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Ghost world: Young Writer’s Competition storytelling

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Three young DB women are getting ready to run the world – right after some spooky storytelling in this year’s Young Writers Competition. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

Renee Tan, Millie Zoë Tarrant and Hermione Barnes-Clay are sitting around in a Pacific Coffee shop near the ferry pier, dissing Marvel. The three seem to agree that there’s just too much frantic fighting in the films, though Renee recently went to see Avengers: Endgame with her mother and sister. Her dad is “more into Batman.” Hermione looks resigned to answering questions about her name. “I do really like JK Rowling,” she says only a tiny bit sheepishly, admitting her name may indeed have come about because of the bestsellers.

All three practically clutch their imaginary pearls at the notion that anything other than the original Star Wars trilogy – yes, the ones from the 1970s – is worth their time. Millie takes a moment to boast about speaking the dialogue before it happens. Join the club, little sister.

Renee, 15, Discovery College (DC), Hermione, 13, Discovery Bay International School (DBIS) and Millie, 12, DC are the finalists in this year’s Around DB and Life on Lantau Young Writers Competition (YWC), open to any and all budding writers living or going to secondary school on Lantau. The three standout stories were selected by judges and mentors Peter Sherwood, Trisha Hughes and John Saeki, all published authors.

The finalists’ stories went to an online vote on Facebook from June 7 to 14, with Renee placing first, Millie second and Hermione third. The runnersup, Rebecca Tilbrook, 15, DBIS; Ada Arho Havren, 15, DC and Kayla Adara Lee, 15, YMCA of Hong Kong Christian College, as well as the finalists, each received books from Bookazine at a prize-giving ceremony at DBIS on June 19.

Scarily good

The three YWC finalists are at three different, engaging stages in their young lives. As the oldest, Renee has a kind of poise about her that will only get stronger. She’s a bit more woke than the other two, and can tenderly address issues like institutional racism and sexism. She’s aware of issues like those, but admits, living somewhere like Discovery Bay. We’re in a bit of a bubble. We’re ‘educated’ about things that are going on in the world but we still don’t realise it’s actually happening. It doesn’t touch us here.”

Hermione is just starting to parse the real world. “We do study a lot of global topics and my tutor always reminds me to read the news – and I do,” she says, pointing out that at school her classes have touched on women in science, gender discrimination and gun laws in America. Ouch.

Millie is still figuring out what it even means to be woke. “Is that smart?” she genuinely asks. After a quick description she ponders for a moment, eventually contextualising herself. “I read young adult, but sometimes I read adult fiction. I probably shouldn’t, but because of that I hope I’m aware of more,” she reasons. “We all learn about [this stuff]. The boys, and some of the girls, will be messing around and laughing in class, and I’m staring at my book and thinking this is really happening, and if it happened to them, they wouldn’t be laughing.”

All three – Renee, Hong Kongborn to Malaysian/ Singaporean parents; Hermione and Millie both Brits, and each with a sister– are youthful but clearly not young. Their personalities slowly reveal themselves during the course of the interview. Renee is reserved at first, eventually loosening up when she finds common ground. Hermione has artistic energy to burn, plays ukulele and piano, and is flirting with art school. Millie is just energetic, quick with a retort to almost any comment and focused in the way 12-yearolds usually aren’t.

“I want to go to Oxford,” she says of her future plans in a tone that broaches no argument. “Everybody wants to go to Oxford,” quips Renee right back, who’s also considering law. “Yes, but I am going to
Oxford,” comes Millie’s quick reply. The reason Hermione has no input: she’s outside getting photos taken.

Watching

This year’s YWC story was of the ghost variety, something all three admit they have little belief in. Renee is pragmatic with a firm “maybe” when asked where she lands on the spectre spectrum, but that didn’t stop her from the creatively structured Watching, told from a fresh point-of-view. “I was hoping people would become more attached to it and think of [the action] as something that could affect them; so when it happens there’s a connection they would feel.”

Renee entered the contest last year and finished in the runnersup circle even though the story wasn’t written for the YWC. This year she committed to the process, partly in order to get some writing tips from a pro. And she was thrilled to get so much feedback from her mentor, Trisha Hughes, author of the V2V series of historical fiction and bestselling memoir Daughters of Nazareth.

“She actually printed out my essay and had a ton of notes. I knew she was pretty busy – she was flying someplace the next day – and I didn’t know she was a published author.” Needless to say, Renee appreciated the time she got.

“It was very easy to be her mentor because I already believed she had a terrific story to begin with,” says Trisha of their collaboration on Renee’s chiller, which she compared to Stephen King. “There is nothing better than a suspense story written in the first person and in the present tense to hook a reader and get their heart racing… For someone so young, I believe she has a fabulous future ahead of her.”

Fifty-eight

For Hermione, Fifty-eight was a semi-gothic experiment taken from childhood memories. The truly spooky tale had a simplicity, lack of flowery embellishment and power her mentor, author and Around DB columnist, Peter Sherwood applauded.

“With mentoring she listened well, asked questions and was clearly ready to accept advice,” says Peter. “However, her tale was so well constructed there was not a lot of input left to provide. She did have something of an advantage, as her father is a storybook writer.”

“I do read and I’ve always loved writing – since I was little. I was always drawing picture books and making up stories to go with them,” Hermione reveals. “I love horror and gothic horror, so [of entering] I thought ‘Why not?’”

Like the writer herself, Fifty-eight is somewhat ambiguous; Hermione at her transitional age had one modest goal in mind. “I didn’t really have a message. It was just an idea came to me that I wanted to creep people out with.”

The Night My Brother Returned

Millie, with her questioning nature did have goals in mind. She wanted to see if she could find more confidence in her writing, as well as raise awareness of how real bullying is and the massive impact it can have on preteens and teens.

Her story, The Night My Brother Returned, is about suicide. Millie doesn’t have a mobile phone, and the only social media she interacts with right now are email and Pinterest, almost unheard of for a ‘tween’ in 2019. She admits she can stress herself out, but assures readers – and the school, which upon seeing the story placed a call to her parents – “I’m fine,” with a little eye-roll. She says, “Lots of people feel this way in the world, and I want people to know that. But I also have a vivid imagination, so that helped too.”

“It’s important for us to tackle [bullying] and talk about it openly,” says mentor John Saeki, the author of The Tiger Hunters of Tai O. “Storytelling is one of the ways to do that, and I think Millie nailed it with her excellent ghost story. She is very bright and has many great ideas. She told me it’s the first story she’s written, which surprised me, but I certainly hope it won’t be the last.”

By mid-summer they’ll all be visiting family overseas, but for now, Hermione ducks out early to get ready for a concert, while Renee and Millie hang around to argue the relative merits of not over-thinking anything, how they identify (Renee leans Malaysian, Millie is aggressively ‘English’) and their shared Game of Thrones prohibition. Just as well. Most of us aren’t old enough for that.

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