Veronica Cossanteli, author of dark, funny Middle Grade adventures for Chicken House, kindly agreed to be the adjudicator for our Nov/Dec Competition.
This month’s competition aimed to lighten the spirits and get us thinking about Christmas, turning Christmas music into Christmas stories for children. The brief this month was:
In 300 words: Write a children’s MG story, taking inspiration from your favourite line from your favourite Christmas song.
And the winners are:
First Place – Gill Hollands with Not Even a Mouse
Second Place – Joanne Dennison with The Tiny Tale of the Deathless Girl
Third Place – Graham Steed with A Noisy Silent Night
Highly Commended – Natalie Morant for Lost
Veronica’s opening adjudication comments:
I have a profound admiration for anyone who can write a story in 300 words, so my congratulations go to all this month’s authors.
A short story is like a poem: every word must earn its keep. You can polish them, and polish them again, until every rough edge – every unnecessary syllable – is rubbed away and you are left with something that sparkles: a perfect jewel. But there is more to good fiction than elegance of style; there is also the soul of the story – the voice, the unexpected perspective, the something-undefined that brings it to life and hangs around in your head.
I loved reading all of these entries: some poignant, some heart-warming – and one distinctly disturbing! Faced with some difficult decisions, I looked for literary craftsmanship and originality. At the same time, I listened for the voices that stayed with me, whispering in my ear ….
Bravo to all. At the close of this strange year, your stories have given me a joyful beginning to the festive season so thank you – and Happy Christmas!
First Place: Not Even a Mouse by Gill Hollands
I was struck by the multi-sensory quality of this entry.
Finding him/herself accidentally displaced into the glare and blare of a human Christmas, the miniature protagonist misses the ‘sanctuary of frosted woods’ with the ‘tick of bats, the hum of moths’ – but this realm of giants, with its painful lights and raucous voices, is not without its gastronomic compensations …
A small animal’s world is full of whisker-twitching scents and sounds, as is the writing: truly a mouse-eye view of the world, reminiscent of Dick King Smith. As a good short story should, it merits several readings. First time around, I was so busy willing our mouse to safety, I missed the significance of the hoof prints outside…A beautiful lightness of touch throughout.
I wake, warm, twitching. I squirm my way out, flattening my whiskers. Outside, painful lights blink around me.
Puzzled, I scuttle along the familiar branch, crouch behind the needles at the end, sniffing. Orbs swing around me, twinkling in the glare. I don’t recognise the scent. It’s not forest air.
I hear voices, echoing. That sound still haunts me from my last ordeal in the giants’ realm. Breathless, I set my shaking paws on the needles, leaning out for a better view. Yep. Walls. I duck back into cover.
The voices grow loud. Shooting back to safety, the dangling balls dance around me. I dare not sleep now, curl there rigid, listening.
Finally, I push my nose out, hear a clatter. I freeze. The lights blink off around me. Silence falls. It’s almost like night in the forest, without the tick of bats, the hum of moths. I soak it in.
I know that smell! Mouth watering, I follow the scent down to the floor, claws scrabbling. Scaling a tricky table leg I wriggle over the edge. Success! I grab the cheese in both paws to gorge. Soon, I’m nibbling sugar plums, enormous biscuits too. The glass topples with a crash.
I flee back across the floor, zipping under cover. The door bangs open, flooding in light. A dog barks. I take my chance, darting between giant feet, the scream hurting my ears.
Outside I run, sucking in moonlit fresh air. It’s snowing. I don’t care, sliding on a belly fat and full of cheese.
I cross a double set of tracks among the hoofprints, back to the peaceful sanctuary of frosted woods, where no-one is stirring, except me…
Second Place: A Tiny Tale of the Deathless Girl by Joanne Dennison
A dark entry, pushing the upper boundaries of Middle Grade and turning the spirit of Christmas on its head! A Gothic gem, handled with a sinister subtlety that leaves the reader pondering unanswered questions. As a child, I would have found this deliciously unnerving; as an adult, I remain haunted by it. Read it if you dare; there’s a chance that you will never again hear the peal of church bells without the hairs lifting on the back of your neck ….
The bells were ringing out on Christmas Day, and the church glowed with candlelight. It glinted off the large silver key swinging at the Cardinal’s waist, as he delivered Midnight Mass to the townsfolk.
The girl in the Bell Tower pulled the ropes with such strength and speed that her long mane of dark hair flew out to the sides like a pair of black wings. An unnatural thirst burned at the back of her throat.
As the congregation departed, she listened for the key to turn in the lock, signalling her hour of freedom. She ran barefoot from the room and gulped down the ruby red liquid set out on the alter in a golden goblet. The empty drag in her stomach sated, she twirled down the aisles and cartwheeled around the font.
She froze as the door to the church creaked open.
A young boy slipped in from the cold, wearing nothing but rags. His face smeared with soot. He gasped as he turned, not having heard her approach. Her black eyes inches from his face.
