Youth Essay Contest Winners and Runners-up!

PEN/Faulkner is excited to announce the winners and runners-up for this year’s Youth Essay Contest! Writers were asked to submit personal essays on the theme of “Rise Up.” Each of the winners and runners-up will receive a monetary prize, and the two winners will read on stage alongside authors Alice McDermott, Francine Prose, Nafissa Thompson-Spires, and Rachel Louise Synder, among others, at our 31st Annual Gala held at the Katzen Center on Saturday, October 26.

We’re proud of all the young writers who submitted to the contest. Find out more about the annual PEN/Faulkner Youth Essay Contest and annual Gala.

Queenal Ayaba, Capital City Public Charter School
“The Lion Anger Has Resurrected”

Each day, my friends from Cameroon sent me video clips about people being killed like birds being hunted. You could see the veins and skeletons of people laying on the floor; some had deep holes in their heads to the point that you could see the eyes staring at you like they wanted revenge. The water that had been held deep in my eyes started pouring out and dripping on the ground like stormy rain.

“Make we na come oh.”

“Ma house di burn.”

“ They don finish me oh. Ma pickin don die. They don burn my house.”

“Watti I don do?” said a man in one of the videos sent to me by my friend.

Throughout the torture that I faced seeing the spirits of the innocent death weeping and crying, I knew deep in me that there was cheetah who wanted to rise up and make a change, but I did not know how. The ashes that held together firmly in the fire started flaking off.

“Where is the flame that is burning in me,” I said. I could not bear to see more houses burning and people fleeing from their homes and villages.

Katrina Tracy, Hardy Middle School
“Sometimes Your Stick Out”

It felt like I was walking around with a sign on my forehead that read, “American.” Maybe I could lie and say I’m from Kyrgyzstan — technically true, my mother grew up there — but I didn’t know any Kyrgyz, and what if they asked? So after a second of deliberation, I reluctantly said it.

“I’m from America.” My brother liked the attention they gave us then, their faces had a look of almost-masked shock, changing into a calculating look. Like, “What questions do you think we can get away with?” I gritted my teeth, hoping my brother didn’t say anything silly.

“What type of car do you have?” The boy started.

“A Honda.” If I had met someone from a country I had never been to, I would ask more interesting questions, like the food, or what their favorite color was.

“Hmmm, well I guess that’s a respectable car.” He peered at me disapprovingly, as if saying, do better.

Sacha Gregoire, Hardy Middle School
“My Greatest Fear”

We arrived at the swing. It looked even more monstrous up close. There were thin wires snaking up, with rusty brown chains around them leading up to the top. The top seemed hundreds of feet up, putting the people on it at the top of the world- and then the wires would let go of the swing, which left the victims on the swing swooping downwards, their lives being risked every second. Despite me insisting that I was not going on, the chaperone had made me put on the safety equipment, saying that I might change my mind at the last second. Group by group, people went on the swing, but I did not have the heart to look at them—I looked the opposite direction and closed my eyes for good measure. I could hear the screams of my classmates. I was sure an accident had happened, that someone had died. I turned around. The last group was going onto the swing. They were a group of two—Daniel and Morgan.

“Hey!” the park worker said. “The swing needs at least three people on it, we can’t send two people up! Who hasn’t gone?” Everyone started saying my name, some pointing at me.

Alexander Suggs, Capital City Public Charter School
“The Guardsmen”

As my great grandfather told me once, the winter far east along the Volga was always cold, especially back when he was young, way before I was even born. That was at the same time when he told me of the communist revolution he fought against, and how brother turned on brother, father on son.


In the year 1917, as my great grandfather described it, the communist visionary Vladimir Lenin was released from exile, allowed back into Russia by the people, who were growing sick and tired of the Tsar’s rule. Lenin turned the people against the Tsar who had long since abandoned the hope of his people,driving them into a war which was already costing the poor workers and soldiers more lives and money. Lenin and his supporters took up arms, forming a people’s army to overtake the one already existing in defense of the Tsar. One of the first to join the so-called “White Guard,” an anti-communist brigade, was my great grandfather, who had already completed service in the Ukraine against the Austrians.

