The Children’s Short Story Competition Saving Our Green Spaces
This World Book Day we speak to Durham optometrist and community activist Simon Berry, currently celebrating his third annual Gilesgate Story Challenge
Since opening his own opticians on Gilesgate in Durham 19 years ago, Optometrist Simon Berry has a lot to be proud of – edging closer to both the 20th anniversary of his practice in June and the third annual Gilesgate Story Challenge book signing in Durham Waterstones.
Simon never wanted his opticians to just be a shop, he wanted his practice to be a part of the community, running local projects and investing in useful technology such as a ‘visual fixation system’ designed by Simon, helping to detect the vision in the eyes of disabled children by focussing their attention towards the user. This love for the community was the beginning of an idea, an inclusive short story competition for child authors of all abilities, resulting in an annually published anthology that celebrates the imaginations of local children while raising money for a local charity.
‘I never wanted to just run a shop selling glasses, we’ve always been a part of the community and we’ve done many projects over the years,’ explains Simon. ‘I love books and the Gilesgate Story Challenge is something that has grown over time. This is the third year of running the competition and our theme this year is British Wildlife in support of the Durham Wildlife Trust.
'Since the beginning I wanted this competition to be very inclusive,’ Simon continues. ‘One of the things I’m most proud of is that we have had entries published from people with various learning disabilities. There’s one story that was written about and in parts signed in Makaton (an early form of sign language used by children), which is amazing,’ he adds. ‘It was about a conversation with their sister. I’ve still never seen anything like that before.’
The charming stories in this year’s Gilesgate Story Challenge have been written by a diverse range of young authors, mostly between the ages of nine and 10 but including stories written by 16 year olds with learning disabilities, and even a collaborative tale by a group of 20 nursery children. Simon prides the challenge on its inclusivity, hoping that it will introduce literature as a fun and engaging topic for children that may have dismissed their capability to write, read and enjoy books.
‘We don’t limit our young authors – we’re all inclusive. Allowing a child’s uninterrupted voice to come through creates stories written in language that isn’t restricted by formal writing and grammar,’ Simon continues. ‘It’s exactly what I wanted from this project because I didn’t want it to feel like homework for the children or something they had to do. I wanted the authors to tell their story in any way that they wanted to tell it,’ he adds. ‘We haven’t changed the grammar, the spelling or anything. You’re really reading the author’s voice, it makes it feel almost like a Roald Dahl novel some of the words that come out of it. I’m no teacher, but sometimes I think we limit the imagination of children in a certain way by being too strict with formal grammar.’
Aiming to beat their previous record of £3,000 raised in 2019, Simon urges everyone to pick up the Gilesgate Story Challenge for themselves to help Durham Wildlife Trust, support local talent by coming to the book signing on 5th March, and maybe learn a thing or two about the future of our planet along the way.
What is your favourite book of all time
I do love Neil Gaiman, Ocean At The End Of The Lane is my favourite of his. I also really like Neil Banks’ the Wasp Bank – just don’t let children read that one, it’s a bit dark!
Do you have a favourite author from the North East?
Not one from the North East exactly, but one of the judges this year is called Fiona Sharpe and she recommended a Cumbrian author to me called M.W. Craven who writes murder mysteries. He writes stories that feature places in the North East and he’s great! He even wrote a short story about Durham Waterstones! The character in it even works in the Durham RVI.
If you could create the perfect sub-genre of book using three other genres, what would it be? For example, A romantic/fantasy/horror novel.
That’s a great question! I think I’d like a Michael Crichton thriller, based in a sci-fi world, with a bit of comedy thrown in there.
Where are the top three spots you’d recommend to read the Gilesgate Story Challenge?
Durham Wildlife Trust’s Rainton Meadows overlooking the lake is one! The winning story this year is about a slug, so one has got to be sitting on the grass in a park where you might be able to see some slugs go by. Finally, it’d have to be a meadow in honour of my favourite story of this year, Twisted Meadows!
Have you ever tried something new based on its depiction in a fictional novel?
Ooh, here’s a weird one! After reading The Dice Man, I’ve started having a couple of throws of the dice to make decisions!
Can you recommend our readers one book they need to pick up this World Book Day?
Well, The Gilesgate Story Challenge 2021’s signing is at 11 o’clock on the 5th of March at Durham Waterstones! Apart from that, I’m tempted to say Fortunately The Milk, even though it’s an old one.
If you want to learn more or pick up a copy of the Gilesgate Story Challenge 2021, follow the link at simonberry.co.uk