Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - April 4, 2014

Short Story Contest: Resilient minds

Winning authors meditate on how we cope with change and loss

A mother dies, leaving her daughter in the care of her stepfather. A child is diagnosed with cancer. A new sister is born. What do we do when everything around us transforms? Sometimes we react with fright and despair, nestling into the protective shells of habit and denial. Other times we adapt, embracing the new and making the best of what we have.

In the winning stories of the Palo Alto Weekly's 28th Annual Short Story Contest, the authors dwell on the way their characters deal with dramatic changes in their lives — ultimately underscoring the resiliency of the human mind.

The Palo Alto Weekly would like to thank the more than 100 writers who submitted their work to this year's contest; the readers Katy Hall and Isabella Hill, who selected the top entries in each category for the judges to consider; and contest co-sponsors Bell's Books of Palo Alto, Kepler's Books of Menlo Park and Linden Tree Books of Los Altos.

The stories and biographies of all place winners can be read online at www.paloaltoonline.com/short_story.

The winners

Tweens, 9-11 years old

1st place: "Angel" by Sela Dingpontsawa

2nd place: "June 19th — The Last Day" by Chloe Kim

3rd place: "An Unexpected Journey" by Anna Mickelsen

Teens, 12-14 years old

1st place: "Shoes" by Rachel Roberts

2nd place: "Harvest" by Andre Bouyssounouse

3rd place: "The Kingsley Mystery" by Amrita Bhasin

Young Adults, 15-17 years old

1st place: "Botany for Beginners" by Hannah Knowles

2nd place: "021" by Kathleen Xue

3rd place: "Then and Now" by Zachary Cherian

Adults, 18+ years

1st place: "Jimmy and Claire" by Ateret Haselkorn

2nd place: "Remains" by Maureen Simons

3rd place: "Chevy and Tomatoes" by Marcia Beck

Ateret Haselkorn

When she first began her short story, "Jimmy and Claire," which won first place in the Adult category this year, writer Ateret Haselkorn had only the simple image of a girl organizing spices in an alphabetical order on a rack. Then she pondered why a girl would start showing such behavior and let her thoughts flow freely.

"I tried to sit back and let her tell me her story," Haselkorn said.

From there, "Jimmy and Claire" grew into a thoughtful exploration of how a girl and her stepfather cope with the death of a woman — her mother and his wife.

The story is Haselkorn's first piece of published fiction, but she has been writing stories since her days at Gunn High School. She has continued to refine her craft, both on her own and by taking writing courses with the Writing Salon in San Francisco. Most recently, she participated in a "round robin"-style online class, where she receives feedback from fellow aspiring writers.

After studying as an undergraduate at University of California at Berkeley, Haselkorn pursued an interest in health care and received dual masters degrees in Public Health and Business Administration from Johns Hopkins University. Today she works for a medical tech company and often visits hospitals to speak with doctors and patients.

Her experience in health care has made an impact on her fictional worlds, though she said she enjoys writing about other subjects, such as travel and relationships. In addition to explicit references to hospitals and public safety, "Jimmy and Claire" reflects Haselkorn's interest in psychological healing. Both characters are dealing with their own reactions to loss. Haselkorn pointed to the importance of their relationship in aiding them on the way to recovery.

"I think that anyone has a choice of being open or closed. Claire and Jimmy are both at that decision point," Haselkorn said. "They're both heroic in their own way. I think because of that, they'll be OK."

-- Sam Sciolla

Judge's comment: Ellen Sussman on "Jimmy and Claire"

"Jimmy and Claire" gives us an intimate peek at the life of a man and his deceased wife's troubled daughter. It's written with great sensitivity and insight into complicated lives and relationships.

Hannah Knowles

With favorite books like Isabella Allende's "The House of the Spirits" and the Harry Potter series, Hannah Knowles finds it puzzling that the stories she writes end up taking place in the real world, as in "Botany for Beginners."

Yet the language of the story — the Young Adult first place winner in this year's contest — lends a magic to her character's experiences. In one scene, a door blows open in a school's dim classroom, and the young narrator reflects: "I saw the world around me as it was: a million billion pieces of light, bouncing around a giant pinball machine." Other metaphors abound: a pregnant "belly" is "a fruit so sweet it was splitting its skin," and a man at church is likened to a "walrus."

The story follows an unnamed narrator remembering her 10-year-old self — a precocious girl with an obsession for botany and a new sister on the way, along with all change and responsibility that entails. Knowles said that the idea for the interest in botany came from her own liking for fungi as a young child.

"Not really anymore," she said when asked if she liked studying fungi. "I still think they are cool, but that was kind of my fourth-grade thing."

A resident of San Jose, Knowles currently studies at Castilleja High School as a junior. She writes creatively whenever she can and has a handful of stories in a writing folder on her computer, some of which she has submitted to other contests. To come up with story ideas, she likes to take notes on what she sees, often during her train ride to school.

Though it's easy to think of the narrator as Knowles herself, the author said that almost none of the story comes from her own life. She doesn't have a younger sister, but she does have a twin brother. However, she said that there were undoubtedly traces of herself throughout the story.

"I feel like everything you write is in ways very autobiographical because it's all coming out of you," she said.

-- Sam Sciolla

Judge's comment: Tom Parker on "Botany for Beginners"

What a wise and touching story. Thoughtfully narrated and perfectly pitched, "Botany for Beginners" transports its young narrator from the tidy rigors of science to the messy marvel of human life — and takes us along for the ride. Insightful and delightful!

Rachel Roberts

A freshman at Menlo-Atherton High School, Rachel Roberts was inspired to write her story "Shoes," winner of this year's Teen category, after seeing an episode of the show "30 Days," in which creator Morgan Spurlock tries to live on minimum wage earnings for a month. Roberts challenged herself to write about something beyond her experience — a story about a character living in poverty.