Hastily, the White Guard set out. My grandfather and his friends marched to the edge of the Volga River to stop the revolutionary forces.

As they stood in wait, the snow fell upon them. “Like God himself had left us all to ourselves,” my great grandfather said. “The winter froze everything over. Rifles, boots, skin. Everything.”

Arianna Camacho-Mendez, Capital City Public Charter School
Sosina Gebremichael, Banneker High School
Arwen Gorham, McKinley Tech High School
Mikalah Scott, Cardozo Education Campus
Alexis Toro Juarez, McKinley Tech High School

Teachers, Authors, Students, Readers: Check out Our New Writers in Schools Website

 Screen Shot of WinS Web Platform

This spring, PEN/Faulkner has launched a powerful new tool that assists teachers in bringing works of contemporary fiction and authors into their classrooms.

Check out the new site over here:

Since 1989, we’ve run Writers in Schools, an initiative that gets works of contemporary literature into the hands of high school students here in Washington, DC and that brings authors into classrooms to meet with students who’ve studied their work. Last year, we expanded the program to Baltimore, and by the end of this school year, we will have run a total of 170 visits to DC high schools and another 32 to Baltimore high schools, donating a mountain of books and providing meaningful literary encounters for thousands of students in the process. In order to centralize our Writers in Schools curricular materials and to streamline the process for scheduling author visits, we’ve built a new Writers in Schools web platform.

Elizabeth Gutting, PEN/Faulkner’s Newest Staffer, on Her First WinS Visit

McKinley Tech High School

McKinley Technology High School – Washington, DC

One month ago, on Monday, October 7th, esteemed writers from all over the country came to D.C. to read at the PEN/Faulkner 25th Annual Gala—as well as to visit local schools to discuss their books. Among the writers was Roy Scranton, who visited McKinley Tech to talk about Fire and Forget, a collection of war stories from Iraq and Afghanistan that he and another writer, Matt Gallagher, edited together. Scranton served in the U.S. Army from 2002 to 2006, including fourteen months in Baghdad, and spoke to students about writing, putting together a story collection, and what it was like to be a soldier in Iraq.

He began by reading from his story in Fire and Forget, acting out dialogue between soldiers and Iraqis with gusto. A storm raged outside, making the moment all the more dramatic. Students leaned in and applauded him when he finished, and then had a slew of sharp and unafraid questions. When one asked if a soldier could really “fire and forget,” Roy shook his head, and replied candidly. “As a solder, you go overseas and fight—and it’s impossible to forget. We wanted the title of this collection to have a certain irony to reflect that.”

Fire & Forget Book JacketHe went on to discuss the order of the stories—chosen carefully, like a well thought out “mix CD or playlist,” where each story is in conversation with the others, drawing on different aspects of the two wars. One student asked Roy to talk about what inspired him to write and collect stories about war. Roy responded that while both Iraq and Afghanistan played a hugely important role in the last 10 years of this country, very few people seem to understand what was going on in these countries while soldiers fought. The collection, he said, aimed to help translate the experience he and others had overseas.

One student commented that reading the stories had raised this question in her mind: Does war make people more human, or does it make people inhumane? What did he think? 

Scranton paused to reflect on this thoughtful question. War is such an extreme thing, he began, and so it can bring out the best and the worst in a person; overall, though, it tends to brutalize people. He went on to say that war can make a person numb to others’ suffering—“because you just have to get through it.” He made the point that things that are horrific in a civilian zone become normal in a war zone. But then, he said, you also have to consider that humans are the ones making war—and so there are lessons to learn about what it means to be human from the way we start and wage wars.

To conclude, one student asked Scranton: how did it feel to put the book together?

