THE YEARS between the ages of six and nine are perhaps the most crucial of all for opening up a child's mind to books. That is why we have decided to launch a competition to find the best short stories for this impressionable age group.

The Independent's invitation is open to professional writers, but we also want to encourage those who may have a winning but as yet untold tale to tell.

The winner will receive pounds 2,000 and the see their story 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 child who is not keen on reading by the time it is nine is faced with so many more sociable and boisterous distractions. Whether it is football, an afternoon with Barbie, Neighbours on television or Super Mario on the computer, it becomes harder to introduce the older child to the private joys of reading.

Books teach children to concentrate for long periods. They teach the pleasures of the 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, mock and terrify.

The most common mistake made by writers for children is to be condescending and underestimate them. Children are likely to relish those books that are written for a supposedly older age group than their own.

The second most common mistake is to set the story too close to their everyday worries. Most children prefer to be liberated 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 and still be mundane to the limitless imagination of a child.

Good stories are satisfying for children at a deep level, and vital for the hidden wisdom they contain. This may be conveyed by symbols, archetypes, heroes, villains, parables or fables; by ordinary children in magic realms, by magic animals in ordinary settings, or by none of these things.

Reading standards have been a matter of concern for some time, but the focus is on the mechanics of literacy. These are important, but there is more to it than that. If you believe that education, above all the fundamental ability to read and write, is one of the greatest blessings given to humanity (and I do] I do]) it follows that introducing a child to literacy is a responsibility as well as a pleasure.

Lord Macaulay said: 'I would rather be a poor man in a garret with plenty of books than a king who did not love reading.' Books are not a duty; they are a joy.

Each time I read Jemima Puddleduck out loud to my children or grandchildren, I hear my own mother's voice sinking to melodrama as she intoned: 'Jemima Puddleduck was escorted home in tears on account of those eggs.' I could not skip a page or change a word without three reproachful voices saying: 'But Granny, you missed a bit.

One favourite time for reading is bedtime - that marvellous half-hour when tired child and exhausted parent come together in the mutual desire for peace and quiet, and a story. Another is the 10 minutes before children go home from school when they are read to by a teacher. Heaven is listening to a story on a mat in the reading corner. But best of all is to be curled up behind the curtains all by yourself with a story you can't put down. Write us such a story.

I always liked things I couldn't understand

LIONEL BLUE

Rabbi and broadcaster

My parents wanted me to get out of the East End fast, and the way lay in education. So they taught me to read in English, Hebrew and Yiddish quite early on.

Morning sessions, when I climbed into their bed, were always about reading and education. Most Jewish families give their children an awful lot of love, but are quite convinced they're just small adults, so there's no nursery culture. My parents had no idea of special literature for children, so I was just thrown everything they had.

When I was about four or five I was given a book that was far too advanced for me: tales from Spenser's Faerie Queene. I remember the story of 'My Lady Britomart'. I was fascinated by it; that's what started my love of English history. I was very conscious that it was difficult, but felt I was being initiated into a mystery, and was intrigued by 'the dark wood' and by characters who weren't quite what they seemed. My parents would read a bit and then I would try out the words.

The man who gave me the Spenser also sent me a book of English poetry which, once again, I didn't understand. But I started at the beginning - because I always felt that was how you read books - and picked the shortest poems. There was one by Wyatt: 'And wilt thou leave me thus? Say nay, say nay, for shame]' (An Appeal by Sir Thomas Wyatt.) I always liked things I couldn't understand. Later, I was greatly fascinated by the synagogue liturgy, and when I got the English translation some of the magic went.

I used books as a way to spark off my imagination. I didn't need to understand. Books just opened a door. Children are interested in the mystery of the frontier. Childhood is the time when you have an intense imagination and want little bits of realism to spark off the romance. Today it's all made much too easy. It's the difficult things that stick in your mind.

John of Gaunt was a great turn-on

JOANNA TROLLOPE

Novelist

I read extremely early. I really can't remember when I didn't read quite obsessively. Being short-sighted, I was one of those under-the-bedclothes readers, my head an inch from the page. I liked Roger Lancelyn Green's Heroes of Greece and Troy. I don't think if Roald Dahl had been around, I would have liked him: I was never interested in that robust ugliness that modern children find fascinating.

