Back in March I was one of the judges for the BBC's 500 Words competition. I was assigned fiction from the 5-9 year old category, so I read lots of stories about guinea pigs and pets, dragons and witches, dinosaurs, magical food, making wishes, siblings and teachers and parents, superheroes, and accounts of last night's dreams. I also read stories that were incredibly sad when you read between the lines, stories focussing on being brave, ways to overcome bullies, or children finding gold so they were not poor any more. Stories that said a lot about the child's real life, yet also made me smile at times, such as this:
"One upon a time there lived a very lonely girl called Sarah. She lived with her mum but she had no dad because they had got divorced. Her mum’s a lovely lady except she made horrible food and the worst puddings ever that tasted of gung and smelt horrible."
Judging is a difficult thing. Each story had to be given a mark out of ten in five different categories: Originality, Plot, Characterisation, Language, and Enjoyment. I'm used to editing adult work, but the criteria feel very different when looking at children's stories. I found it helped to consider the impact on the reader, which is always a key thing but sometimes overlooked. Thankfully none of the stories I marked had to be flagged as "Troubling Content" in terms of welfare concerns.

It was difficult to choose the best three out of 30 stories. In the end my favourites were:

  • A dark version of The Frog Prince, involving kissing a horrible toe.
    "A disgusting smell filled the carriage. I looked at his foot as he unravelled the bandage. I saw a toe, not an ordinary toe, a toe covered with huge warts and bruises, all shades of green, black and purple with and enormous yellow boil leaking pus dripping to the floor, the curled nail had hair growing from underneath." That ended up as twisted as something Roald Dahl might have written. This was the best-written of my top three.
  • One about a dinosaur egg that hatched out in school. This story had the most energy, and one of my favourite endings.
    "She flattened all the chairs and tables. Wrecked the whole school and ate the teacher! The headteacher came in and said I was expelled. So, I lived happily ever after with no school and Henriateher [the dinosaur] lets me ride on her back. Epilogue: Mrs Clonkers came out whole in one of Henriateher's green slimy droppings."
  • And one about a luck machine that brought a lonely, poor boy money to buy a proper home and shampoo and clean clothes.
    "The final thing he bought was a box of cotton buds so he could clean his ears! His hair was dead strait! Luke’s clothes were now extremely posh!! After a colossal nap he went to have a go at the lottery and guess what, he won twenty thousand million flakes of gold!!!"You would think that would be a happy story, yet it ended with:
    "Sadly he became very ill indeed so ill in fact that soon he couldn’t move it felt awful. Then one gloomy night not so-Lucky Luke died in the middle of the night without a single sound. Dead. Silent. THE END"

The top three went on to the second round of judging with The Reading Agency, and the top 50 final stories were unveiled at the end of April. You can read all 50 tales, hear them brought to life by the BBC Radio Drama Company, or download the audio to enjoy at your leisure (or use in the classroom) on the 500 Words website, or jump to the winners here, along with a breakdown of the main story subjects and nouns. Sadly, none of mine went on to be top winners, but the stories stuck in my mind and I thought I'd write about the experience of being a judge so that they gain some of the credit they deserve. I'm proud of every story I judged. The kids have heart.