The Morristown Festival of Books is proud to announce the winners of the 2021 Teen Writing Contest. The contest received 80 entries from students attending 33 high schools in 11 counties across central and northern New Jersey.
This year’s theme was “Quarantine Chronicles & Pandemic Dreams”: Submit fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or an essay (up to 1,200 words) capturing life during the pandemic and how it affected you or imagining a fictional pandemic and what might, or might never, have happened.
And the winners are:
The Morristown Festival of Books congratulates all the winners as well as every student who submitted writing to this year’s contest. All the entries testify to the incredible talent among New Jersey’s young writers and to the vast range of powerful, moving experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2021 Teen Writing Contest has been made possible by the generous sponsorship of the Gunzler Family Memorial.
“darning the sky above my city” (poem)
by Richard Zhu
12th grader at the Peddie School, Hightstown
English teacher: Matthew Roach
First place award: $500
darning the sky above my city
the horizon is fractured, sprinkled
like fish food among houses and copses
of oaks—walk closer
and it stiffens into a chain-link fence
reflecting sunlight like a suburban
during dusk, the edge glistens and i fear
that i’ll burn on the armrest
of the sun—i wait till nightfall to touch it
with shaking fingers.
this year, i jump over cracks in the sidewalk. i clamor
in empty streets, skipping from tree to doorstep to tree to doorstep,
piecing together shards of the horizon peeking out
between each city block,
piecing together a fracture so long it’ll cleave
down the middle of the road, effacing
the yellow line.
a fracture to cleave my spine—a fracture
my neighborhood won’t indent
with its apartment building skylines. a fracture
that flows like a river—
next year, i will cross over the edge. next year, these houses will cross over,
leaving behind the shuttered windows, the masks,
the yellow pain(t) smeared across the roads.
next year, they will swing wrecking balls
into all these cracked facades,
walls crumbling into a flat, stainless horizon.
“Rolling Waves” (poem)
by Sarah Ouyang
12th grader at Ridge High School, Basking Ridge
English teacher: Nicole Gilmore
Second place award: $250
Author statement: “‘Rolling Waves’ is a symbolic portrayal of the way in which I have perceived the world during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the nautical imagery appears only tangentially related to the real world, the Bacchante in fact represents a community such as mine, seemingly shielded from the cruelty of an unforgiving tempest.”
On a dark expanse of sea, an ocean of ocean,
Black and green and purple
With froth like white ribbons tracing webs
Across the glinting blue surface.
Clouds hang heavy overhead,
Ripe and round as plums, nearly as dark,
Lamenting the loss of the tears they shed.
Brother joins sister as the rain
Dives into every rolling wave on the Stygian plain.
A feeble square of chestnut brown,
The dim glow of a sound idea
Among the turmoil of confusion and doubt.
White fabric tearing into the wind
As fiercely as the wind tears in return.
Slowly capturing every tear from the clouds,
A vessel of black, seraphic sorrow
And the promise of gilded sunshine tomorrow.
Within this compact of wood and cloth,
The crew celebrates another day or another night
On their beloved Bacchante.
Within her womb of canvas and oak,
They forget the wrath of the storm,
The misery of the tempest, the fear of the eye.
Amid bread and wine and nectar and God,
Morphing hunger into laughter
As they feast on camaraderie and salted cod.
On the rolling waves the Bacchante sails,
Leaving land in search of land.
The crew might never lay eyes on the sable crests
Or fill their throats with grains of salt,
But they kiss even still the walls of their Bacchante.
They know she protects them, and the storm
Frightens them in their dreams,
Yet only in their dreams do they learn to breathe.
Under a satin blue sky,
The sun the color of flushed cheeks,
With only the rolling waves for company
Dancing and swaying and singing in cobalt peaks.
A gull and his flock smile and soar
Their hearts swollen by the picture of natural grace
After the daunting tempest, free from the eye.