I yearned to be very good at ballet or brave on a horse, and I wasn't really, and so I read all the ballet books I could lay hands on, and all the Monica Dickens and Pullein-Thompson pony books for comfort in my ineptitude.

I loved series books such as Arthur Ransome or E Nesbit - anybody who'd keep me going, not just with a long story but a family that I could, in rather a wet way, feel part of. Books that stand out as landmarks . . . there are one or two I almost knew by heart: such as Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Little Princess, particularly the bit where Ram Das, the Indian servant of the millionaire next door, creeps in at night to bring her treasures from his master.

I was a sucker for soppy Edwardian books. I didn't like adventure at all; I liked domestic books. When I was a bit older, the other one I knew by heart was Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, about adolescent yearning, marvellously romantic in quite a robust way; a very, very good book, and every 13-year-old should be given it.

I don't think children's books were funny then - there were no Terry Pratchetts for us, and I can't remember many that made me laugh. I didn't like the Richmal Crompton William books, but Jennings and Darbyshire by Anthony Buckeridge made me laugh.

My mother had a subscription to a wonderful magazine called Ladies' Home Journal with confessions about readers' marriages and divorces, and I loved that, especially when it serialised Anya Seton's Katherine, with huge illustrations of bosoms straining out of bodices, and John of Gaunt very brooding and ill-defined in the background. That was a great turn-on.

I adored the Baroness Orczy books and read them obsessively, though I didn't care for Georgette Heyer much; and I loved Rogue Herries by Hugh Walpole. I loved Lorna Doone, I inevitably loved Jane Eyre, and read Hardy quite young. Looking back, I was always more interested in relationships than action - lovely relationships, yum yum] - even at a very early age.

I think we've taken away the dignity of childhood. Because we feel the world is degraded and wicked, we're seeing children as little precious people, valued people, and not as adults in the making. Actually children are tough and adventurous, and I think a reading child is still not daunted by picking up something such as White Fang or The Last of the Mohicans.

We give children special food in tiny portions, and that's symptomatic of a patronising attitude towards them. They're obviously not capable of an adult's emotional response, but they are capable of as much imaginative response as an adult, and they think it's perfectly natural.

Joanna Trollope's next novel, 'A Spanish Lover', will be published by Bloomsbury on 27 May.

Charlotte's Web was brilliant

MICA PARIS

British soul singer

I started reading early, when I was about three. I was brought up by my grandmother in a house full of aunties and uncles in Clapham. There were eight of us in the house and I was the baby, so I was always being read to, by my older sisters, or especially by my Auntie Colleen, who was very clever and had BAs and was into books and music in a big way. I owed a lot to her.

Before I went to school I read nursery-rhyme picture books, and a lot of stories about Anansi, because my grandparents came from Jamaica. When I went to school, it was just around the corner, and my grandmother had a little dog that used to take me. I loved books, and in those days we were allowed to take them home, so I did. I don't remember many of the titles now, but I used to love Rupert Bear. And Charlotte's Web, which I thought was brilliant, I really got into that. It's very moral and I'm still very moralistic. Later on, at my next school, we read Oliver Twist and did the musical, so it all made a lot of sense. I played Oliver, and I loved learning my lines. I've always had a knack for memorising anything I read. Now it takes me only a few minutes to memorise a song.

I was never into comics, more into stories. But now I don't like fiction. It's got to be real life - like a book I read recently called You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again. It is written by this producer in America, who tells you about all the stars and how they were.

I like love stories, but they have to be real. And I'm reading a book by Mother Mira, a spiritualist person who meditates and prays a lot. It's great for your head, for your awareness and your morality. It's about how to treat people well, not hold grudges - it's good for the soul. I'm into that right now.

Mica Paris's third album will be released in June.

There weren't a lot of books in our household

HEATHER BRIGSTOCKE

Life peer; former High Mistress of St Paul's Girls School

What really made all the difference to me was Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopaedia. It had everything: if I felt like reading a story or wanted to do some puzzles, I could. My parents gave it to me for Christmas when I was about eight. It was second-hand . . . I still remember the green Rexine cover. It was magic. There weren't a lot of books in our household.