Roberts began writing the summer before going to sixth grade, when she began to realize how much she enjoyed reading and analyzing literature. She likes to read poetry —including work from such masters as Emily Dickinson and Jorge Luis Borges — but she has been happier with her own literary results when writing prose.

Thus far, her writing has mostly taken the form of brief stories (usually only a few pages) that focus on characters in personal struggles, whether it be against depression, anxiety or alcoholism. Often she uses first person to try to capture their psychology, but with "Shoes" she chose to go a different route.

"I wanted to write something where I could try to convey emotion without first person," she said. "I wanted to stray a little bit off my normal style."

The main character of the story is Bella Leanne Shortridge, a woman who uses the little money she makes as a waitress to buy small items at yard sales. It is written in an ambiguous, understated style that leaves Bella's true motivations hidden from readers until the final paragraph.

The story trudges along through Bella's day, not sparing any details. The narrator counts the number of steps on the way home with Bella and takes notice of fellow passengers and passing sights while on the bus. Roberts said she often takes this observant approach in her writing, focusing on the beauty of small details in order to address larger issues beneath.

Rather than showcasing dramatic action, Roberts said her stories often center on "little events that kind of sum up the character's struggle."

-- Sam Sciolla

Judges' comments on "Shoes"

The details of this dark story are so well-chosen that they provide a complete picture of the protagonist and her entire world in very few words. "Shoes" is written with real flair and is a truly chilling tale.

Sela Dingpontsawa

When her grandfather died recently, 10-year-old Sela Dingpontsawa decided to write a story about how a little girl diagnosed with cancer spends her final days with her friends and family. Writing the story "Angel" allowed her to explore how death affects an entire family and community.

"I wanted to write about how other characters in the story feel about somebody they loved dying," she said.

When finished, she shared the story with her parents, and her mother encouraged her to submit the story to the Weekly's Short Story Contest, where it took first place in the Tween category.

At Addison Elementary School, where she is in fifth grade, Dingpontsawa has done some creative writing before. However, she said school projects can sometimes be difficult when she can't think of a subject. She prefers to write when she already has an idea to kick things off, as with "Angel."

She enjoys reading fantasy and mystery books, but recently she was struck by a book called "Kira-Kira" by Cynthia Kadohata, which she said had an influence on her story. The young-adult book focuses on a Japanese-American family, in which one daughter contracts lymphoma.

"Angel" is organized into short chronological journal entries written by Rose, the terminally ill girl, as she cycles through some days of despair and some of happiness. She finds solace when she befriends another young girl — who wears tie-dyed shirts, has beads in her hair and changes her name everyday. Her parents stay by her side, doing what they can to make her happy. The story ends with an intense mix of emotions.

"It was kind of hard (to write) about when she died because I've never witnessed anything like that happening," she said. "But I just tried to make it like the best I could."

-- Sam Sciolla

Judges' comments on "Angel"

In this beautiful story about a difficult subject — death and dying — we see how much the journal format can add when used well. The young writer skillfully creates a believable character with a believable voice. Extremely well done. Bravo!

Judges for the Adult category

Tom Parker

A well-known, local fiction-writing teacher and coach, memoirist, co-author and developmental editor, Tom Parker is an O. Henry Prize-winning short-story writer and author of the novels, "Anna, Ann, Annie" and "Small Business." His work has appeared in Harper's and has been reviewed in The New Yorker. He has taught at Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and Foothill and Canada community colleges. His website is www.tomparkerwrites.com.

Ellen Sussman

Ellen Sussman is the nationally bestselling author of three novels, "The Paradise Guest House," "French Lessons" and "On a Night Like This." Her new novel, "A Wedding in Provence," will be published on July 1, 2014. She teaches through Stanford Continuing Studies and in private classes. Her website is www.ellensussman.com.

Meg Waite Clayton

Meg Waite Clayton is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of five novels, including "The Wednesday Sisters," "The Wednesday Daughters" and the forthcoming "The Race for Paris." She was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize, and her novels have been translated into multiple languages. She's also written essays and opinion pieces for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Forbes, Writer's Digest, Runner's World and public radio. Her website is www.megwaiteclayton.com.

Judges for the Young Adult, Teen and Tween categories

Katy Obringer

Katy Obringer spent 22 years with the City of Palo Alto library system, which included serving as the supervisor of the Children's Library. Obringer also worked as an elementary school teacher for 10 years and an elementary school librarian for five years. Her love of introducing children to books continues in her retirement.

Nancy Etchemendy

Nandy Etchemendy's novels, short fiction and poetry have appeared regularly for the past 25 years, both in the United States and abroad. Her work has earned three Bram Stoker Awards (two for children's horror), a Golden Duck Award for excellence in children's science fiction, and most recently, an International Horror Guild Award for her YA horror story, "Honey in the Wound." She lives and works in Menlo Park, where she leads an interesting life, alternating between introverted writer of weird tales and gracious (she hopes) wife of Stanford University's Provost.

Caryn Huberman Yacowitz

Caryn Huberman Yacowitz writes fiction and non-fiction books for children as well as plays for both children and adults. Her long-awaited picture book, "I Know an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Dreidel," will be published in September. Wearing forty pounds of Victorian clothing and a wig, Caryn occasionally appears at The Farm as Jane Lathrop Stanford. Her website is www.carynyacowitz.com.

THANK YOU

The following business co-sponsored the 28th Annual Short Story Contest, helping to provide prizes for place winners in all categories.

Linden Tree Books (logo)

265 State St.

Los Altos, CA 94022

Bell's Books (logo)

536 Emerson St.

Palo Alto, CA 94301

Kepler's Books (logo)

1010 El Camino Real

Menlo Park, CA 94025

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