Palo Alto Weekly 23rd Annual Short Story Contest
First Place Children

 

Fiona Hon

If stories could stop bullies and battles, Fiona Hon would have ended the war in Iraq a long time ago. Her prize-winning story, "The Dream Machine," switches scenes from an American girl's pink-blanketed bedroom to a bloody Iraqi battlefield and back again as the girl tries desperately to stop the war.

"I hear about the war a lot and I wish it would stop because it's tearing families apart and a lot of people are dying," said Hon, a Palo Alto resident who turned 12 this week.

In "The Dream Machine," 13-year-old Abby constructs a glowing silver machine in her bedroom, a machine that can send dreams to people around the world. Those dreams turn out to be powerful enough to change the behavior of people in Abby's everyday life including Haley, the school bully.
They also reach all the way to the commanding generals in Iraq.

Hon, who attended Hoover Elementary School and is now a seventh-grader at Pinewood School, not only likes to write stories but plays the clarinet, loves to draw and swims with Palo Alto Stanford Aquatics. The day after a recent swim meet at Rinconada, her left fist was still scribbled over with lists of heats, lanes and events.

She also loves to read. Some of her favorites are, "The Mysterious Benedict Society" by Trenton Lee Stewart and Mitch Albom's, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven." She currently is reading "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini.

Hon gets her ideas from books and current events -- or both in the case of "The Dream Machine." She's heard plenty about the war in Iraq from the news, and she also took inspiration from Roald Dahl's, "The BFG," a book her younger sister Flora was reading, concerning a big friendly giant who catches good dreams and blows them to children around the world.

With the beginnings of a story in mind, she went to work, writing at the kitchen table before dinner. "I did it whenever I had time," Hon said. "It was hard to figure out how to end the story. I had to write it in a way readers would understand."

Trying to end the Iraq war was particularly challenging; she had to rewrite the section a number of times.
Hon's story is bursting with active verbs -- Abby is "slapped" in the face by sunlight; a school bus is "sputtering and coughing like someone with a cold." That, says the writer, comes from many years of teachers encouraging her to use more descriptive words.
Besides confronting the war in Iraq, "The Dream Machine" portrays children pondering other adult concerns: a struggling economy, business bankruptcies, the price of gasoline.

In the end, though, Abby's home-made machine works its magic upon the world. The moral of the story, says the author, is to "follow your dreams."

— Chris Kenrick

THE DREAM MACHINE

by Fiona Hon

"Anne, can you hand me the screwdriver?" Thirteen-year-old Abby was in her room, creating a dream machine, or a "complete failure," as her annoying eleven-year-old sister called it. A slender pale hand, grasping an old rusty screwdriver, dropped the tool onto Abby's lap. Absentmindedly, Abby muttered a "thank you" and returned back to her work. She pushed her long brown hair aside in frustration--it was always in the way. Her large brown eyes were fixed intently on the silver spacecraft-shaped machine in front of her, not paying a bit of attention to the explosion of tools spread across the floor like a bumpy carpet of silver. After many sighs, screwing, and much energy, Abby leaned back and exclaimed, "My best looking invention of all time!"

"Oh, sure. You said that last time and remember how many times pieces fell apart once you turned it on?" Anne, who was lying on Abby's bed, grunted. Abby didn't notice her sister's comment and continued grinning with excitement. I hope this will deliver dreams correctly, Abby wondered, or else Anne really will be right again!

Later that night, Abby went up to the dream machine, crossed her fingers, held her breath, and pressed the power button, which began to glow. There was a small whirring sound, and the screen read: ALL READY. Relief ran through her body, and she returned to sleep. Faint colored lights began flashing through the cracks of the machine, gears were turning, the silver cover seemed to glow, and the shine reflected off mirrors in Abby's room onto the walls as if the room had a disco ball hanging from the ceiling. This only happened for several seconds, though. Abby had set it to give dreams to all the people in the world who were sleeping at that moment, and they were all delivered so quickly that you had to stop blinking in order to watch the whole process. The machine could send dreams to everyone at the speed of light. Hopefully, it could solve some problems too.

Sunlight peeked through the thick mist, bounced off the dream machine, and slapped Abby's face. She squinted her eyes as she awoke, hopped out of bed and rushed into the bathroom to prepare for school while recalling her dream about bullies disappearing. She bounded down the stairs after Anne, going so fast that she almost tripped over her own feet in her excitement to meet her friends. Grabbing a banana and a slice of bread, she skidded to a stop to give her mother a hug, and ran to the bus stop, like she did every morning. She munched on her bread hungrily - although she didn't like whole wheat - and waited patiently for the small yellow school bus. After wolfing down her banana, Abby heard heavy footsteps behind her. It's the school bully! I'm doomed! Help me! Abby thought. She winced as a dark shadow fell upon her. Abby froze for several seconds, not daring to move in case the bully would knock her down if she did. Noticing that nothing was happening, she relaxed, heaved a great sigh, and spun around on her heel to face the bully, her hair swishing as she turned.

