The winner of the BBC Young Writers' Award 2021 was announced on Radio 4 last Tuesday 19 October. It went to 19-year-old student Tabitha Rubens (who was 18 at the time of entering) for her short story 'Super Powder'.
The award began seven years ago and has been handed out annually ever since. It aims to encourage and develop the next generation of writers by giving young people aged 14-18 a chance to showcase their best work. Radio 1 and Radio 4 collaborate on the award, with the winners' stories read out over the networks.
'Super Powder' was written by Rubens in April of this year, partly as a response to the impact lockdown had on her. It explores mental health in young people, with particular focus on the way insecurities and self-esteem issues in young people are exploited in today's society for profit. It's told from the perspective of someone advertising their new product, a powder that can smooth over all the 'flaws' of its users.
Talking about the inspiration behind her story, Rubens explained:
“I wrote ‘Super-Powder’ in April, after the winter lockdown. Mental health in the UK, particularly amongst young people, has been steadily worsening for some time. During the pandemic, when there were few ways for those struggling to seek help, the situation was only exacerbated, with devastating effects for self-esteem and well-being.
"Seeing how this affected my friends and family, I wanted to write a story that emphasised the baselessness of most insecurities. Many people make a lot of money from exploiting these insecurities and promoting unrealistic and constantly changing ideals."
The story is formatted in an unusual way. Rubens addresses this by saying:
"I also wanted to play around with the structure of the story to underpin the theme. The words move around on the page so that the reader has to shift their gaze to follow them. I wanted to try not only to make the story more engaging to read, but also to mirror the way your attention is manipulated on social media platforms, including by targeted adverts.”
Rubens has previously been shortlisted for the BBC Young Writers' Award 2018, and has won the HG Wells International Short Story Competition. She is currently taking Chinese Studies at the University of Cambridge.
This year, the judges consisted of Radio 1 presenter Katie Thistleton, Mercury Prize winner and singer-songwriter Arlo Parks, Irish author Louise O'Neill, Sunday Times Best-Selling author and actor Robert Webb, and Guardian Children's Fiction Award Winner Alex Wheatle.
Louise O’Neill praised Rubens' work, saying: “I was so impressed by the quality of the shortlist for the Young Writers’ Award – the incredible skill displayed belied their youth – and I’m excited to see the work they produce in the future. ‘Super-Powder’ stood out from my very first reading. It was fresh, original, and confident, and evoked so much in a couple of sentences."
Arlo Parks weighed in by describing: “What I love about ‘Super-Powder’ is its spirit of adventure, it’s sharp, it’s slightly surreal and the writer’s voice is absolutely original. I see a bright future ahead."
Past winners of the award have gone on to find success in future writing, such as Reyah Martin, who won the Canada/Europe Commonwealth Short Story Prize aged just 20.
Rubens' story — read by Rebekah Murrel — can be listened to here.