It was difficult, he said, to go back over some of those experiences, which reminded him of his own life as a soldier. And he’d found that with his own writing, it often felt odd to use personal memories to create fiction, mentioning that sometimes now it was hard for him to discern between his real memories and the ones that he’d altered for fiction.

After his visit ended, students lingered to sign books and talk with him. As we left the school, he marveled at how brave the students were with their questions – commenting that few readings he’d given elicited such an intense discussion.

I, too, was impressed by the depth and intensity of the questions, which clearly came from students who read closely and thought critically. As a new member of the PEN/Faulkner staff, this was my first WinS visit —and I have to say, it exceeded even my highest of expectations. I can’t wait for more!

— Elizabeth Gutting
Office Manager
PEN/Faulkner Foundation




A Room with a View: A Look at One Baltimore Classroom

During a recent Writers in Schools visit in Baltimore, author Rob Roensch met with instructor Lauren Masciantonio’s students who had read his collection of short fiction The WIldflowers of Baltimore. Masciantonio teaches English at Baltimore’s Academy for College and Career Exploration, and her students were curious to meet Roensch and were deeply engaged with him during the visit. Looking around Masciantonio’s classroom, it quickly became clear that she makes reading a priority in her classroom, and we thought we’d share a few of the quotes about reading that Masciantonio’s students see on a daily basis.  

"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead and rotten, either write something worth reading or do things worth the writing." — Benjamin Franklin

"Once you learn to read, you will be forever free." — Frederick Douglass

"We read to know that we are not alone." — C.S. Lewis


In which We Make Poor Sports Metaphors to Talk about Chad Harbach’s WinS Visit.

 Author Chad Harbach poses with students from Cardozo High School.

It’s all too easy to employ sports metaphors when speaking or writing about Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding. These things necessarily spring to mind after you’ve read a 500+ page campus novel that is, at heart, very much about the game of baseball.

One could, for instance, riff on the pacing of the book: Harbach gets the reader to first with careful descriptions of his fictional Westish College, and takes us to second with the introduction of five (five!) intriguing point of view characters. He rounds third with the ramped up tension of dreams gone awry and love lost or misdirected. Finally, he brings the novel home with a surprising denouement. Or one might be tempted to compare Harbach to a buzzed-about rookie who has proved his worth with a major league contract and a dazzling debut season.

Certainly, Harbach’s touring schedule has been as challenging as any major leaguer’s. His most recent stop was a PEN/Faulkner Foundation Reading Series event with Karen Russell. Both Harbach and Russell—like many generous authors before them—visited D.C. classrooms as part of PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in Schools program. 

Chad Harbach's novel The Art of Fielding.

And this is where the (admittedly silly) sports metaphors fail. Harbach’s visit to Cardozo High School was brilliant, and the students were well prepared to ask about the book’s many intricacies and subplots. What of the gay relationship in the book? What about the writing process itself? Why did it take so long to write it? How about the Moby Dick references? Why so many? What does one book have to do with the other? At one point, the questions came as quickly as criss-crossing practice throws across the infield (sorry, sorry), and Harbach handled it like a pro (again, sorry).

What was most surprising both about reading The Art of Fileding and about Harbach’s visit to Cardozo was that while the book is about baseball, the book is also utterly concerned with human relationships, how they work and fail to work, how we sometimes try to hold on to ones that aren’t working, and how some that are working suffer from our neglect. Still, it’s not as if baseball is some cypher or avatar for Harbach; baseball in The Art of Fielding is still the baseball you know and love. The game is depicted, examined, and mused upon quite thoughtfully and thoroughly throughout the novel. 

Which is likely why the book has such broad appeal. It so wonderfully represents what author Tony Early has called “the thing” (the thing the story is about) and “the other thing” (what isn’t quite the thing—in this case baseball—but that is nonetheless critical to our understanding of the text). Indeed, just as Deion Sanders has played in both the Super Bowl and the World Series, The Art of Fielding is multiple things at once: a meditation on the game and the country that holds it dear, and a fraught tale about the ways we try (and sometimes fail) to love one another as best we can.