The crew on the Bacchante knows nothing,
Only the food meant to nourish, the warmth meant to comfort,
And the four walls meant to protect.
by Sriya Tallapragada
9th grader at the Pingry School, Basking Ridge
English teacher: Alessandra Finis
Third place award: $100
We wake up to moonlight and madness,
Covered in borrowed dreams
and slippers worn down from trying to run away
This is the town of cloudy hourglasses that keep us silent
Of broken scars and hungry stomachs,
Open wounds full of blood and boutonniere,
Fires that scorch our clothes but not our soul,
Cracked lips and graveyard dirt under our fingernails,
We remember the nights that we would walk barefoot across the breathing soil,
Across the crude tombs marked by baby’s breath,
Waiting for the stars to come out
And when we remember those nights we forgot why we wanted to leave in the first place,
We forgot about the pinched pennies and shattered glass but instead we think about
The poems scrawled across the sidewalk with broken chalk,
The cheap popsicle sticks that drip down our chin and stain our skin blue
And so even when the leaves turn dry we pick each one like a star,
Putting them together like our own little constellations
We, the hoarders of ticket stubs,
But also coffee stained Shakespeare, the letter falling out of our lips
Our tongue is all wrapped up with pretty words to
ever sting firecrackers too cool to swallow
We are still here, in the scattered ash and friday night dances,
In our driveway filled with wilting rose petals
Memorizing the faces on the back of a milk carton
And even when the sonnet turns to stone,
I will still stay, my words adding skins to the earth,
Trading in our gold for wildflowers
by Riddhishrree Badhan
12th grader at Hillsborough High School, Hillsborough
English teacher: Melissa Blevins
Honorable mention award: $50
My alarm goes off at five in the morning. I blink slowly, eyelids burdened with slumber. Truth is, I don’t want to wake up. Especially not now. But I have to, so I do.
The day begins like all the other days. I brush. Shower. Finish a granola bar. Then, I slip on a new N-95, pinching the bridge of my nose to make sure the mask’s secure, and pull on a pair of tight latex gloves. Satisfied, I push open the front door and take a few ginger steps outside.
The streets are empty. I’m alone. A little laugh escapes my lips, the soft sound puncturing the silent air. Thank God everyone here hates mornings. I used to be the same, actually. I am the same. Still, waking up early is the price I have to pay for some privacy, so I’ll gladly empty my pockets.
I glance up at the sky, which seems to have been painted a murky blue. The few dark clouds that drift by are tinted with pale yellow from the rising sun. I walk, keeping track of time by watching the sky brighten. The border between light and dark is so sudden, so jarring.
Loud footsteps interrupt my thoughts. I startle, turning my head toward the noise. A man is walking on the sidewalk across from me, lagging a bit behind in pace. I don’t think I’ve seen him before—he must be new here. He catches me staring, and I look away, but not before I see the confusion scrawled all over his expression.
He’s not wearing a mask.
At work, I’m surrounded by a crowd of people who are nowhere near six feet apart. The concept of social distancing seems to have been forgotten entirely as colleagues excitedly chat each other up about new solutions and weekend plans. I maneuver through the throng, and as I do, people automatically get out of my way. As they usually do. It’s like I’m Moses parting the Red Sea.
I sit in my cubicle, comforted by the walls separating me from the other maskless faces. This is safe. I’m safe — from disease and from judgment.
Without warning, a coworker leans over the right wall of my cubicle, peering down at me.
“Hey! Did you get a chance to look at what I sent you last night?” Henry asks, smiling at me.
I instinctively shrink away, then nod.
“Yeah,” I whisper through my mask. “I’m almost done, just give me another day.”
“Okay,” he responds. I can’t quite decipher the look he gives me. It’s one of sadness, that much I’m sure of.
I swallow and shift my gaze back to my computer.
I’m preparing dinner when my phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s Hannah. Reluctantly, I pick up, already having some idea of what this conversation would be like.
“Hi! How are you?” Hannah says, opening the call with some pleasantries. Her face is a little blurry on the screen.
“Fine,” I reply, more focused on the stove than her.
“Anything exciting happen?” she asks, not taking the hint. I roll my eyes as I use a fork to stir my cooking noodles.
