Children's Books: Wanted: the best children's story

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The Independent Culture
The hunt is on for the best new short stories of 1994, stories that no six- to nine-year-old will want to put down. The reward? A pounds 2,000 prize and publication in the Independent for the winning entry. Two joint runners-up will receive pounds 500 each, and the top 10 entries will be printed in a specially produced anthology by Scholastic Children's Books, making these the top awards in this country for unpublished work for children. The invitation is open to professional writers, but we want especially to encourage new talent.

This year's judges include the award-winning writers Anne Fine and Terry Jones and other leading figures in the world of children's literature, as well as children from schools around the country. They will be looking for a shortlist of 20 funny and sad, magical and exciting stories. Write us such a story.


Chris Difford, 39, songwriter with the band Squeeze, has three children. He lives in Rye, Sussex, with his partner Heidi and their daughter Grace (two). His elder daughter Natalie (13) and son Riley (10) live with their mother in south London, and he sees them most weekends and during school holidays. Riley goes to James Wolfe Primary in Greenwich.

Riley: I quite like Jets books, I get them from school, and I like Biggles. I read it myself, though because I'm dyslexic I sometimes have a few problems. Dad doesn't read to me as much as he used to - I think I've grown out of it now. I read before bed, but only if I'm tired. If I'm not, I'd rather do drawing.

I have a tutor for reading, apart from school, and she's very nice and gives me different books from school. Also, I like Roald Dahl - The Magic Finger and Fantastic Mr Fox are really good.

I like writing stories as well as reading them. Sometimes I copy books out, sometimes I make them up. I wrote a story called 'George's Gran' (I got the idea for the boy from George's Marvellous Medicine by Roald Dahl). This boy has to go and live with his Gran and he doesn't like her - she's really a witch. So he calls in the army and says she's a spy. And he decides to call the German air force, and they come and bomb her.

Chris: When we were all together, we'd always make a big thing of reading to Natalie and Riley. Cindy, my ex, always had her nose in a book, but I'm a bit of a lazy reader myself. Jackanory was what really encouraged me to read to the kids, watching people like Paul Merton, Rik Mayall, Adrian Edmondson . . . . Seeing that it could be done on the television was the inspiration. Putting in all the expression, using different voices, really throwing yourself into it to make an exciting experience for the kids.

I went through a terrible period when I first left home, and started seeing the children at weekends and buying them extravagant things, as people do - until I realised what I was doing, and said: 'Look, instead of these ridiculous gifts, let's get a book and build up a library.'

Now I'm away so much, when I'm at home I try to make the most of it with the kids. Natalie has really got the bug now, and reads on her own every day. Riley's a bit more selective. He's had problems with reading - it's taken five years for him to be assessed as dyslexic.

He's had his confidence bashed, because the other boys are all ahead of him, but he's just making the breakthrough. Only last night he was reading through one of those Crystal Maze mystery stories, and for the first time he was really studying it, not just looking at the pictures. Like all little boys, he's got a lot of other things on his mind. If there's a football match on TV, you won't get him to sit down with a book.

Recently I bought an Apple Mac with a CD-Rom. I've not taught Natalie and Riley how to use it - they have to work it out and read the instructions on the screen themselves. We've got the new Microsoft creative writing program, which is so much fun to do. Riley would actually rather sit down in front of the computer and write his own story and draw his own pictures than read a book.

I would only ever put Riley off buying a book if I thought it was too expensive or too difficult for him. I increasingly find myself having to think twice about what Natalie picks up in the bookshop. I'm concerned about these teenage horror books.

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