'A New Direction: Starting Small' - Reflections on this year's theme (1)

'A New Direction: Starting Small' - Reflections on this year's theme (1)

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.

Next 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 first reflection comes from Molly Elliott. Molly is an International Relations graduate and previous winner of the Orwell Youth Prize for her story ‘Mind the Gap’. She is especially interested in the link between technology and politics.

Molly Elliott:

This year I was lucky enough to help with the admin, feedback and longlisting processes for the Orwell Youth Prize. In total, I provided personalised feedback on twenty-six entries, checked and sent around 200 pieces of feedback to our entrants, and read around 100 entries during longlisting and second-tier longlisting. As a previous winner, it was eye-opening to see behind the scenes and exciting to read so many high-quality entries.

The 2021 theme of ‘A new direction: Starting Small’ clearly inspired entrants to tackle a wide range of issues. Environmental concerns such as climate change, littering, and extinction featured prominently alongside entries discussing racism, educational inequality, and sexual harassment.

As with last year, where I saw many entries focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s entries were often linked to key events in the news. It was clear that the deaths of George Floyd and Sarah Everard, Black Lives Matter protests, international human rights abuses, and the cycle of lockdowns were weighing on our entrants’ minds.

Despite the theme’s optimistic connotations, many entries had tones of despair, or exasperation with the issue at hand. Some of the most hopeful entries tended to offer innovative solutions to specific problems, such as litter in the local park or the struggles of Dalit women in India. It was inspiring to see how this year’s theme encouraged critical thinking and problem solving. On the topic of climate change, several entrants felt the problem too big to ‘start small’, demanding system wide change instead. However, even the less hopeful entries were not pessimistic. A common emotion I noticed was anger, and outrage at the state of the world. I am not surprised by this, considering the way in which young people’s lives have been affected in the past year.

A wide variety of literary forms were used in response to the theme. This was aided by the wide range of brilliant resources listed on the Youth Prize website. I was particularly impressed by entries which managed to capture big political issues in carefully constructed poetry, or subtle fictional stories. We also had lots of impressive essays and speeches from English classes. It was great to see so many students trying their hand at political writing, and teachers are clearly using the prize to encourage thoughtful political discussions.

Entrants were also asked to talk about ‘one positive change’ that would increase their happiness. Answers were inventive, bold, and optimistic. Many entrants wished to change big issues, such as eliminating racism, sexual harassment, or gender inequality. Some opted for smaller, more immediate changes such as providing more mental health support in schools or improving diversity in education. Many answers expressed just how hard the past year has been for young people but showed hope for improvement as things get “back to normal”.

I’d like to mention the brilliant volunteers as well. The vast knowledge and commitment to literature of our volunteers shone through in every piece of feedback I saw. It was great to see volunteers who specialised in various forms, who were able to comment on the literary technicalities of entries. This led to incredibly high quality feedback. Although small in number, it was great to read specialist feedback on game designs. Hopefully game design will become a more popular form in the years to come.

Overall, the standard of entries was very high this year. With such a vast range in topic and form, it was a real challenge to select the best. The theme’s focus on change and innovation worked really well, allowing young people to write on the topics they feel most strongly about.

I hope to return as a volunteer again next year, as I’m sure the quality and quantity of entries will continue to rise. Thank you to Alex, Jordan, Jeremy, Rebecca, and the rest of the team. It’s been a pleasure to help out as always.

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