“Come on, Hannah,” I deadpan. “You know nothing exciting ever happens.”
Hannah’s enthusiasm dampens a little. I try not to feel guilty.
“Actually, that’s why I called,” Hannah continues. I tense, clutching the fork a little tighter. “Do you remember when we used to go to Rapid Rivers?” The water park? I clench my teeth. She can’t be serious. I refuse to answer her, resisting the urge to hang up right then and there.
“I know you’re not that into those sort of things anymore—”
Well, that’s a massive understatement.
“—but the gang and I are planning on spending an afternoon there, and it’d be nice if you could come.”
“I can’t,” I answer stiffly. “You know why I can’t.”
Hannah frowns. “Please, it’s only one day, and—”
“I don’t care!” I snap. “It’s too dangerous! I’m not going. I hope you all have fun.”
I disconnect the call before she can respond.
The noodles aren’t that appetizing now.
When I find that I’ve run out of ice cream and toilet paper, I come to the realization that I need to make a dreaded trip to the grocery store. I sigh, setting out my disinfectant wipes for later. Then, I put on my mask and gloves again, bringing a large recyclable bag with me into the car.
As I walk into the store, I’m painfully aware of the strange looks I receive. Some people just stare, perplexed. Others try to hide their amused smirks. A child tugs on their mother’s clothes, pointing at me, only to be quickly chastised. I tell myself to ignore everyone else, to breathe as little as possible, to get my things and leave as fast as I can.
I’m out of the store in fifteen minutes, my items packed neatly inside the bag I had brought with me. A box of granola bars. Three tubs of chocolate ice cream. Fifteen rolls of toilet paper. More instant noodle packets.
I start my car up and turn the radio on, listening to quiet music in blissful ignorance as the world whizzes past me. For a second, I can almost hear my sister laughing in the passenger seat, cracking a stupid joke about my old office crush or something else at my expense.
Natalie loves long rides in the car. At least, she used to.
My grip on the steering wheel loosens a bit as unwanted memories flood my head. I shake my head, willing them away, and try to focus on the road in front of me.
I see a long line of cars parked outside my neighbor’s house. They’re having a party. I sigh, remembering the last time the news had covered new cases. The number was high. So high.
I close the curtains.
I’m not sure how long I spend working. When I finally check the time, it’s near midnight. I put my laptop away and trudge upstairs. My gaze flickers to an empty bedroom next to mine. I force myself to look away.
As I climb into bed, I glance at a number written on a piece of paper near my lamp.
Call me whenever you need.
I don’t think I need to today.
It’s five in the morning again. I get ready for another day just like the last. When I go outside for my walk, I’m unpleasantly surprised to see the same man from yesterday. Maybe I need to change my time.
He approaches me. I step back, alarmed.
“Excuse me,” the stranger starts. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
“We haven’t,” I confirm, keeping my distance. “I’m Amanda.”
“Well, Amanda, I hope you don’t find this rude. I’m a naturally curious person, and I can’t help but ask.…” the man trails off. I blink, waiting for him to continue.
“The pandemic ended two years ago,” he finally says. “Why are you still wearing all this?”
I meet his gaze, my own steely.
“I’m doing what I should have done two years ago.” I pause. “When I still had my sister.”
“on Ponyo (2008) and making peace” (essay)
by Emma Chan
12th grader at Kent Place School, Summit
English teacher: Dr. Michael Schwartz
Honorable mention award: $50
Festival note: Emma Chan also won Honorable Mention in the 2019 Teen Writing Contest for her poem “Polynomial Test No. 2”
on Ponyo (2008) and making peace
On the day my grandmother tells us she is dying of cancer, her thin voice spindling through the static of my mother’s phone speakers, I am thinking of closed doors. I can see them in my mind’s eye: dust settling delicately on our garage door handle, previously polished by a thousand turns by a thousand leaving and returning hands. Nowadays, there is no leaving this place we call home, in a desperate bid not to leave the bodies we call home.
