Wanted: the best children's writers: Do children enjoy the books their parents want them to read? Jenny Gilbert asks a mother and son

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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will be printed in a special anthology by Scholastic Children's Books, making these the top awards in this country for unpublished work for children.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 especially want to encourage new talent.

Many children know perfectly well how to read; the trouble is, they don't want to. This is what our competition is about: finding writers who can hook this vital age group on the reading habit for life, with plots that twist and turn, characters who convince, and endings that surprise or even shock.

It is not easy. The writer must not condescend, but at the same time must judge what makes sense to a child. He or she must remember what it was to read at this age - but not be old-fashioned.

This year's judges include the writers Anne Fine and Terry Jones as well as children. They will look for a shortlist of 20 stories to read again and again. Write us such a story.

POLLY TOYNBEE, 47, is the BBC's Social Affairs Editor. She has two grown- up daughters, a stepdaughter and a son, Nat, aged nine. They live in Clapham, south London. Nat's father, Peter Jenkins, who died in 1992, was chief political commentator of the 'Independent'. Nat goes to Dulwich Prep School in south London.

Nat: After school I sometimes watch television, but I mostly go outside to play. I read before I go to bed or after my homework. I get about an hour's homework and part of that is 10 minutes' reading.

I like books about Roman Britain and my mum's reading one to me now, by Rosemary Sutcliff. It's got a really good sense of adventure.

Mum doesn't read to me every night. Sometimes she doesn't get home from work in time. I don't mind - I just read to myself - but I do love being read to.

Every Tuesday I get the Beano because it's really funny. I like Roald Dahl's books because they're exciting. And I like E Nesbit books - they're funny. My favourite is The History of the Bastables. It's old-fashioned but I like old-fashioned books.

We've got a lot of books at home so I don't need to buy any new ones. If I go to a bookshop it's usually to buy an Asterix book. I'm into Romans.

Polly: I find it hard to get Nat to read, he needs prodding. But he loves being read to, and retains it all and involves elements of the stories in his private games. Luckily, his school makes him read for 10 minutes a day and write down in a book where he got to. It's not that he watches much television, but he would rather run outside and play with friends. I often give him an extra half-hour in bed with the light on in order to get him to read.

Peter read to him a lot, and I think Nat does associate books with his father. After he died, it was very hard to know quite what was going on in Nat's mind. But reading together, experiencing a book that you then talk about, brings you closer. It's intimate. And it always puts him into a calm, contented mood, much more than watching television would.

I've never tried to prevent my children from reading anything. Asterix and the Beano don't really count as reading, but if they'd got stuck into nothing but Enid Blyton I suppose I might have suggested something else.

In fact, my daughter did read only pony books for rather a long time, but she moved on. She's now 18 and there were times when I used to nag a bit and say she didn't read enough. One day she challenged me and said, 'All right then, so what are all these children's books I haven't read?' And when she'd made a list, it seemed she had read all the staple things - Swallows and Amazons, and so on. It just hadn't seemed like it at the time.

As regards what children read, I tend to think reading is an end in itself. The very act of reading eventually leads you into better and better books.

There can't be many women my age who weren't fans of Pamela Brown and Noel Streatfeild. I was besotted with them. Both wrote stories about children acting as adults - doing things independently of adults. Children long for that freedom and respect.

My favourite book of all time was Red Cat Runs Away, by Rhoda Power.

Mine was a very bookish home but still occasionally I had to be persuaded to read. We had TV very late - not until I was 14. My mother often used to read aloud to me. I remember The Mill on the Floss when I must have been about 10 - - and I identified furiously with Maggie Tulliver. She was a wonderful heroine for girls - and there was a tragic weepy ending.

Then there was E Nesbit. I inherited from my mother an entire beautiful set of them, which I have kept, and Nat has devoured every one. The Railway Children, Five Children and It, The Treasure Seekers . . . and despite being Edwardian, they're not at all fusty. They're anti-adult, debunking the sort of preachy children's books that were being written at the time.

I read them to Nat at seven and eight and he identified immediately with the children in them. Children seem to prefer non-moralistic stories, though mine all loved The Secret Garden, in which you start with two very nasty children who, through suffering, become two very nice children.