— Nate Brown 

Guest Blogger: Coolidge High School’s Clare Berke

 Author Dolen Perkins-Valdez poses with students from Coolidge.

Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of Wench, visited my tenth grade classes as part of our third unit of the school year. The unit theme was love, and the essential question was: Does love free us or cage us? Throughout the unit, students discussed and wrote about this question while referencing examples from the novel Wench, William Shakespeare’s play “The Taming of the Shrew” and Roald Dahl’s short story “Lamb to the Slaughter.” Shortly after Ms. Perkins-Valdez visited, students had to turn in their final first semester essay in which they argued their answer to the essential question.

By participating in a dialogue with Ms. Perkins-Valdez’s about not only love, but also freedom and civil rights, my students strengthened their understanding of the characters in the novel, which helped the writing come more easily. Wench is a perfect anchor text to debate the existence of true love and whether its magic works to constrain or liberate those who fall under its spell. Many students successfully argued that the protagonist, a sla

ve named Lizzie, was caged by her love for her master, Drayle. Other students argued with equal success that Drayle’s love for Lizzie and Lizzie’s love for herself, her friends and her children provided opportunities for independence. Whichever side a student took, they were required to provide evidence and explanations.

Book jacket for the novel Wench

In addition to discussing the characters in the novel, my students asked many questions about Ms.Perkins-Valdez’s life and career. Her sincerity and humor created an enjoyable experience for all, and each class passed more quickly than the last.


— Clare Berke
Instructor of English
Coolidge High School 

Getting to Know You: Baltimore Edition or, What I Learned by Visiting an AP Class with Jean McGarry and then Driving Around

Ocean State book jacket


Yesterday, PEN/Faulkner continued the expansion of its Writers in Schools programming in Baltimore as author and Johns Hopkins professor Jean McGarry visited instructor Sean Martin’s Advanced Placement English class at Friendship Academy of Science and Technology in Baltimore’s Canton neighborhood. Mr. Martin’s students had read and discussed McGarry’s story collection Ocean State, and the hour-long conversation touched on everything from how an author decides what perspective is appropriate for a story to what is most effective to leave off the page in a short story. McGarry, soft-spoken and deeply introspective, took the students questions in stride, and often turned the questions back on the students. When one young woman asked why McGarry had left the text of a letter off of the page in one of her short stories, McGarry replied, “Well, that’s a good question. What do you think?” The playful back and forth made for a wonderful visit, and the students had particularly keen questions about McGarry’s stories “Transference” about a psychiatrist named Dr. Broad and about “Welcome Wherever He Went” about a child with the unlikely name of Mr. Saintsbury  who, as McGarry put it during the visit, is a fully formed, mature individual though only five-years-old and despite a physical disability that remains unnamed throughout the story.   

Suffice it to say, it was a great visit that, much like our long-running programming in Washington, D.C., left me feeling buoyant and optimistic, both about the future of American fiction and about the kind of work that’s being done in our classrooms. 

After the visit, I stopped by a number of schools in Baltimore to drop off some information about PEN/Faulkner’s WinS programs, and in doing so, I felt like I got to know a bit more about the city and its neighborhoods. I drove from Roland Park down to Charles Village and eventually through Fells Point before heading south to Federal Hill. It was a perfect day to see more of the city. As we continue to expand to schools in Baltimore, I’m looking forward to coming to know the place better still. 

If you’re a writer or instructor with the Baltimore City Public Schools and want more information about how your public or public charter high school can get involved, please contact me at nbrown [at] 

— Nate Brown

Of the Expected & Unexpected: Marita Golden Visits National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter High School

Marita Golden at National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter School

Author Marita Golden met with students at NCP Public Charter High School on January 17 to discuss her novel “After.”


