help students become writers.”

The contest is sponsored by Marshall University (through state budget money for the writing project), the state Department of Education, Marshall University’s Graduate College of Education and Professional Development, the University of Charleston, and Mountain State Press. Contest winners, chosen from about 270 entries, were announced Friday at Young Writers Day at the University of Charleston.

Magic on 13th Street

by Alayna Garst

Grades 1-2 winner, Williamstown Elementary, Wood County

Ivy is hurrying down the sidewalk with her glasses bouncing off her nose. She is going to meet her best friend, Cloey, on the corner of 13th Street where they both live. They are going to take a bike ride. Ivy sees an old, empty store is now called Abracadabra, and the sign says, “Magic Inside.”

“That was not there yesterday when we went by on the school bus!” Cloey says excitedly.

The girls are both a little bit nervous as they walk into the magic shop. Inside they see all kinds of weird thingamajigs like wands, brooms, and jars of eyeballs! The friends discover a magician’s top hat that cost $12.00. Cloey has $5.00 from the tooth fairy, and Ivy only has $2.00 from allowance.

Suddenly Cloey sees green smoke swirling around, and Ivy hears strange laughter. A salesman materializes from the smoke. He looks like a magician and is as tall as a giraffe with a purple bowtie. He has a long beard that is rainbow colored.

The salesman exclaims with gusto, “Young ladies, it is your lucky day! That top hat is on sale for $7.00!”

The girls quickly pay and run out of the store.

As they are leaving, Cloey wrecks on a crack in the sidewalk right beside the 13th Street sign. Both girls look up as Cloey climbs back onto her bike, and the magic shop has vanished! It’s back to being an old, unoccupied store. The girls swiftly pedal home to Cloey’s house. They are truly spooked.

In Cloey’s bedroom, the girls closely examine the top hat.

Ivy asks, “Do you think the hat is really magic?”

She waves her hand over it and says, “Abracadabra!”

A white bunny hops out! Both girls smile. They know magic is real.

Superhero Without a Cape

by Sawyer Hinton

Grades 3-4 winner, Lenore PreK-8, Mingo County

Did you know that not all superheroes wear a cape? I have a superpower that makes me very special. I am completely different from every other 8-year-old that I know. The thing that I call my super power is what most people call Autism. I know that it is normally seen as a disability. But I look at it in a different light. I would much rather call it a special ability. Autism allows me to process everything in the world around me differently than the average child. My family has helped me cope with my diagnosis. So hopefully after reading my story, you will discover that there are superheroes all around you. They just don’t wear capes.

I have been called some really ugly names for being different. But being peculiar is just who I am. I want to explain how you could always turn a disability into a superpower by just looking at things in a different way. Take my obsessiveness of order routine for example. Most people consider that a disability. I, on the other hand, just think that I am more organized than everyone else. Now doesn’t that sound more positive by just changing the words? I prefer to be alone most of the time. But I really have more time to think, read and dream. I come around people in my own time and at my own pace. Is that not how most people get to know one another? I just take a little longer. My brain is larger than normal. Seems to me that is a positive trait. I have room to learn more. One of the stigmas placed on people like me is that we are mentally retarded. That could not be farther from the truth. I am a genius when it comes to certain things. Putting what I know on the outside is what I struggle with. However, the ability to retain information by just hearing or reading it once is definitely a perk. So, has it become more apparent that I am super special? I cannot bear the thought of certain textures, smells, tastes and things that have to do with sensory perception. Guess I am just set in my ways. But isn’t every single person that way? I am a little extreme but still not disabled.

I have not mentioned all the quirky things that I do. But what superhero reveals all his secrets? I just hope that I can make a difference to someone else like me. I urge you to take the time to look at the things that make you different and embrace them. Never accept something as a disability, look at it as a special superpower that makes you unique! Hopefully now you can see the superheroes living all around you.

The SSA (Top Secret)

by Emilee Ellison

Grades 5-6 winner, Greenmont Elementary, Wood County

Have you ever heard of the SSA? No? Good. Let’s keep it that way. I’m keeping my mouth shut. Okay, fine, I’ll tell you. But you have to promise not to tell a soul. It’s a warm, sunny day in Charleston, West Virginia, and the heat is blasting onto your cheeks. You and your family are taking a walk along the sidewalks of the Capitol Building. Suddenly, you notice an adorable little squirrel climbing into a small hole at the bottom of a tall maple tree. Thinking nothing of it, you keep walking.

This is where our story begins. It may seem a little “nutty,” but these are no ordinary squirrels. They are members of the SSA (State Squirrel Agency). These particular squirrels are highly experienced and trained by ex-military men and women. Their secrets are hidden inside the branches of the many fake trees, located within a half a mile of the Capitol and Governor’s Mansion. Their number one objective? To protect the governor and other elected officials from “nuts.”