The air from the open door spluttered the candles turning the girl’s gaze towards the falling flakes of snow.
‘I cannot pass the threshold,’ she told him, ‘unless another willingly takes my place.’
Yet he did not run, and let his hand be taken in hers. It felt even colder than her own, and they walked together to the tower.
‘Pull the bell once after I leave.’ she said indicating the rope.
He looked at the straw mattress and the book spread by its side, then back to her beautiful, bloodless face and nodded.
As she flew out of the church a lone bell tolled, and a large silver key locked the door to the tower.
The Cardinal rode home weighed down by a bursting bag of coins from the collection plate. He did not notice the horses’ ears prick or the dark shadow that swooped down from above.
Third Place: A Noisy Silent Night by Graham Steed
A story for Christmas 2020, this represents all the little things that will be lost and missed this year. Is it for today’s children? I hesitated over this, but Mrs Mackie comes immediately to life, with an endearingly rebellious spirit, and what child does not like to see a grown-up behaving unconventionally and triumphing over the bleak voice of reason? The early symptoms of dementia are sensitively implied and Mrs Mackie’s relationship with her son is masterfully sketched in two sentences. There is a lovely juxtaposition where she warbles ‘All is calm …’ while chaos breaks out across the street …
Mrs Mackie gets her carols, and goes happily to bed. A reader, young or old, would need a heart of stone not to be touched by this.
Mrs Mackie waits for children to knock at her door and sing Christmas Carols. Her favourite carol is Silent Night, though she says the night Jesus was born was never silent: the angels burst upon the night with great singing, the shepherds go quickly to Bethlehem chattering all the way, Mary’s donkey in the stable hee-haws at all the fuss.
Mrs Mackie’s son puts up her tree and decorations and helps her make mince pies, but he is not happy. He tells her not to worry about the carol singers but to worry more about living alone in this ‘big old house.’
Mrs Mackie does not understand that this year, because of COVID-19, no carol singers are allowed.
A Christmas without carols?
Suddenly she remembers that in the front room is her father’s record player and a record case full of old records which are much larger than today’s disks.
She flicks through the record covers until she finds Christmas Carols sung by the Kings College Choir. She places the record on the turn table and, lifting the arm, lets the needle head sink gently onto the record.
All at once, Mrs Mackie hears the great choir in their grand church singing in her own living room. Filled with joy, she draws aside the heavy curtains, throws open the windows so everyone can hear, looks up at the silent
night with its bright and clear stars and sings along in her high, warbling voice: Silent Night, Holy Night, All is calm… Curtains open across the street, doors open, voices call, dogs bark, somebody shouts.
The police knock at her door. They tell Mrs Mackie that Christmas Eve is the one night of the year when children must sleep. She gives them a plate of mince pies ‘for the lads at the station’, but when they go, she turns the volume up even louder!
Later, Mrs Mackie, pleased with her noisy silent night, sleeps happily and quietly…
Highly Commended: Lost by Natalie Morant
This was a fun take on the idea and also likely a hidden insight on the author who wrote it – more attuned with solving problems than running from them I would suspect. Though the story didn’t give much in way of the ‘house’ but more to the determination of the new owner in not losing it, it was enjoyable and made longer would be a fun comedy/horror.
They should never have left the path. While they were collecting the holly and fir cones, more snow had fallen. At twelve years old, Luke had been trusted to look after his sister but he’d turned around and everywhere was white. Now it was dark, and Christmas Eve in this cave seemed the only option. It smelled damp, though the water running down the walls was frozen like stone. He kicked the earth. Hard as iron.
Lottie smiled bravely at him, but she was too young to have heard of hypothermia. The brown curls of hair poking from under her red hat shivered.
A thin, critical voice pierced Luke’s thoughts. “Should’ve stayed on the path.”
The children spun round, peering into the gloom.
“Don’t be mean. They’re only young.”
Two small people materialised from the shadows and regarded the children solemnly.
“You’ve got funny ears,” said Lottie, matter-of-fact.
The shorter one rolled his eyes. “See, rude as well as brainless.” The taller one thumped him.
“We’re lost,” explained Lottie unnecessarily.
“Let’s get you home then.”
“We know a short-cut,” winked Taller. “Hold hands.”
Lottie grabbed up the holly branches and stretched a mitten towards Shorter.
“Ugh,” he said. “And have we got to drag all that prickly stuff with us too?”
“It’s for Christmas.” Luke had finally found his tongue.
They made a circle, though Luke was so cold he couldn’t even feel his hands. He found his eyes closing without his permission. He saw sparkling lights through his eyelids and a tingling sensation travelled up from his toes. When his eyes opened again, they stood in their own front garden. The fire inside crackled brightly. Sausage rolls steamed on the table.
Luke started to say thank-you, but Lottie spoke louder than him. “Do you know Father Christmas?”
Shorter gave a snort. “Told you they’d ask that.”
Taller thumped him again and they scampered off into the snow.