The wifi bars at the corner of my mother’s screen blink steadily lower, threatening to flicker out entirely. The international number calling us, belonging to a decrepit landline in some forgotten corner of my grandmother’s nursing home, flashes cheerfully across the darkened screen.
“Wei?” my mother cries hoarsely into the phone, and it sounds like a question, an answer, an echo. Our phone signal breaking the thin thread between mother and daughter, leaving both stranded far from home.
I don’t quite know why I consider being lost the antithesis of being home, but it seems to be the common theme of stories I’ve written, movies I’ve watched, books I’ve read, over the course of quarantine. I’ve become fascinated with this idea of being home: what it means. The way home takes a life of its own, morphs into something less protective and more stifling. I’ve gained a new perspective on how my relationship with home, a typically comforting and reassuring concept, has changed into something more complicated.
Recently, I’ve been rewatching one of my favorite animated films, Ponyo, over and over again. In the film, a shapeshifting fish girl who lives in the sea falls in love with the idea of living amongst humans, particularly with the family of a boy named Sosuke, and desperately tries to convince her father to allow her to leave her home. At its core, it’s a movie about finding a place where we belong. The main characters are constantly attempting to define and redefine what it means to call a place home, and realizing the value of the people around them who make home feel so welcoming. On one particular rewatch, I watched carefully as I tried to mimic the characters’ casual appreciation of their homes, and define home for myself.
I like to think that at home both we and the characters in Ponyo are surrounded by things they love. For young Sosuke, the main character, he falls in love with the thick, slippery glass of the sea’s surface, star-silvered in the night. Sosuke’s mother longs for the sound of a ship’s hull groaning against the shore, her husband’s boots squelching and slipping on the sea-sanded path, signaling a safe return from fishing. And the half-fish, half-human Ponyo discovers her ability to choose her home, to move freely in between two worlds, sea and sky, where she is loved.
For my mother and me, Ponyo’s freedom was something we could only dream of. As flights were cancelled and the country shut down, my mother felt the hope of seeing her mother for the last time dwindle, and then extinguish for good. In the midst of the pandemic, I had to say goodbye to my grandmother through a Wechat call in stilted, fumbling Chinese, feeling the fragility of our connection as my words cut in and out. I had never met her in person, never returned to my mother’s hometown in China, and I suspect I never will. As lockdown drags on, it feels easier and easier to fixate on what we’ve lost, whether it be loved ones or life experiences.
But quarantine has taught us that thinking about closed doors only makes us itch to open them. I never expected to be forced to stay at home for a year and a half, but the experience has made me appreciate my home in a new way. Whether it’s the way the early morning sunlight slashes through my backyard trees or the sound of a window opening to let in the crisp, cool summertime air, I’ve begun to take note of the little things that I love about being home. And it’s these minute observations that have made my house feel less like a prison and more like somewhere I can learn to be happy living in. I don’t live in a quaint cottage perched precariously on a cliff above the sea, like Sosuke’s family does, but I’m trying to see my surroundings anew and view my life with the same wonder as Sosuke views his.
In short, I’m taking to heart the lessons I learned from Ponyo so many years ago. Point in case: Sosuke’s mother was initially hesitant about making a home in the swell of a wave, the silk-soft crest where fire breathes into flight. But she believed in her family. Believed in the map of her husband’s hands, the wrinkles worn by storms and the splintered wood of a long-loved ship. Believed in the way her son’s eyes sparkled like the moon’s reflection in the star-silvered water as he played on the shore of their tiny island home.
And just like the family in Ponyo, we’re learning to be happy, at home. We’re making peace with how the walls press into our warmth, hugging us close. Our hands flickering, like candles, toward each other. Learning to never let go.
“The Lepers” (story)
by Matthew McDonald
11th grader at Morristown High School, Morristown
English teacher: Alysha Wecht
Honorable mention award: $50
I am traveling with the lepers on the high road. I forgot when I first came to them, it appears so long ago in my memory. Neither can I remember why I first came to them. Nor am I among their number. My skin has remained smooth, and my eyes still see as well as they did when I first came. Perhaps that is because I was always a leper and my skin is as horrid as theirs, and my sight, too, but that I did not know it until I decided to go and see them for myself.