The current SSA leader is the Black Squirrel. He has worked for the SSA for over fifty years, and he takes no nonsense. Once, a middle-aged squirrel named Walnut was on a 24-hour watch session. When Walnut fell asleep, 21 hours into his shift, the Black Squirrel kicked Walnut’s bushy tail clear off his tree! The Black Squirrel obviously takes his job very seriously.

Young squirrels all over West Virginia grow up dreaming of becoming SSA officers. The training begins at a very young age, before the squirrel’s bushy tails are even completely developed. There is an underground academy just underneath the roots of the biggest fake tree west of the Capitol. The youngsters are taught techniques such as sneak attacks, scurrying maneuvers, and they even take acting lessons (to learn how to NOT blow their cover). On graduation day, the squirrels move on to various positions and become Certified SSA Soldiers — a huge honor.

There are four main positions the squirrels can earn during academy training. COMMANDER Squirrels are in charge of assigning tasks to other squirrels. WATCH Squirrels are in charge of looking over the Capitol grounds for any peculiar activity. RUNNER Squirrels run back and forth relaying messages to SSA leaders (and a few chosen human officers). GUARD Squirrels are trained to attack if things get really ugly.

Throughout the grounds, each fake tree has a few hidden buttons. Some of the buttons open up secret portals that lead to underground tunnels. Most of the tunnels empty out to secret openings in the floors of the Capitol Building and Governor’s Mansion.

Each fake tree is equipped with a hidden weapon vault. This opens up to a secret stash of items for the SSA squirrels to use, in case of danger. Nut slingshots and nut pellet guns are easily the most popular items among the soldiers.

For the most part, the need to take action is limited. Occasionally, a mysterious individual will be blindsided by a brief attack. But the humans never have any idea what just hit them. Most think that they’ve simply been hit in the head with a falling nut from a tree or that a sharp pain has randomly occurred in their leg. That pain is usually from the quick kick of a GUARD squirrel before it sprints behind a nearby tree or bush.

Of course, everything surrounding the SSA operation is kept very secretive. If word gets out and their cover is blown, there will be no purpose for these fluffy, bushy-tailed, nut-loving squirrels.

So please do NOT tell ANYBODY about this! The squirrels love their jobs dearly. It is the second most desired squirrel job in the world.

What is the first? It’s the ADPA (Atlantis Discovery Prevention Agency). But THAT is another story for another day.


by Carmen Gutierrez

Grades 7-8 winner, Mountaineer Middle, Monongalia County

I sit on the round boulder, basking in the sunlight while I finish my picnic. The golden sun shines brightly, warming my upturned face, as its downward descent carries it towards the distant horizon. I watch patiently as the sun evaporates the fog filling the basin created by the soaring peaks. The sun sinks lower on the horizon, and the air becomes chilled by the dying cold of winter. I wrap my jacket tighter around me, huddling like a penguin against the brisk wind. I hear the bare branches crack together as they swordfight in the rolling hills around me and the annoying squawk of a murder of crows as it takes flight from the dancing tree it had been resting on. The rough edges of the stone dig into my frozen palms, and I shift one hand to lie on a patch of rough green moss; it feels like silky fur compared to the jagged surface of the eroded rock. Opening my mouth, I breathe the cold mountain air deeply, feeling the jolt of clarity as the sharp, crisp oxygen enters my lungs.

I smile as the sun returns from behind a cloud, warming the earth and air. Holding out my hand, I revel in the feeling of the wind rushing past my outstretched limb. The twittering of various types of birds echoes to me from the valley below, proclaiming their readiness for spring. Time passes quickly as I relax on the mountaintop, and soon it is time to return home.

Sadly, I pack my bag, dreading when the last item falls into the sack. I sullenly walk in slow motion towards the path leading away from my home away from home. The swaying trees almost seem to be waving farewell to me, but it only makes leaving feel worse. This was my last day here, before my family moves to another state. I would never hear the sounds of the animals I had come to call friends ever again; never see the cackling streams tumble down the mountain. I would lose more than just a boulder on a hill; I would lose my home. “I’ll come back, someday,” I promise to the wind. “Someday.”

When I arrive at my house, I pause to consider the emptiness and spaciousness of the usually cozy home. Boxes are stacked by the door, containing everything my family has ever owned. I see a framed photograph of my family standing on the mountain I had just left, smiling into the sunlight as if all was right in the world. Now, nothing is right in my world, I think morosely. Setting the picture back on the dusty shelf, I walk upstairs to my empty room. The light from the window shines on bare walls and an uncovered floor, and my footsteps echo off the unyielding faces. Turning away to stop tears from welling up in my eyes, I sprint back down the worn stairs. My mother is standing in the doorway, watching me warily. I jump into her waiting arms and sob into her shoulder.

