A young Ashcroft writer saw her poem about chocolate receive the Marg Van Duesen Award for top secondary school entry at this year’s 39th annual Young Author’s Conference at Thompson Rivers University (TRU), organized for students in and around School District No. 73 (Kamloops/Thompson).
Vivian McLean, a Grade 10 student at Desert Sands Community School (DSCS), has submitted work to the conference for the past three years, and received an honourable mention for a short story she submitted in her Grade 8 year. Her win this year came as a surprise, especially since she was already on the bus heading home to Ashcroft when she got the news.
“I didn’t know I’d won, because they like the students to be surprised,” say McLean. “We’d already left on the bus when I got a text from my mom [who had been told the news, and was at the ceremony] asking me if I was still at TRU. I said no, we were driving away, and she told me to get off the bus and she’d pick me up.”
McLean arrived too late to receive her award in front of everyone, but received three writers’ notebooks, a plaque, and a certificate for one book from any of the authors who had been at the conference. “It was a nice surprise.”
Tricia Persad, the literacy coordinator for SD73 and organizer of the conference, says that the event focuses on, and celebrates, the writing of children and teens.
“We try to accommodate as many students as possible every year,” she says. This year 200 students in Grades 4 through 7, and 60 students in Grades 8 through 12, took part, with DSCS sending several students.
“Every year [teacher Max Beckett] announces the conference, and asks how many students are interested in going,” says McLean. Workshops are held throughout the one-day event, and this year there were three for the secondary students, all of which McLean attended.
“One author did lots of things about description and knowing your characters, how to get depth, and we shared what we’d written. Another person talked about publishing, and outlining stories, and anything else we wanted; it was very open. And Indigenous author Chris Bose looked a lot at poetry by local authors, and mentorship, and at different literary devices.
“He was very open to discussing anything, and we had free writing time to work on a poem, short story, or start of a novel, and then got feedback after we read it out.”
Persad says that the workshops focus on different things each year. “They’re very hands-on, and the students get practice in writing, as well as skills they can take away to help them in the future.
“And it’s an opportunity for them to collaborate with peers who like writing, which they might not get day-to-day.”
She adds that McLean’s winning entry, entitled “A Poem for Chocolate” and written in rhyming couplets, was “very sophisticated. She took an intriguing social study and turned it into a poetry piece. It is a very creative undertaking, and Vivian is an exceptional writer.”
The poem—which now features in an online anthology available at http://bit.ly/2KLkbxF— describes the commodification of chocolate and the children who harvest it, and the very real dangers those children face, from pesticides and chemicals to the whips of supervisors. McLean had become aware of the issue after developing an interest in social justice issues and reading the book Bitter Chocolate: Investigating the Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet by Carol Off, a New York Times bestseller which investigates the fascinating, and often horrifying, story behind our love for chocolate.
“Yes, I like chocolate,” says McLean. “But the book is very sombre, very real, and a lot of people don’t know a lot about the chocolate industry. I thought I’d write an essay about it, but I was sitting at the computer in procrastination mode and couldn’t motivate myself to write an essay.
“The first two lines of the poem [‘The kids scamper up the trees in the blistering heat / Knowing they must make haste if they hope to eat’] came into my head, and I wrote them out. I was very emotional at that moment. Then the first verse came out, and I wrote the whole poem. It’s the poem [of mine] that I’m most proud of.”
She wasn’t sure what to submit to the conference this year, as she’d never sent in poetry before. “Mr. Beckett said ‘Don’t be afraid to send in poetry’, so I decided to submit two poems. I figured I had nothing to lose.” (McLean’s other poem, “Today, On the Streets of Vancouver”, is also in the anthology.)
Persad calls the conference a “joyful day. I can’t imagine not doing it. I love reading the manuscripts [of submitted entries]. It’s amazing what young people have to share.”
McLean says she decided to go to her first Young Author’s Conference when she started at Desert Sands in Grade 8 and was looking to branch out and try new things, and has made it a tradition each year since; a tradition she believes she’ll keep up through Grade 12.
“It doesn’t matter if I win an award or not. The main thing is that my poem was read aloud [at the awards ceremony] and is in the online anthology, so people will be made aware of the issue.
“My dad bought some fair trade chocolate the other day, and I was all ‘Yay’!”