When I was a boy I saw them often pass through our town. Before they processed down the main street and we all, children and parents alike, stared at them as they passed, a leper would come and cry on the road outside the town, “Leave bread and alms if you are kind folk, the lepers are coming through!”
We are continuing northward, to where I do not know. I have always followed close behind them, snatching the bread and the coins they leave behind by mistake. At first I felt ashamed, for I stole from the poor, then one day I realized that I was also the poor. I have not regretted my sojourns with the lepers since.
They all march in single file, holding on to the shoulders of the one before them. They look like the risen dead themselves, clambering to hold on to one another so that they are not left behind. The one who leads them is the one who calls to the townspeople we pass. He carries a great staff which clicks on the ground as he ambles slowly onward. When I first came, he appeared strong and tall, and with each passing day he has lagged a little more. At first, he slouched over. Then he began to stumble and drag his feet dressed in bloody and ragged cloth, and a limp developed in his right leg. It looks as if at any moment he will keel over and be left by the side of the road, his staff to be passed to the next strongest who walks behind him.
I am proved true. The lepers stop on a hill, not to rest, but to watch. The leader drops behind him his staff, and it rolls slightly away in the dirt. He walks over to the tree line by the side of the dirt path, and holding up an arm to the trunk of the great tree, he turns his back to it and slides slowly, slowly down into the grass. His comrades look at him briefly, and whether they cannot speak or will not speak, they move on without a word. I remain where I am until they are out of sight over the hill, and then I walk on.
I walk briskly and keep my head to the ground so as not to look at him. I’m kicking up the iron-red dirt, which in the fading sun looks like the color of fire. I do not have a chance to smile at its beauty.
“Stop!” The shout comes from behind. I whirl with a grimace. Under a tall oak, the leaves shading his face, is the generalissimo of the disease.
“What for?” Perhaps he does not expect such a response, for he is quizzically silent for a time.
“Oh, I don’t know. It simply seems improper. Have you any money or food?”
“The only coins good for you, old man, are two over the eyes.” He laughs dryly.
“How about some bread then?”
“I’ve eaten all of mine.”
We are quiet for a time. I try walking on.
“Wait!” he cries. I turn around once more. “Come close.” I step off the road and into the shade of the tree. His eyes are looking past me, over my shoulder, and it is clear that they have seen nothing for a very long time. “Are you a leper?”
“No, I am not.”
“Then why do you travel with lepers?”
“I have my reasons.”
“Hmph,” he glowers. “Tell me your reasons as to why it is good to travel like a leper and I will die a happy man.”
“Because it is better to walk over the whole of the world than to stay in one place. Because it is a great freedom to roam the world without anyone ever telling you otherwise.”
“You are a fool. I would trade all my days of freedom just to die in a feather bed, instead of on dry grass and in rags. In heaven, I shall have a thousand feather beds and walk no more.”
I go on to the town ahead. When I get there, I scrounge the ground for alms as I always do and look out to the road ahead. Then I turn and go to the tavern and ask for a bed.
“Cat on a Mat” (story)
by Cecilia Combs
12th grader at Clearview Regional High School, Mullica Hill
English teacher: Michael Porter
Honorable mention award: $50
Cat on a Mat
Deuteronomy did not know what had prompted his humans to build the “Catio,” but he did know it was a stunning place to sun. To lay out on the soft and fuzzy welcome mat, to feel the breeze ruffle his well-groomed fur, to feel that pure sunlight washing over him…. The birds cajoled and mocked by turns, which made his tail twitch in anticipation. There was a fountain by the edge of the Catio. The frogs living on its edge croaked louder to compete with the fountain’s effervescence. Deuteronomy’s whiskers danced, swaying in the breeze that shook the blossoms from the bridal trees.
However, his humans did not seem to be as pleased as he was with the Catio. Especially Willow, the youngest of his humans. She would sit with him on the Catio, but her posture slumped more every day. Even her cuddling lacked enthusiasm.