"Hi, Abby. Did you study for the history quiz today?" the bully, Haley, asked with a smile brighter than a star. Those words hit Abby like lightning. Never had Haley been kind to her, and she hadn't done anything nice, so why was she acting like this now? The bus arrived, sputtering and coughing like someone with a cold. As she boarded the bus, she stopped to think, but the people behind her jostled and shoved her forward. Abby plopped into the ripped leather seat near the back next to her friend Hanna, who grinned widely as always, clutching her lunchbox like a child holding its blanket. The bus took off, bouncing and skipping over rocks on the uneven road towards school.

"Abby, if I catch you dreaming one more time you are going to go to the principal's office with no doubt," Abby's math teacher snapped sharply. Immediately, Abby jerked upright and tried to focus on the lesson. Hanna looked at Abby sympathetically because their teacher hated Abby. Dreamily, Abby's eyes slowly worked their way up to the clock unnoticed like a mouse escaping a cat. A bell went off in Abby's head as she saw what the time was. There were only two minutes until school ended! She still needed to figure out what had made Haley good-natured. "BRRRIIINNG!" Abby jumped out of her seat like someone flying up after being poked. After collecting her books, she ran all the way home, not having enough patience to wait for the bus. She ran so fast she was barely skimming the sidewalk. The Rottweiler she feared from its snappy bark and menacing look like her teacher had no time to move when she rushed by. Swiping the keys out from her pocket, Abby hurriedly unlocked the door and crashed through. She swept up the stairs past Anne, who had been trying to balance her books and binders on one hand. Just as she managed to balance it all, Abby's rush surprised her and made the tower collapse. Abby buried herself under her pink blanket, which was her "private hiding place."  After pondering in the small, stuffy area under her blanket and listing down all the possibilities, she finally came up with a conclusion.

"The dream machine," she gasped, "I didn't know it could change people." Her eyes widened even more so since they were almost completely dried out. She fell on her bed to rest, like she always did after school, but a feeling ran through her head that she should get up and do her homework, even though it was a Friday.

"It can change me too," she wondered aloud as she searched through her bulging backpack for her books. Slowly sliding out papers, Abby was thinking about her new invention. Suddenly, she heard her father yell in a booming voice.

"Make this war stop! There is no point about this!"

Then it was, "Don't say that, the soldiers are trying to protect us and fight for democracy." It was followed by dead silence. It was so quiet Abby could almost hear her sister breathing.

Just those words helped Abby find out what her father was creating a commotion about with his loudspeaker voice. You're right, Abby agreed, someone has to stop the Iraq war. Thousands are dying and suffering. Abby had been trying to tell her father that she felt the same way, but every time, her father turned away and said that she was too young to understand that kind of subject, but she did know. She knew about huge businesses becoming bankrupt, that the economy was becoming worse, and that gas was too expensive. She and her sister had talked about these subjects a few times, worrying about how life was going to be when they grew up. They were both frightened by the thought of not having money to keep their house and buy food. Abby apprehensively tucked these thoughts away and continued to work by the light of the sunset outside.

"Good night. Don't forget to turn on your invention," Abby's father reminded. Exhausted, Abby gave a weak smile and reached to her left to press the green button. As soon as her father closed the door, she leapt out of bed and tiptoed to the window. Sliding the window up, she inhaled the cool, fresh night air. She stuck her head out the window and peeked at each of her neighbors' houses. Sighing, she slipped back to her bed as quietly as a panther. I wish life was perfect. Another sigh left and her eyelids shut out the stress and worry like a curtain closing, separating the dark from the light.

Abby found herself lying in the dust next to a wounded American soldier. "Water," he moaned painfully. His blond hair looked like it had crimson highlights. His somewhat white skin was a dusty brown from mud. His uniform was splotched with scarlet. Fumbling around in her pocket, Abby pulled out a small bottle and handed it to him. When she stretched, she felt pain shock her. She glanced at her arm, which had a large scar. The man, who had seemed to be strengthened by a little water, pushed himself up and hobbled away. Gunshots and screams were ringing in her ears. A loud "BOOM!" was heard behind her, and she whipped around just in time to see a huge cloud of smoke followed by someone falling down. Immediately, Abby knew where she was. My dream took me here, she thought. She stressfully got up and limped towards the area where the explosion came from. The image of the wounded soldier was imprinted in her mind as she saw people lying on the ground whimpering. She sat down and cleaned a few wounds with a pack of tissues and some water. Abby was sympathetic and knew that she should never complain that her own life was awful ever again. 