“It’s alright,” she pats me comfortingly. “We have a whole new life ahead of us.” I smile through my tears at her. My mother can always lift my spirits. “Let’s go,” she tugs me towards the door, and with one last look at the house I was leaving forever, I hop into the moving van to drive to our new home. Maybe, I think, maybe they have a mountain there, too.


by Georgia Beatty

Grades 9-10 winner, Weir High, Hancock County

A pair of Jewish footprints are pressed into the snow. For every step the man takes, a little piece of life is left behind in the forlorn cold. For every time a wooden clog meets the ground, a small fragment of hope is abandoned in the unforgiving air. Who had done this to them? How could He let this happen? His name means nothing. He is nothing but a number; nothing but a prisoner. Prisoner 98288.

The cold gnaws at his fingertips and chills his frozen heart. 98288 remembers a time when there was no cold, only warmth and sunshine. It seems like so long ago, as if somebody else lived that distant life, someone very different from the weary impoverished skeleton he is now. “Papa!” a voice hails from behind. 98288 does not dare turn around, but the plea for his attention sounds once more. “Papa!” Somewhere in his addled mind, he recognizes the melodious voice. The man turns his head to glance behind him, and his face is struck with astonishment and fear.

A young blue-eyed girl stands in the snow, staring at him with such intensity. Although she does not move her legs, the girl follows 98288 as he trudges through the Polish cold. “Child,” 98288 whispers breathlessly. The girl is very much dead, although 98288 knows not of this. He sees her dark curly hair braided into a single plait and looks at the freckles dusting the bridge of her nose and the color in her round childlike cheeks, and to him, she is the most lively person he has seen in months.

“Papa,” she replies. “Have you forgotten me?”

His daughter. The memories begin to flood his mind, overwhelming him with a tumultuous wave of torment and grief. A look of pain crosses his languid face. Keep running, he tells himself. “No, child,” he reassures her. “Never.”

“You’re lying. You forgot my brother,” she says, her voice quivering with sadness. “And you forgot me, too.”

Brother. The memory of 98288’s son tries to push itself forward into the still conscious part of his mind, but it is as if a fallen tree has blocked the path of the memory. All it has to do is simply climb over the tree, but the memory is too weak to figure that out, so it remains grounded behind the roadblock.

“I have not!” 98288 cries. Ache fills his heart and he feels nothing but loss, for he knows that his own words are a lie.

“Do you not remember the laughs we shared?” his daughter asks with hopelessness laced in her voice.

“I do!” This is not a lie. 98288 recalls a summer day, a lifetime away, when all of the people he loved were happy. He sees the beautiful face of his smiling wife in the depths of his mind, but the image is swept away in the wind that bites at his skin.

“Do you not remember the tears? The words?”

“I do! I do!” And he does. “I promise,” he sobs.

“But you do not remember Brother.”

98288 does not answer. His frozen lips are closed fast, because as hard as he tries, he cannot remember. The specter of his daughter slides in front of him, blocking his view of the hollow shell of a person running in front of him. “What do you want from me, child?” 98288 howls.

His daughter tilts her head and her eyes fill with confusion, as if she doesn’t even know the answer. After a long pause where the only audible noise is the crunching of feet in the snow and the frenzied yelling of Germans, the girl opens her rose-colored lips to speak. “I want you to live,” she says solemnly. Her eyes fill with the fires of hatred that 98288 has witnessed, and she smells of burning flesh as she slowly fades into nothing and disappears.

It is at this moment that the memory behind the tree trunk discovers the way to its freedom. It slips, quite delicately, over the rough bark and firmly into the grass on the opposite side. The memory comes forward, and 98288 recognizes it immediately. His son.

98288 looks around frantically, trying to locate his boy. But your boy is dead, a voice speaks softly into his ear. His heart is wrenched with guilt, for now he remembers how he had tried to hold his son erect. He had tried to keep him moving and motivated, but he had failed. And now his son is far, far behind the mass of broken Jews, lying in the snow with a bullet embedded in his back.

“One, two, one, two!” a German officer snaps sharply, his voice shattering 98288’s thoughts.

98288 tries to keep his feet moving to the rhythm of the words, but he feels so cold inside. He feels so alone.

One, two, one, two … It’s funny, is it not, how his family used to keep him alive, how faith and hope used to keep him alive. Now the only thing keeping him alive is the number two. For if he stops counting, his feet will falter and so will his life.

One, two, one, two … So much relies on that simple number. He despises that number, because every time he reaches that number, he feels himself slip away just a bit. One, two ­— his family, gone — one, two — his dignity, gone — one, two — his heart, gone — one, two — his everything. Gone.

