'A New Direction: Starting Small' - Reflections on this Year's Theme (2)

'A New Direction: Starting Small' - Reflections on this Year's Theme (2)

The results of The Orwell Youth Prize 2021 will be revealed at our Celebration Day on Thursday 22nd July, and we are looking forward to sharing another year of exceptional writing.

This Thursday is also an opportunity to reflect on the responses of every young writer who entered the prize - to celebrate your achievements, but also to create new conversations around your collective concerns. Supported by Rethinking Poverty: The Webb Legacy, this year’s Orwell Youth Prize encouraged creative responses to the theme ‘A New Direction, Starting Small’. In addition to receiving over 500 entries, which ranged from poems and short stories to journalism and essays, we asked young people tell us the one change they would most like to see in their lives.

George Orwell himself demonstrated that the strongest writing often comes from a place of personal experience. Our aim this year, as the pandemic continued, was to support entrants to think hard about their local environment, encouraging them to trust their observations and use their authority to write about the changes they would like to see to create a better society.

Rebecca Clayton and Molly Elliott have been helping coordinate our feedback and longlisting process this year, and have between them had the privilege of reading hundreds of pieces. Ahead of Thursday’s announcement, we asked Rebecca and Molly what they had learnt from the ways in which our entrants grappled with this year’s theme. What were the themes which stood out?

Our second reflection comes from Rebecca Clayton, who is currently a freelance writer. She finished her MA in English: Issues in Modern Culture at UCL in late 2020, and she wrote her thesis on George Orwell’s lesser-known novel 'Keep the Aspidistra Flying'.

Rebecca Clayton:

When I was asked to help with the Orwell Prize for Exposing Britain’s Social Evils back in January, at the beginning of the third lockdown, it was understandable that the entries were more sombre in tone. However, when I was later asked to get involved with the Orwell Youth Prize, I was caught completely off guard by the eloquence and solemnity with which the entrants’ wrote.

When submitting their entry, we asked each young person to suggest the one change they would like to see implemented in society. Though we received every type of answer, from ‘reversing the impact of climate change’, ‘increasing the happiness of people around the world’, and ‘stopping systemic racism’, to ‘I want to be a millionaire’, three main subjects dominated the answers I read: discrimination of all kinds, mental health awareness, and the threat posed by climate change.

Although the theme of this year’s Youth Prize was ‘A New Direction: Starting Small’, most young people seemed to concentrate on the bigger picture. The tone of most of the pieces themselves was serious and sad but equally ambitious about the future. The entrants were very critical of the way society treats the LGBTQ+ community, the way politicians play games with the lives of first-, second-, and third-generation immigrants who have settled in this country, and the way colonialism is taught in schools. However, they were also hopeful about the future, and committed to implementing changes that would alter peoples’ lives for the better. The way schools teach young people about different cultures, races, and religions dominated many of the pieces I was reading. Young people were very critical of what they saw as a discourse dominated by “dead white men”, to paraphrase one particular short play submitted to us. They were keen to discuss the ways in which history has warped our perception of ourselves as an imperial force. I felt that they had absorbed much of what was spoken about in this country after the murder of George Floyd in the United States, and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests worldwide.

Young people were also preoccupied with the effects of the pandemic on their education. I read some heartbreaking pieces about children who had been isolated from their friends, their classmates, and their teachers. They were distressed about the education and time in the classroom they were missing out on. They lamented their lack of social interaction, but also their limited access to outside space. It was worrying to hear that young people themselves were worried about the impact the pandemic was having on their development, both socially and intellectually. Sometimes it can appear that adults discuss such things without the input of the children themselves, so it was humbling to see how young people have picked up on the concerns of teachers, parents, and politicians. A lot of the poetry written expressed feelings of emotional loneliness, helplessness, and physical isolation; although not always stated explicitly, and often a feature of young writing, it seems obvious that they were also reacting to the continuous lockdowns we have had in this country.

Another dominant strain of discourse was on the consequences of social media and technology; again, entrants concentrated mostly on the way it affects their learning. A lot of pieces I was reading were concerned with Instagram, Twitter, and the way their ability to instantly access almost any piece of information was affecting their mental health in school. In a lot of these pieces, the perspective was objective rather than subjective. By this, I mean that they saw the effects it was having on young people all over the country, rather than to themselves personally. A lot of this was wrapped up in their awareness of their generation - “Gen Z” or “Zoomers”, as they sometimes referred to themselves as. For many entrants, their personal identity was intimately connected to their status as young “Gen Z”, and they often equated their age group with the expansion of the internet and technology in general. Again, I thought this was interesting because it shows how hyper-aware they are of the online discourse surrounding the legacy of millennials, and the opportunities they see to make societal changes as they grow older.

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