Whitney S.

First Place Winner

My message can be optimistic or poignant, stirring or calming, uplifting or reproachful, but either way, my voice has power. And I hope the world will be listening.

Because I was a shy kid, fictional characters in books were far more relatable than the cliquey popular girls in my class. As an elementary-schooler who borrowed—and read—twenty books from the library every lending period, I wanted to emulate the authors who so skillfully crafted alternate worlds and led me inside them. So I wrote my own stories. I folded stacks of paper and bound them with staples or tape; I drew cover art in pen and colored it with crayons; I relished the thrill of writing "Prologue" or "Chapter One" on the blank first page; I even composed my own blurbs on the back cover. It made no difference that I started infinitely more "novels" than I finished. To six-, seven-, eight-year-old me, it was the pure pleasure of creation that mattered.

When I first read Daniel Keyes's novel "Flowers for Algernon" in middle school, I thought it had an unusual premise with a dejecting ending, nothing more. I picked it up again in high school and, upon rereading it, I was stunned at how deeply the book resonated with me. It unfolds through the protagonist Charlie's journal entries. In the beginning he is a grown man with a below-average IQ, and his mental shortages show through in his childish musings. He is unable to tell that his coworkers cruelly mock him, a passage that struck me silent when I read it and made me question the true nature of my relationships with others. Charlie is desperate to improve his situation, but after a medical procedure, his meteoric upsurge in intelligence does not lead to fulfillment. The story offers a heartbreakingly profound meditation on the meaning of intelligence and ability. Keyes really blew me away with his honest and poignant descriptions of life as Daniel. The book changed me in two ways: it drastically increased my empathy toward people different from me, and it motivated me to completely overhaul my view on writing. I wanted to move people as deeply as "Flowers for Algernon" had moved me, but to do so I had to realize that writing was so much more than the kid detectives, fire-breathing dragons, and teenage cliques whose tales I forgot as quickly as I finished them. Real, significant writing isn't about surface entertainment value. It's about emotion and being human, and telling truths about life that readers can learn about and relate to. That's how writing gets its intensity—it's authentic

Today, that's why I write. I still savor the small delights of choosing names and finding the ideal adjective, but more importantly I want to wrap readers up—if only for a few hundred pages—in the experience of being someone else. I want to shift their perspective as my favorite book shifted mine. My message can be optimistic or poignant, stirring or calming, uplifting or reproachful, but either way, my voice has power. And I hope the world will be listening.