MARK E SMITH, anarchic songwriter of The Fall, tells Jenny Gilbert about his childhood reading.

I STARTED reading at about five, when I was really mad on Batman comics. I found I read better out of school than in. We hadn't any books in the house. We had an encyclopaedia and a map, that was all. So I went to the public library.

Reading wasn't much encouraged at the school I went to. I enjoyed Hardy and Macbeth. Very much. But then they tried to make us read Jane Austen. Terrible. I read Nietzsche at 15 because it was good. It was wild. I used to read a lot of Wilfred Owen's poetry.

Kids' brains nowadays are like sludge. It's the machines. I've seen it change in 10 years. They're not thinking or listening any more. Obsessed with technology. Video games? It's just an elaborate fruit machine.

THE YEARS between the ages of six and nine are perhaps the most crucial for opening up a child's mind to books. That is why we have launched a competition to find the best short stories for this impressionable age group. The invitation is open to professional authors, but we also want to encourage new writers. The winner will receive pounds 2,000 and their story will be published in the Independent. Two runners-up will win pounds 500 each, and the best entries will be published in a Story of the Year anthology by Scholastic Children's Books. The judges include Judge Stephen Tumim, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons; Suggs, lead singer of the group Madness; Michael Rosen, children's author and presenter of BBC Radio 4's Treasure Island, and Angela Lambert of the Independent.

The most common mistake made by writers for children is to underestimate them. Children relish books that are written for a supposedly older age group than their own. The next most common mistake is to set the story too close to their everyday worries. Most children prefer stories that take them into realms of fantasy, where they can find the space to rehearse life without damage. The setting can be as weird and wonderful as the adult imagination can devise. Write us such a story.

Only 9 days left . . .

ENTRIES: The closing date for entries is Saturday 15 May. Your story should be between 1,500 and 2,500 words. Entries must be type-written, double-spaced and on one side of the paper only. We will accept text-only stories - no illustrations, please. The first page of your entry must consist only of your name, address, daytime and home telephone number. The story should start on a separate sheet, with no name on any of the pages, so that it can be judged anonymously. Send your entry to PO Box 3018, London NW1 OAH. Please DO NOT send entries directly to the Independent or to Scholastic Children's Books. We regret that entries cannot be returned, so please keep a copy.

PRIZES: The winner will receive pounds 2,000 and the winning story will be published in the Independent in late June. Two runners-up will receive pounds 500 each. The top three stories and up to 10 of the other best entries will be published in the autumn in a Story of the Year Anthology by Scholastic Children's Books (a list of stories chosen will be published in the Independent at the same time).

RULES: The stories submitted must not have been published elsewhere, but the competition is open to published writers. You may enter only once, and entries must be made by the writer, not on his or her behalf. The competition is not open to employees of, or relatives of employees of, Scholastic Publications Ltd or Newspaper Publishing plc. The decision of the judges will be final, and no correspondence can be entered into about the competition.

Entry to the competition grants Scholastic Publications Ltd and Newspaper Publishing plc the exclusive right to publish your story throughout the world. Any story chosen for publication in the anthology that does not win one of the top three cash prizes will receive a flat fee in accordance with publishing industry practice.

If your story is not published in the anthology or the newspaper by the end of 1993, these rights revert to you.

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