This past fall Writer’s Desk student Flora Zhai was honored with a Scholastic Writing Award. A high school sophomore, Flora was one of a small number of students who won a Silver Key in the Personal Essay and Memoir category for her story “The Hungry Nation.” Since 1923, Scholastic Publishing has run this competition to “provide opportunities for creative teens to be celebrated” for their art and writing. Flora wrote her essay as a student at Lake Forest Academy, a private boarding school outside of Chicago, but she originally hails from Beijing. Let me just say that her piece was incredible and worthy of every bit of praise it received. Her essay chronicles her family’s pursuit of political freedom in China after Mao Zedong. It describes, in some detail, her parents’ lives under the strict rule of Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping and her own experiences as a highschool student privileged with American liberties.
What Flora crafted, with Emma’s guidance, was an effective and moving piece about upbringing, heritage, and family. I love Flora’s stunning moment of realization that Mao may not be the hero that her school paints him as. I love Flora’s insightful and well-placed criticisms of the United States as a place where a President can openly foment hate among the American people. And most of all, I love the nostalgia-tinted descriptions of China in the 1980s, which her parents lovingly called “the golden age.”
I recently talked with Writer’s Desk tutor Emma Broder about how she helped Flora craft the essay. Here are some excerpts from our conversation.
Q: Where did Flora’s topic come from?
A: At the beginning of Flora’s school semester we read an essay by Naomi Shihab Nye, a Palestinian American poet. The piece, “Mint Snowball,” focuses on Nye’s experiences in her grandfather’s pharmacy. From there, the prompt was for Flora to write about her family history. She wrote about her parents being in college during the protests in Tiananmen Square. As someone with this family history who now studies in the U.S., it helped her discuss what freedom means to her.
Q: In this essay, Flora lays out, in vivid detail, a China that pops off the page and just seems so real. How did she go about creating these descriptions, and did she have any inspiration?
A: That was all Flora! What we did try to do was take inspiration from the poetic writing style of Naomi Shihab Nye to craft descriptions that were as effective as possible.
Q: What role did you have, as her Writer’s Desk tutor, in the writing process?
A: I was the editor of the story. I helped Flora take an incredible narrative and craft it in a way that was as elegant as possible. It can be useful to have an additional perspective on what the best execution of a story could be. And for all of the serious conversations we had about the terrain Flora was covering with this essay, there were plenty of laughs as well.
As a guy who has submitted seven works to Scholastic but managed to eke out only a single Honorable Mention, I know just how deserving Flora is of a heartfelt congratulations!
If you have a piece of writing that you’d like to submit to the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, submissions for the annual contest open on September 1, 2020. All other submission details can be found here.