Staggering down the dirt path, she saw wrecked houses and some that were still standing with concerned and troubled faces peeping out the window cautiously. She seemed to be in a deserted place. Gingerly sitting down on a rock, she drew a picture of two people -- one was an American and the other was an Iraqi -- shaking hands and smiling. A little girl with black hair as dark as the night sky and skin that was tanned snuck over and looked at the picture. Noticing that the area where she drew her picture had darkened, Abby looked up and gazed at the frightened girl. Her large brown eyes told the story of what had happened to her family. Tears glimmered in her eyes and slid down her grimy cheeks, creating a small stripe on her cheek. Not knowing how to communicate with someone who didn't speak the same language, Abby stood up, and the little girl stretched out her arms, as if wanting to be picked up. Gently, she lifted the child, who held onto Abby tightly, as if she were a stuffed animal. A gunshot suddenly fired their way, and luckily, missed by a few yards. They strode past an American soldier, who stopped and asked shocked, "Why are you two youngsters walkin' around this dangerous place? This isn't Great America or an amusement park, you know."

Abby ambled on silently as if she had lost her voice. She knew it wasn't Great America. She was there to change everything -- well, at least to try to. She climbed up and down small hills and kept on following the path, determined that it would lead her to one of the U.S. camps. Many people fired at her and screamed, but she wouldn't listen. Every time someone tried to shoot at her, they missed. It was as if He had created a wall around Abby. The little girl, who Abby named Cassie, was clinging onto Abby's neck and had made a few imprints of her knuckles on the neck. As soon as they reached the top of the hill they had been climbing for some time, Abby heaved a great sigh and placed Cassie on the ground. Confused about why they were stopping, Cassie tugged on Abby's shirt to get back up, but the older girl was too busy pondering what she was going to say to the sergeants and officers. On the left side, there was the U.S. army camp. On the right, a group of soldiers were working out. Abby started walking towards them. Taking Cassie by her hand, she was surprised at feeling how soft the child's hand was. It was warm and soft like a pillow, but it wasn't as soft as the little girl's heart. Together, they trudged down the hill slowly like sloths. One general, having heard the tumble of pebbles and snap of twigs, popped his head out of his tent and asked, "What are you two little mutts doing here?" Without responding, the thirteen-year-old plodded on.

Without a hint of nervousness in her body, she marched up to the small workout area where a general, who had a smile pasted on his face with glue, stood. Being disregarded by the enormous warriors, Abby snuck up quietly like a snake and tapped the general on the arm. Startled, the general caught his breath and peered down, and Abby was a squirrel next to Mt. Everest. Before he could say that a thirteen-year-old didn't belong there, she quickly piped up.

"Hi, I'm Abby. Well, I just came to express my opinion about the war, and I think we should stop because too many people are dying. Please stop the war!"

Meanwhile, back at the rock Abby had been sitting on drawing pictures, a soldier that happened to be patrolling the area had noticed Abby's drawing of the people holding hands. Astonished to see such a drawing, he threw his weapons down and yelled with all his energy that people should come look at the picture.  Some Iraqis were terrified of the soldier and thought it was a trick, but a few families cautiously tiptoed out to glance at the mysterious image that was causing such a commotion. They peered over his shoulder and gazed in astonishment. Then they all glanced at each other with a faint smile. Suddenly, a radio crackled with the announcement that there was an urgent and mandatory meeting for all generals with the President...

The golden sun rays seemed brighter than ever, smiling their way through the fog and each glimmering glass window. The bright shine blinded Abby as she awoke, feeling as if it was the best sleep she ever had. Downstairs, she heard a whisper, then a loud whoop, but soon it returned to its normal whisper. Bit by bit, she pulled herself out of her cozy bed, but since it was a weekend, she fell over and relaxed, breathing in the clean dawn air. Curiosity filled her, and she deftly slid down the stair banister. Making out a few words, she heard "War ... over ... no more."

Thinking she knew exactly what happened, a true smile sprang across Abby's face, and she skipped up the stairs, bouncing so high in her excitement she almost tripped over her feet.

 


Judge's comment

This story speaks to issues that are important not just to the young author but to society as a whole -- very sophisticated, especially for
such a young writer.  We found it suspenseful, imaginative, and filled with convincing imagery and wonderful descriptive passages.

- Childrens Judges