One, two, one, two. If he stops counting his steps, he will end up like his son. 98288 looks down at the snow. His knees buckle.

He never again reaches the number two.


by Madison Martin

Grades 11-12 winner, Petersburg High, Grant County

Life may end in moaning, but it began with a cry. Each of us, each person, each thing, took a first breath and cried out to the world. We are here. We are alive. We cried a cry so full of passion and curiosity that there is one, and only one, way to describe this announcement. We cried a cry brimming with life.

I think when we emitted that scream that we knew this newness was replete with experiences just for us. We may not know what they were, but we were so ready to discover.

Our first few months alone held hundreds of wonders. We loved that we could make noises, and when we did we were the focus of everyone’s attention. Amazingly, we could control our bodies. Our fingers could wrap around toys and if we moved all our limbs with good timing, we could move across the room. With a little help from the furniture we could stand up and try walking like the bigger people. We began to recognize and enjoy the taste of our favorite food. Our hands felt the different textures of kittens and gravel. Most importantly, we learned how comforting it is to be around other people.

As our bodies and minds grew, our experiences did too. Soon we were enjoying the companionship of friends. Marvels such as tides and rainbows filled us with awe as we learned the mechanics that made everything work. We felt the satisfaction and pride of receiving an award. We joined clubs and teams to find our calling. The world expanded before our eyes as we discovered our talents and found hobbies we enjoyed. Feeling unstoppable, we graduated and went into the world to find our niche. Once settled, longing soon overcame us and we searched for someone who would share our life.

This someone turned out to be our best decision. Not only did we find the camaraderie that exclusively comes with a best friend, but we discovered a whole new dimension of emotions. Everything we felt was now mixed with love. We were angry, but we still loved. We were disappointed, yet we loved. Our bodies and minds were exhausted, but we loved. We were in ecstasy, and we loved. As this love enlarged our family, our hearts grew with a direct correlation. We were just so in love with the world.

Eventually, the world that fueled our zeal and adventure began to deteriorate us. We may think we can avoid it, but we never can. The world has been around for millennia. It is much too clever for us to outwit it. Perhaps clever isn’t the most accurate description. This isn’t a game of wits. It’s a war in which the world uses the same strategy and tactics in each of its battles, but we can do nothing to defend or protect ourselves. We know what is approaching, but we do not have the power to stop it. The world is too invincible for us.

First, it attacks our bodies. Feet become unsteady. The knees that have supported us for years give way and crumble. Hips gain a coat of rust. Spines permanently freeze in an arched position. Fingers lose flexibility. Hands fill with pins. Arms accustomed to heavy lifting become weak. Teeth fall out. Ears are stuffed with cotton. Shades are pulled down over eyes. Medications we have been told will prolong our days catch up and damage our innards. Kidneys fail, livers shut down, stomachs revolt. Sometimes even our bodies turn against us and turn into the feared cancer. We begin to fall apart.

With us too weak to retaliate, the world launches its second set of assaults. The shades covering our eyes are raised just enough to witness the hell society has become. Wars rage. Terrorists abound. Extremists and maniacs spill blood of the innocent. Earth slowly becomes uninhabitable. Trusted officials are apprehended in the midst of a scandal. The population of orphans rises. Streets are littered with the hungry and homeless. Diseases remain uncured. Abuse looms at every doorstep. Marriages fail. Children grow in shattered homes. Morality forgot to move with the change of century. Everything around us is in shambles. We begin to envy those the world treated kindly by clouding their minds.

With our bodies failing and our hope dangling by a small thread, the world delivers its final blow with a pair of scissors. During a pleasant conversation over tea with The Fates the world politely asks to see our personal tapestry. The three obligingly take the world back a hallway and pause at our loom. The world casually glances and pinpoints the thread intertwined with ours throughout the majority of the unfinished tapestry. With ghastly nonchalance, the world severs the thread. We are now utterly alone.

With our loved one gone, our last thread of hope bisected, we are broken. Our bodies are mangled and disfigured, our will to live nonexistent. At last, the final, fatal contraction happens and our heart literally bursts, sending an innumerable amount of shards into our now-punctured lungs. We strain and gasp for oxygen as they slowly and painfully deflate. The world has won the war.

All of this is horribly dismal. I know, but in the end all the pain and anguish is inevitable. Regardless of how much we struggle, we will all meet the same demise. We frankly do not have the power to control our end. However, we do have the power to control the beginning. When we filled our lungs for the first time then emptied them with a scream, we were choosing to take on the world. We decided to say yes to all good and bad, love and hate the world had to offer us. We were going to live. What I am trying to say is yes, maybe we end with barely audible whispers obscured by labored breathing, but we always begin with a battle cry.

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