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Do you want to be heard? asks Shama Noman.

‘Yes,’ say the students of Mirdif American School, in Dubai.

‘What do you need to do to be heard?’ she asks.

‘We need to be loud, clear and have a purpose.’

The classroom is buzzing with excitement. Shama, project manager at Emirates Literature Foundation’s Voices of the Future Generation (VoFG), is addressing around 20 eight- to 12-year-olds, who when not lending her their ears are busy chattering with each other, trading stories, sharing points of views or just studying the various posters the team from the ELF has put up temporarily on the walls of the classroom.

A healthy mix of boys and girls, the students are gathered to learn how to write a short story under VoFG, a unique writing initiative under the patronage of Unesco created to promote the UN convention on the Rights of the Child and the Sustainable Development Goals agenda. Now in its fifth year internationally, this is the first time the Gulf region will be taking part in the competition. The target: to support with 20 story submissions in both Arabic and English.

Major honours await students who turn in the best tales. Twenty shortlisted stories will be sent to a panel of international judges who will award the authors gold, silver and bronze medals and certificates. That’s not all. Emirates Literature Foundation will award 10 shortlisted authors from the UAE with The Creative Writing Awards. (See below how to participate.)

Different activities helped the children develop characters with interesting quirks
Stefan Lindeque

Isobel Abulhoul, CEO and Trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation, says she’s proud that ELF is part of this VoFG initiative that advances the right to education and literacy through the children’s book series.

‘The programme recognises that one of the best ways to get children motivated is to hear stories by other children and we know from our own experience with writing competitions just how inspiring that can be. We’re looking forward to being inundated with imaginative and creative stories populated by lively and colourful characters, bringing to life the amazing things that a sustainable future will have in store for us all,’ she says.

VoFG was developed to help the younger generation give a voice to their hopes, dreams and aspirations for a sustainable future through the medium of the written word.

With Emirates Literature Foundation as the consultants, the Middle East competition is being conducted under the patronage of Shaikha Hissa Hamdan Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Goodwill Ambassador for the Gulf Region. As part of the project, the ELF ran workshops for teachers explaining how to get children involved in the competition.

At the Mirdif American School, the students, grouped together five to a table, are clearly excited to participate in the workshop. If their work is chosen to join a global group of prize-winning child authors, it will feature online and in inspirational books that will be made available to schools and libraries across the world.

‘The hunt is for original and imaginative adventure stories that draw the attention to children’s rights and sustainability,’ says Shama, a former teacher now part of the ELF team.

‘The focus is on creativity and imagination, with stories about characters who overcome something – as all good adventure tales do,’ she says, on the sidelines of the writing workshop.

If the creativity and imagination of the kids, evident from their ebullient responses to Shama’s queries, are any indication, the judges are going to be spoilt for choice.

Kids were given stick figures and asked to assign them a trait such as loyalty or kindness
Stefan Lindeque

One of the first tasks she gives the kids is to choose a UN sustainable goal to base their story on, from the 17 that include no poverty, zero hunger, good health, education, gender equality, clean water, life on land, life below water, climate change and reduced inequalities.

The children are then encouraged to go up on stage and spell out briefly why they chose a particular goal.

‘My name is Sandy and I chose the education goal because while I have the chance to attend school, I know there are a lot of children who don’t. I’d love for more children to get a chance to attend school where they can express their feelings clearly and loudly,’ says a little girl, loudly and clearly.

Another girl steps up. ‘I too choose education,’ says the 12-year-old. ‘Education is important to be able to live a normal life… to get a job… it opens doors for you and gives you opportunities. With education you wouldn’t have to live for the rest of your life with the circumstances that you were born in.’

Eight-year-old Adil steps up to say he chooses wildlife conservation. ‘We need to be careful about what we do because it could disrupt their life,’ he says. ‘The recent wildfire in Australia is an example.’

Manal chooses zero hunger because, ‘there are many poverty issues; people are dying and that needs to stop’.

Renee, 12, believes girls are not getting the same opportunities as boys when it comes to some jobs. ‘People say there are some jobs that girls cannot do. This is not fair. We have differences and we know our differences but our differences can make the world a better place,’ she says, earning a loud round of applause. ‘We are all perfect in our own way – none less or more than the other. Gender equality is all about fairness and equal opportunities.’

VoFG was launched to help the younger generation give a voice to their aspirations for a sustainable future
Stefan Lindeque

Another girl stands up for equality, saying she feels bad when an adult chides her for voicing her opinion. ‘We may be small, but that doesn’t mean we don’t know much about the world. We go to schools to learn a lot of things and sometimes we might know more than adults. So please give us a chance to talk,’ she implores.

Yet another girl pitches for education. A boy backs pure water, another marine life – ‘we have a responsibility to care for our oceans’, he says.

Shama encourages the room to give the kids a loud applause. ‘Your voice matters,’ she says. ‘And this competition is about giving you all the opportunity to express your thoughts and feelings. Your energy and passion should come forth in your stories.’

The children look pleased; while some girls high-five each other, the boys fist-bump.