Willow’s eyes tracked the few other humans who wandered outside. They shone with the intensity of a hunter-stricken lame. If she’d been fortunate enough to have a tail, it would have twitched. Her unease may have had something to do with the strange markings now covering human faces. Perhaps they’d finally tried to compensate for their lack of whiskers.
It could also be that she was missing her extended tribe. He had remembered her litter of humans who’d trample through the house (and sometimes on his tail). When he and the humans were young, he’d run from their noise and roughness. But as their limbs had grown, so had their intelligence. Now they adored him with appropriate ardor and therefore were tolerable. The ones who visited Willow the most frequently were even enjoyable company.
As Willow and Deuteronomy spent their days in the Catio, the scene changed. The blossoms whirled to the ground. There, they coated the daffodils and tiger lilies like lace encrusted dew. The green leaves that had replaced them were also usurped by leaves of red and gold, then overtaken by bronze. And then, by nothing. The leaves clumped on the sidewalk and blew past the Catio door in gusts of wind as unwelcome as they were cold. Once the birds and squirrels retreated to where the leaves went, all that remained was ice and frost. Deuteronomy tired of the Catio and spent his days dozing with Willow in her bedroom. Still no extended tribe, still strange coverings.
But the nights were easier now. None of the humans ever left into that yawning darkness, or even into the yawning brightness of day. Sometimes Deuteronomy missed the quiet they’d gift as penance for their absence. All in all, though, his loneliness ebbed and then evaporated as there was always a hand to feed him.
One day, Deuteronomy saw Willow sitting on the Catio wrapped in nothing but a thin blanket. Clouds swollen with hail and thunder crouched on the black horizon. He pressed his nose into her arm, and her goosebumps pressed into his skin. She was shaking as if she really was a willow tree: a willow tree trapped in a windstorm that was powered by its own growing misery. Whatever was happening to the humans, it tolled on the girl. He pressed into her side, hoping his warmth could counteract her iciness. Her choking, crying, coughing finally ceased in response to his concerned mewling. She buried her face into his fur and fell silent.
And then! The weather cleared again, and the rascal wildlife returned. Deuteronomy was watching a gopher when Willow gasped. She’d been rubbing her arm, but she stopped and stood. The screen door’s hinges squealed as she yanked it open and plunged outside. As the wooden door slammed into the frame, wood shavings fluttered to Deuteronomy’s mat.
Deuteronomy pricked up his ears at the rumble of two familiar voices. Figures and faces ambled into vision, and the voices matched with identities. It was Willow’s friends. They’d given up on trying to facilitate whiskers. Their usual human mouths stretched in visible grins over their weird, flat, but normal human teeth. Willow ran out to them, catching each other up in hugs. Fingers clenched into thin shirts, wrinkles of fabric as distinctive as smile lines.
Their chatter filled the air as they plopped down on Deuteronomy’s mat. The rocking chairs sat empty. Apparently even the small separation of separate seating was sacrilegious to these humans. Willow leaned her head into the crook of one friend’s neck, and his hand braided and unbraided her hair. The other human’s head stretched across his lap, and her hand wrapped in Willow’s.
Deuteronomy stalked over to the group and curled between the humans. His throat vibrated with a purr as Willow reached down to take him into her arms. She showed him the world outside the Catio.
To him, it had not changed. But to her—well. Her laughing, her loud human purring, buzzed around his ears like a daring butterfly. To her, it was better. The fireflies danced for them. As the golden hour trundled off center stage and the sun set, dusk arrived to sing. As the sky darkened, the humans did a variety of human things—card games, ice cream eating, silly secret telling. Deuteronomy did one of his favorite cat things as well. He settled into Willow’s embrace and purred.
So what he didn’t understand was why the humans put up the Catio. He didn’t understand half the rituals they insisted on performing. Who cared that he didn’t know what was up with the fake whiskers, or why each human teen’s arm hung stiffly at their side? He was in Willow’s arms, and summer freshness wafted through the screened-in Catio and into their souls. This was all that mattered
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