Novelist Marita Golden visited National Collegiate Preparatory Public Charter School in southeast D.C. last week to discuss her novel, After, as well as her other work and her writing career. After follows Carson Blake, a veteran police officer from a troubled family who, on a routine traffic stop, ends up shooting and killing a young man when he mistakes a cell phone for a concealed weapon. The students had a ton of questions, of course, and during the discussion I learned two things: one expected, the other totally unexpected.

First, Ms. Golden discussed the extensive research she did before writing the book. She called the public relations bureau for the Prince George’s County Police and asked if she could speak with someone who would know something about what happens when an officer discharges his weapon. They put her in touch with a number of police officers who had discharged their weapons on duty, some who had killed their targets, others who hadn’t. She also spoke with police therapists, who the officers are required to see after any type of violent incident. She went to morning roll calls, on ride-alongs, learned all of the slang, spent months researching what it was like to be a police officer before ever sitting down to write the novel.

Marita Golden Book Jacket for "After"This was what I expected, and Golden’s research has clearly paid off. From the outset of the novel, the reader inhabits Carson’s world. We follow him as he goes to work, moves through his family life, and, eventually, recovers from the trauma of a violent incident. And, all the while, we are absorbing his mannerisms and beliefs—things that stem directly from Ms. Golden’s research, and things that a veteran of the Prince George’s County would likely do and know.  

The unexpected revelation of the visit was this: when she conceived of After, Ms. Golden hadn’t planned to tell the story from the point of view of a police officer. Growing up in D.C.’s Columbia Heights neighborhood and coming of age during the civil rights movement, she’s always had a complicated (and admittedly negative) view of police officers. At the beginning of the writing process, she’d been interested in the aftermath of the shooting from the perspective of the victim’s family. It was her months of research, and the extraordinary men and women that she met while “on the job,” that gradually shed new light on what it is to be a police officer. And the resulting novel depicts a man who is not just a police officer, but a human, struggling with guilt and striving towards redemption.

— Ariel Martino

Loving Language with Lulu Delacre

Author Lulu Delacre reads her illustrated book Jay and Ben to participants in the Teen Parent Book Club.  On Thursday, October 11th Lulu Delacre visited the Cardozo Senior High School teen parent book club to discuss Jay and Ben, as well as her bilingual book Arrorró, Mi Niño, a book of Latino lullabies and gentle games.

She discussed her inspiration for writing Arrorró, Mi Niño, remembering when her own daughters were born. Instead of reading to them in those early days, she used to sing to them, and many of the songs she sang were the very same ones that she remembered her mother singing to her as a baby. She found that sharing these songs and games with her children was a great way to give them an early glimpse into the traditions and folklore that were integral in her own upbringing.

“We often raise our children between two cultures,” Ms. Delacre said to the group. “It’s becoming even more important to give our children roots as they learn the language and culture of the United States.”

Ms. Delacre also discussed fostering a love of reading in young children using Jay and Ben, an interactive board book designed for special needs students, autistic children, and early education. The book tells the story of a boy who loves to do things on his own and encourages readers to read visually and associate each word with a corresponding image.

In discussing the book, Ms. Delacre noted the variety of ways it can be used. It is both an imaginative story about friendship and a practical, step-by-step guide explaining how to spread jam on toast, how to properly brush your teeth, and how to get dressed–all important, kinetic skills that parents can help their children learn. 

Ms. Delacre’s thirty-year experience in the children’s book industry, as well as her unique perspective made for an afternoon that was unlike any teen parent book club visit thus far.  As Marybeth Souza, Program Coordinator for the New Heights program at Cardozo High School, put it, “It is not every day that we have the opportunity to meet and work with a bilingual author.”

The Teen Parent Book Club is a partnership between the PEN/Faulkner Foundation, the New Heights Teen Parents Center and DC Public Schools. The group meets bi-weekly to discuss books by local, contemporary authors. Read about previous sessions here, here, here, and here. For more information about Lulu Delacre, visit her website.