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

WinS Author Questionnaire: Maud Casey

 Black and white author photo of Maud Casey

This installment of the Writers in Schools author questionnaire features fiction writer Maud Casey. A DC resident, Casey teaches creative writing at the University of Maryland and is the author of the novels Genealogy and The Shape of Things to Come as well as the collection of short fiction Drastic, which was the topic of discussion during Casey’s December 6th visit to Phelps ACE High School.

PEN/Faulkner: What’s been the most memorable thing about any of your visits to a WinS partner school?

Maud Casey: Each time I’ve visited a school, something delightfully unexpected happens in the classroom. It’s why visiting the schools is such a pleasure. Each time, a student asks a question that makes me think about my fiction in a way I never have before; each time, a student asks a question that makes me think about literature in a way I never have before. In other words, it’s hard to choose just one! During my most recent visit, a student who had been relatively quiet during most of the discussion raised his hand rather tentatively and asked whether I’d ever had the experience of having characters from a story I was working on take over and start speaking to me. It was clear he was asking the question because he had had this experience and he wanted to make sure this was supposed to happen, that he wasn’t nuts. It was a writer’s question. He seemed pretty relieved when I said yes. I was happy to provide the reality—anti-reality?—check.

P/F: When you were writing the book used by the WinS program, did you anticipate the book being read by high school students? Had you anticipated ever presenting work to those types of audiences?

MC: I never did, only because my influences were all writers writing for an adult audience. But that seems sort of silly now, come to think of it, since I read so many of those influences in high school. In any case, how could I imagine I’d get so lucky?

P/F: When did you first meet a living author? Was it in a scholastic context? Did it make an impression on you?

MC: Pretty early on. I was born in Iowa City because both of my parents were attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. They’re both writers of fiction, and other things as well, so I didn’t have to run away to join the circus and that was largely a blessing. The value of the imagination, of making stuff up, was never in question, and that made an enormous impression on me. Over the years, I’ve come to understand, and be deeply grateful for, what it is I’ve inherited from my writer parents, particularly in terms of the early permission to be a writer. As in, it is possible to dedicate your life to this quixotic adventure. They also showed me how difficult writing is, how lonely it can be. From a very early age, I understood writing to be hard work. Because growing up around writers, seeing them in all their flawed humanness, was such a gift to me, the mission of the WinS program is particularly dear to my heart.

P/F: What would you have been most curious to ask an author if you’d been part of a WinS visit when you were in high school?

MC: Is there no escape from you people? Kidding. I think I would have been really curious to find out how they started. How did they know it was possible assuming they weren’t surrounded by writers as I was? Again, this is where the mission of WinS is terrific—the modeling of that possibility. It’s such a brave thing to begin to write—it requires unusual mettle, particularly at the beginning.

P/F: You teach at the University of Maryland. What are the biggest differences you find in interacting with your undergrads and the high school students you encounter during WinS visits? In all of your teaching, what are your greatest goals for students?

MC: The high school students I’ve encountered are a little bolder in terms of asking difficult questions, I’ve found. I think this has to do with the armor of protective embarrassment that develops as we age. That said, what I enjoy about teaching undergraduates at Maryland that I also enjoy in the visits with the high school students is the students’ capacity for wonder. There’s a kind of useful innocence in relation to literature that is inspiring and reminds me of why I fell in love with reading and writing in the first place. I’d also add that one of things that has struck me on each of the WinS visits is how prepared the students are. They’re critical, thoughtful readers. Which segues into my greatest goals for my students. Cultivating critical, thoughtful reading skills is definitely one of them. That, and the art of revision. And finally, cultivating a sense of wonder in relation to literature. I hope to provide them with tools to take their work farther on their own but also never want them to forget that as much as there are nuts and bolts involved in this game, there’s also mystery and magic. As my writer mother once wisely told me, writing is “inchoate reaching in heartfelt darkness.”