My father had left school at 14, my mother was a graduate of Glasgow University and they'd just come back from China - driven out by the Japanese in 1935 - and had lost all their possessions. They may have had a lot of books before but they certainly didn't have any after that. There was a little bookcase on top of a desk, which had books in it. I remember one called Jack Brown in China - my father was called Jack Brown and had been in China; there were some by Pearl Buck; a couple of my mother's school prizes; a Mrs Gaskell . . . an extraordinary collection of books.

For a short time my father had a newsagent's shop, which had some books - fairy tales that I dipped into and quite liked. I was reading Hereward the Wake and other books of which I understood pretty well nothing. Very soon after that I got on to the Nelson Classics and still have a lot of them. But it was the Children's Encyclopaedia I went back to again and again, feeling rather ashamed, thinking I should have got over it.

What else? I just adored the Chalet books, which I read at about seven or eight - perhaps I just loved the idea of schools] I hadn't the foggiest idea where Innsbruck was but it was certainly more fun than where I was living, which was in Pinner. I loved books with girls in them. I liked Little Women very much because the characters were all girls. They called their mother 'Mumsie' - the thought of it is disgusting, really] The other book I just loved was Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare: I got those very early.

I loved Enid Blyton and the Famous Five

DI TREVIS

Opera and theatre director

I was not brought up with what I think of as middle-class children's classics. I'd never heard of Christopher Robin and was never read to. At school it was Janet and John. I remember the moment I started to read, in my first class at school, looking along the alphabet wall-chart with my teacher and realising for the first time that all these different marks put together made words. Reading has been a solace and a comfort to me ever since.

I used to go up the local library in Birmingham, to the junior section. I loved Enid Blyton. I loved the Famous Five. It was a fantasy middle-class world so far removed from my own. Our house was on a big council estate still being built after the war.

My father read a lot, too. He liked Zane Grey, who wrote cowboy books - a sort of Mills & Boon for men. Oddly enough, my father was also a great reader of Shakespeare, and he knew lots of it off by heart. So I got a sort of reverence for Shakespeare long before I ever read any. And he would recite poetry from his schoolboy anthology - you know, Gray's Elegy - along with playing things on the gramophone such as 'Your Tiny Hand is Frozen'. I suppose it was the pops of English literature.

The first proper book I ever had of my own was a special abridged edition of Jane Eyre. It had a hard cover and came from a bookshop in Birmingham. I'd asked my father for it, and he'd said: 'Are you sure it's not too difficult?'

And of course, once I'd read it, that was it. The business of being locked in a room . . . the wonderful Helen who dies . . . Mr Rochester, and Grace upstairs who reminded me so much of my aunt. It was the evocation of atmosphere that was so brilliant and the revelation that, yes, adults could be cruel, and that there was a whole culture in the world that you must revolt against.

I had a wonderful mother. Her attitude was that if you were reading, you were busy doing something, so you weren't asked to do anything like the washing up. I was always reading - as a result or not, I don't know. I used to go in to the little school library and think, I'm going to read all these books . . . everything. And I'm still a bit like that. If I borrow other people's houses and I see a shelf of books that I wouldn't normally read, I think, oooh, good.

When I was growing up I used to find terrible books of my father's that had been 'put away'. Not quite pornography, but things about prisoners being tortured a bit, that sort of thing. I used to get them out and lock myself in the loo and look at them. I was gripped by the idea that what I read could have happened in real life.

We also had a big book called A Thousand Great Disasters, full of true stories about people drowning in their hundreds and being roasted alive in cinemas. And a medical

dictionary. Those books were left out, you were allowed to read them. It was as if they made palatable my own disaster of just being alive.

Now I read a lot to my daughter, who's four. Not just books, what's in the newspaper, anything. For her birthday I bought her a cookbook and a children's Bible, not because she's having a formal religious education but because they're good stories. Now I've moved into the middle class I know mothers who read their children books they read as a child. But I don't see the things I read - it's all disapproved of now.

