I CAN'T actually remember a time when I couldn't read. What I do remember is my first grown-up book. It was The Hound of the Baskervilles, read to me by my mother, who then presented it to me with my name and the date - 1938 - written in it, and I read it for myself.

I was eight then. I remember being gripped by one line: 'Mr Holmes, they were the footprints of a gigantic hound]' and the question of whether the culprit was a ghost dog or not. I read the book to my eldest daughter when she was about the same age. She was so annoyed when I closed the book after that sentence. It's the most marvellous cliffhanger.

I suppose I was brought up on children's classics. I wasn't allowed to read any of those pre-TV comics, but if I could ever get hold of Eagle or Dandy it was terribly exciting. I would never dare bring them home. As a small child I read Beatrix Potter, the Pooh stories and Babar, which, when it first came out in the Thirties, was quite scary, rather as Sendak is today. And I remember a book called Katawampus by Judge Parry, all about wickedness at the seaside - children misbehaving, that sort of thing. That was very exciting.

There was no shortage of books in my parents' home - there were buckets of them. School didn't have much impact. Although my reading was on a highbrow scale by most standards, there were several books that I didn't fully appreciate until I grew up - Alice, for instance. That's full of very delicate moral issues. It's for Oxford dons really.

I have a distinct memory of A A Milne's poems in Now We Are Six. I was terribly embarrassed by reading it when I was five, and did so in secret.

Only once did I shock my parents with my reading. I can't think where I got hold of it, but it was a book about poaching - promoting poaching as a good thing. My parents were very law- abiding and were terribly upset. I was puzzled by their reaction because we lived in the suburbs and it wasn't something I could have done anyway.

Yes, I do feel my early reading influenced my later life in a way. It's always said now that Milne is sentimental, but I'm not so sure. He had a terrific interest in language. A curiosity about how people spoke, which comes across in the dialogue. And Wind in the Willows, a later favourite of mine, that's a complete picture of society. Alice in Wonderland is Victorian family life: all the uncles and aunts and cousins. All these books teach you about relationships and what's expected of you. And how you behave and your relationships with people must be affected by that.

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 his or her 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.

Stories teach children to concentrate for long periods. They teach the pleasures of the long, slow unfolding of plot, of patience in waiting for characters to develop and the denouement to spring its surprises. They also teach the consummate pleasure of words, used to inform, inspire and delight; to describe and amuse, and mock and terrify.

The most common mistake made by writers for children is to underestimate them. Children are likely to 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 they need to develop, to rehearse life without damage. The setting can be as weird and wonderful as the adult imagination can devise. Write us such a story.

YOUR STORY should be 1,500 to 2,500 words. You may enter only once, and entries must be made by the writer, not on his or her behalf. Entries must be typewritten, double-spaced and on one side of the paper only. We regret that entries cannot be returned, so please take a photocopy. The stories submitted must not have been published elsewhere, but the competition is open to previously published writers. We will not accept stories with illustrations. The first page of your entry must consist only of your name, address, daytime and home telephone numbers. The story should start on a separate sheet, with no name on any of the pages, so that it can be judged anonymously. The closing date for entries is Saturday 15 May. Send your entry to Story Competition, PO Box 3018, London NW1 OAH. Please do not send entries directly to the Independent or Scholastic Children's Books.

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 other 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).

The competition is not open to employees of, or relatives of employees of Scholastic Publications Ltd or Newspaper Publishing plc. The judges' decision will be final, and no correspondence can be entered into. Entry 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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