Once they settle back in their chairs, Shama gently leads them to the next stage of the workshop – offering them an overview of elements of a good story. ‘We need to understand what makes a story great; think of a great story you’ve read and let’s discuss why you liked it,’ she says.

The room erupts in an animated discussion. Book titles are bandied around, as are names of authors. Plots and genres are discussed to buttress points of views. Shama patiently gives each table a hearing before attempting to sum up the important points.

‘A story should have enough information to be catchy, and not be dull and boring. Right?’ she asks.

‘Yes,’ they agree.

She then lists some ingredients that need to go into the mix of a story to make it unputdownable – an element of mystery; solutions to problems; relatable characters; hooks all through the plot to keep the reader interested; a dose of adventure...

For the next part of the workshop, Shama signals to her colleague, Loise Arabis, project administrator of VoFG at the ELF, to distribute a set of four stick puppets to each table.

‘We need to develop characters and character traits for our stories,’ she says, before dividing the students at each table into two groups and asking them to choose a captain for each group ‘democratically’. Each group is expected to describe two stick puppet characters from the four given to their table.

The characters need to have names, ages, a profession if an adult and so on. ‘Also, endow them with certain traits such as loyalty, kindness, vivacity…’ she says.

Minutes later, a student raises his hand. Holding up a female stick puppet he says, ‘Alia is a 45-year-old Egyptian and a designer. She is loving, caring, and responsible. She enjoys making clothes for the poor.’

Another boy holds up his stick puppet of a kid. ‘Naina is 10 years old. She has a troubled past and now wants to help kids who might be going down the same road. She wants to become a therapist.’

Yet another boy says, ‘Latifa is 61, she cooks Emirati food and sells it to people. She has a traumatic past having lost her husband and children.’

Shama calls time out to make a point.

‘Characters and character traits help build your story. But I notice that all of your characters seem to have very good traits. Now, if everyone is good in your story then there wouldn’t be any problems.’ Result: there may be no scope for a story to develop.

Some characters need to have shades of grey in them, she says. For instance, a person who is a control freak could irk people. That facet of his or her character could take the story forward and make it more interesting. ‘We all are built that way [with shades of grey],’ she says. ‘Those are traits we need to work on.

‘Kids are unlikely to enjoy reading a preachy, serious story,’ Shama continues. ‘So make some characters sarcastic or funny or ill-tempered so that what they say perks up the reader and they really want to keep reading to find out what the character will say or do next.’

She dangles a carrot: ‘Interesting dialogues will be one of the qualities a shortlisted story will have.’

An abrupt silence descends on the group – a penny drop moment – before the chatter erupts once again.

The children go up on stage to explain why they chose a particular UN goal, from zero hunger to clean water
Stefan Lindeque

Next lesson for the kids is on using elements of the five senses to take the narrative forward. For this session, a few miniature containers, each no larger than a matchbox, are laid out on the tables before the kids with strict instructions not to scrutinise the contents until told.

Of course, some of the students immediately check out the containers, open them, turn them upside down, shake them and even sniff them. But a disapproving glare from their teacher is enough for them to fall in line.

Shama waits for a moment, then directs the kids to open the box and sniff its contents. ‘I don’t want you to tell me what the thing inside is – that it is detergent or coffee. I want you to tell me what the scent reminds you of.’

She offers to lead by example. ‘For instance, when I smell mint, it reminds me of mint chocolate chip ice cream and that makes me happy. So if I want to relate the experience of happiness I will say I am having my fav mint ice cream at my local ice cream shop.’

There is a chatter of voices all wanting to share experiences. For one girl, the scent of detergent reminds her of her school uniform and of meeting her friends. Another says, already planning her story, ‘I’ll say how coffee used to remind me of my grandmother as she used to drink it a lot.’

‘Describing feelings and emotions well could help you win a position on the shortlist,’ says Shama.

More short sessions – on vocabulary, the importance of following a logical sequence, using elements in a setting to tell the story, among others – follow before she winds up the workshop by showing the kids a short film to highlight the importance of kindness.

‘Are you’ll ready to write your stories?’ she asks.

A resounding ‘yes’ reverberates through the room.

Key points the shortlisting team will consider

Theme: Stories that animate a vision for a sustainable future.

Character development: Qualities that stimulate positive feelings of hope and possibility for the main protagonist.

Plot: One that will hook readers and urge them to find out how the challenge is overcome by the end of the story.

Competition guidelines

• The competition is open to all children resident in the UAE aged 8-12 years old.

• Story submissions can be made on the Voices of Future Generations Arabia website until April 25. vofg.vofgarabia.org/

• Stories can be submitted by students, parents and teachers. There is no submission fee.

Story guidelines

• Stories must be written for children six years and above and must be between 1,200 to 1,500 words long.

• They must be typed, single-spaced and in size 12 font – to be submitted on Word document online only, in Arabic or English.

• Stories should be written from a child’s point of view or be about an adventure that a child character experiences.

• They must feature themes around children’s rights and sustainable development, and the writer’s vision for a sustainable future.

• Each story must be original and written for this competition only

• Each story will be reviewed by teachers who work in the VoFG team first before being submitted to VoFG globally.

More details can be found at https://vofg.vofgarabia.org/