My mum sent me to the library every day after school

HANIF KUREISHI

Film director

I did read books, yeah. But not at school. Nothing good happened to anyone at school. My mum sent me to the library every day after school because she thought it would do me good. We lived in Bromley in Kent. I used to like the C. S. Lewis Narnia books, and Biggles. I liked the William books, because he was so naughty. Enid Blyton was fine - anything with a good story. I read every night, never under the sheets because mum and dad thought it was a good thing, so they left the light on.

When boys at school were still reading with their finger under the words (at about 12 or 13), I was getting into Lawrence Durrell, The Catcher in the Rye, Philip Roth and Kerouac. And, no, far from tailing off in adolescence, I actually read more then.

Of course, I used to watch television, mainly sitcoms, but then I went to bed and read. The libraries were great. My mum and dad couldn't afford books, though we had a few. My dad (who is Indian) had books by Stendhal and Dostoevsky, which I started looking at when I was about 15. He loved P. G. Wodehouse and Somerset Maugham, all those Empire books, which is what they all read in India.

I remember deciding that Balzac wrote better stories than Dickens. Then of course I read books for sex - like James Bond when I was about 13, and war books such as The Great Escape.

I lived in two places: the football field and library

ALAN BLEASDALE

Playwright

My mother was a wonderful magpie of a reader. She read voraciously - and she'd send me off to the public library with a list of authors - mainly American crime writers, such as Dashiell Hammett. I'd borrow my own books, but I'd read hers, too; so while other children were reading My Friend Flicker, I was reading Ellery Queen. On my own ticket I remember taking out Conan Doyle, Hans Christian Andersen and the Greek myths. Don't know how I got on to those, but I devoured every word.

I lived in two places: the football field and public library. What did the other lads say? I was football captain, so they couldn't say anything. My father was on shift work, so there was just me and my mum. I'd read my book while she read hers. I read everywhere except on the football field.

My mother encouraged it - she knew the benefit of words. She passed the 11-plus in 1928, but never went to grammar school because my grandmother couldn't afford the uniform. But she was a natural reader. And I owe her so much for that.

Ironically, when I became a professional writer in 1975, I stopped reading fiction. Now I read only biographies, and newspapers. My paper bill's bigger than my mortgage. And my daughter, at 19, reads as much as I do. She adores John Irving, and she was mad about Steinbeck when she was 14 or 15, just as I was.

Alan Bleasdale wrote the television drama 'GBH'. His play 'On the Ledge' is on tour and opens at the National Theatre on 27 April.

HOW TO ENTER

YOUR STORY should be between 1,500 and 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 type-written, double-spaced and on one side of the paper only. We regret that entries cannot be returned, so please keep a copy.

The stories submitted must not have been published elsewhere, but the competition is open to published writers. We will accept only text 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. The closing date for entries is Saturday, 15 May. 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.

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).

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.

THE JUDGES

A PANEL including a pop star, a judge, brilliant writers and experts from the world of children's literature will meet in late June to choose the Story of the Year. They will have read a maximum of 20 entries shortlisted by a team of editors from Scholastic Children's Books. Children from six schools across the country will also be invited to read the shortlisted stories and let the judges know what they think.

Judge Stephen Tumim is HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, and a driving force behind prison reform. He has three daughters and two grandchildren.

Suggs, aka Graham McPherson, is lead singer of the group Madness, whose Finsbury Park reunion concerts last year were the rock events of the summer. He has two daughters.

Michael Rosen writes poems and stories for children, and is the presenter of BBC Radio 4's Treasure Island programme. He has five children.

Angela Lambert needs no introduction to readers of the Independent, for which she writes interviews, profiles and a column. She has also written three novels. Her three children are grown up and she has three grandchildren.

Elizabeth Hammill has worked in the children's book trade for 12 years. She is currently children's department manager at Waterstone's in Newcastle. Her two children are grown up.

David Fickling is editorial director of Scholastic Children's Books, which will publish the winning stories. He will chair the panel. His sons are aged twelve and nine, and his daughter seven.

Julia Eccleshare is children's literature correspondent of the Bookseller, the 'organ of the book trade'. From 1982-92 she was the selector for Children's Books of the Year, an annual review of children's books.

Sue Bates is chairperson elect of the Federation of Children's Book Groups and a former primary headteacher. She will relay to the judges the views of children from the six schools about the shortlisted stories.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments