The Independent Scholastic Story of the Year Competition, now in its fifth successful year, aims to encourage exciting writing for the hard-to-please 6- to 9-year-old age group. Andrew Marr invites you meet the challenge
Early visions of happiness: lying face-down on a lumpy bed, with the West Highland rain blattering down on the roof and the first of a large pile of holiday books open on the pillow. They would be, in the early years, Enid Blyton or Biggles, or Just William, in red cloth editions from the Thirties and Forties, smelling faintly of must and Empire; then Henry Treece's Viking stories, in a smart cardboard box-set, or Rosemary Sutcliffe, or the Narnia books, with their haunting drawings. Later, they were followed by Walter Scott and Nigel Tranter, thrillers and comics... Wet summer days were when I fell hopelessly in love with a drug more addictive and mind-changing than anything that can be smoked or swallowed - to reading, reading, reading. I still can't sleep without taking a few neat pages of something first; feel naked if I leave the house without a book hidden in a pocket or bag; and experience panic attacks if I'm caught in a station that lacks a proper bookstore, or if I'm staying in a town with a third-rate bookshop.

The habit has, no doubt, had some serious side-effects: I've never been a bronzed or lean sort of person and my eyesight may have suffered - even my social life. But the reading habit has brought so much pleasure - the hours of slow-building excitement, the deep wallowings in stories long or short, explosive revelations about how ``things'' are; and delight in well-made sentences or perfect, just-discovered words. All this on sale, quite legally, throughout the country, corrupting the minds of young people who would otherwise be harmless, ovine (good word, ovine) zeros. For books and stories shake things up, and change our lives. Without books there would be, no doubt, as much trouble in the world. But it would be much less interesting trouble.

So our house now is bulging with books. Cupboards designed for sheets are filled with racks of yellowing Penguins and split-spined editions of Almost Everybody. There are books under sofas, piled on kitchen shelves and gathered below and beside my children's beds. They are too young, or perhaps too rebellious, to be true People of the Books just yet. But their lives would be blander and emptier without Roald Dahl or Shirley Hughes, Adrian Mitchell or Michael Rosen. One way or another, we are still a story-telling family. ``Bookish'' is a word which seems designed to go with ``dry'' and ``old''. But books are, above all, recipes for our dreams, and the people who write them are the nearest thing we have, in this crowded, jostling, mundane country, to magicians.

This is ``only'' a short story competition, but your efforts could be well rewarded. First prize is pounds 2,000, with pounds 500 each for two runners-up, and to celebrate the competition's fifth birthday, the three winners will receive a specially commissioned golden Hippo and Eagle trophy. We will print the winning story in The Independent magazine in the summer, and the top 10 stories will be published in a special anthology by Scholastic Children's Books in the autumn.

This year's judges include the writer and comedian Sandi Toksvig; Colin Hughes, The Independent's deputy editor; Wendy Berliner editor of our weekly Education + supplement, and Scholastic Children's Books' publishing director David Fickling. Children from schools around the country will read the 20 shortlisted stories and their views will be communicated to the judges when they meet in May.

So to word-witches and wizards, trainee or professional, and in memory of the smell of a freshly-opened book as the rain hammered down... may your brains erupt and your fingers dance!