Author Kelly Yang (Front Desk) understands the meaning of positive reinforcement, especially when it comes to encouraging emerging writers to find their own voices. In this vein, she recently launched an essay writing contest, inviting kids to share their personal experiences during the pandemic. Yang’s contest has yielded hundreds of submissions in a little more than one month, empowering readers to become storytellers in their own right.

The idea for the contest came about on February 2, World Read Aloud Day, following her appearance on YouTube Live where she read the first chapter of her latest novel, New from Here. “Almost immediately, kids started emailing me and telling me what the last two years have been like for them,” Yang said. “That’s when I realized we all have a pandemic story—New from Here is mine, but I want to hear theirs.”

With the help of Simon & Schuster, New from Here’s publisher, Yang started the “What’s Your Pandemic Story?” Student Writing Publishing Opportunity, announcing the ongoing contest on her website and social media accounts. Simon & Schuster also promoted the initiative through its school and library marketing department. Entries must be 200 words or less and include a signed parent consent form for publication on Yang’s website. Participants must be under 18 years old and are encouraged to submit their essays through their teacher or, if they are homeschooled, their parent. For classroom entries, teachers may submit up to five stories, either voted on by students or hand selected.

Of the 380 stories published so far, Yang has noticed the prevailing theme of hanging on to hope in dark times. “Sometimes, that hope appears in the most unlikely of places, whether it’s scooting down a once-busy San Francisco street… or finally finding that coveted roll of toilet paper,” she said. Drawing a parallel between her own family’s experience and those of her readers, Yang recalled how that feeling of being separated from loved ones, and wondering when they would be reunited, required them to stay strong and rely on each other. “As the stories show, no matter what these kids went through, family and friends were the glue keeping the hope alive,” she said.

A Time Capsule of Stories

With such a strong reception to the contest, Yang decided to extend the essay writing deadline to March 25. Submissions can be made here. In addition to publishing the submissions on her website, 10 classrooms will be awarded a copy of New from Here each week, with upcoming raffle dates scheduled for March 18 and March 25.

Yang believes that this writing initiative has generated an overwhelming response because of kids’ desire to be heard. “They are ready to share and process—and connect and heal,” she said. “This is the first time in recent history that all kids in the world have gone through the same thing; there’s community in that. And I’m so happy and proud that I’m able to offer my platform for kids to express themselves.”

For Yang, the most meaningful takeaway from this experience is that despite our differences, everyone essentially wants the same thing. “As Knox says in New from Here, ‘All I want to see is the clear blue sky again without a mask. And for my family to be safe and sound, together. Doesn’t matter where we are,’ ” she said.

While there are no current plans to formally publish the student stories as a collection, Yang will keep them posted on her website as a reminder of kids’ pandemic journeys. “I hope that when classrooms in the future teach this extraordinary time, kids can read the stories from real kids writing about their real experiences during this time,” she mused. “Wouldn’t that be something?”