A little boy is saved from drowning in a freezing pond.
An injured rabbit is rescued from an uncertain fate.
A young superhero stops a baby carriage from going off a cliff.
A group of boys endeavor to find a golden temple.
A student stands up to a bully.
Those are among the plots of the short stories about heroism submitted by Chicago and suburban students for the Chicago Sun-Times’ “The Imagination Project” writing contest.
We’re showcasing the six winners here with critiques from four authors with Chicago ties: Sandra Cisneros, Sara Paretsky, Veronica Roth and Chris Abani.
‘Heroes Do Exist’
Bernadette S., 16, incoming junior, Jones College Prep, Chicago
I don’t believe in heroes. No one can fly through the sky without wings, start a fire without matches or see through walls (much less walk through them). Heroes are just characters in comic books that little children read when they want something to believe in. That’s what heroes are. They’re just beliefs.
“Are you listening to me?”
I snapped my head up to see Clara staring at me with a disappointed look in her eyes. She pressed her mouth into a thin line, crossing her arms in front of her chest as if to say: Do you even care?
“I was listening,” I lied. “I was just staring at the floor.”
“Then what was I talking about?”
Honestly, I have no clue. She started the conversation by telling me what happened on the latest episode of “Teen SuperWatch,” but I had zoned out the minute she started rambling on about it.
“Your TV show, or something,” I sighed, “the one with those ridiculous superheroes.”
“They may not be real, but I like them,” Clara frowned, getting up from her chair.
We were sitting in the school cafeteria, our conversation drowned out by the rest of the students around us.
Clara continued talking: “Not only is the show entertaining, I like watching ‘Wonder Gal’ kick some serious butt and save lives.”
“Save lives?” I laughed. “They just beat up villains. They don’t care about saving people.”
“But they do anyway!”
“Fine,” I said, following her out of the room, “let’s agree to disagree.”
She didn’t respond and kept walking. Not wanting to leave the day off on a bad note, I cleared my throat and changed the subject. “Are we still getting tacos?” I asked.
“I’ve got debate until 4,” she said, “but I’ll meet you there.”
“Where is it again?”
“State Street. I forgot the name, but you can find it on maps.”
Waving her a quick goodbye, I left the school, typing the directions for State Street into my phone.
As I skipped down the stairs, my eyes were glued to the screen in my hand, scanning the route. State Street, State Street, State Street . . .
The sound of a blaring horn rang out into the air, and the first thing I saw was a car hurtling towards me with lightning speed. I was so distracted by my phone, I didn’t realize I had wandered into the middle of the street. I was a deer in headlights.
Suddenly, in the slightest moment, I felt a sharp tug on the back of my shirt, and I was pulled back towards the sidewalk.
As I fell towards the concrete, I caught a glimpse of the person that saved me.
There was no villain, there were no superpowers, it was just another high school student like me. They didn’t need a cape or to come swooping down from the sky. They just saved my life.
That’s when I realized heroes do exist.
Sandra Cisneros: “If we look at our lives carefully, we realize little miracles like this happen daily. Use this time to examine your present moments and write about them. This is a special time of sanctuary to do just that.”
Sara Paretsky: “Your writing demonstrates a strong level of skill with language, which makes it a pleasure to read. One of the ways I see this is in the dialogue between the two girls at the beginning. They’re good friends, but they get on each other’s nerves. That’s true to life, and you show this realism with an economy of words and images. The narrator’s emotions come across believably because you use the details of her body language to show her feelings: She’s staring at the floor, she knows she’s in the wrong with her friend and finally owns up to it. And then, in a nice twist, she gets her comeuppance as a real hero rescues her. Keep working on dialogue and on bringing emotions to life through your characters’ actions: That’s the substance of good novels and good screenplays.”
Veronica Roth: “You have a good ear for natural-sounding dialogue! And I like the arc of your character, from cynical about heroes to embracing a new definition of them. One thing I wanted to know more about was what the character was seeing — what does their world look like? Or the person who saves them?”
Chris Abani: “I have always believed that the world and people are saved by small acts of compassion and kindness. And this story embodies the heroic in the quotidian, the way a total stranger, just by reaching out their hand, can change our lives. I love this story for celebrating that.”
‘Dreams Can Come True’
Giselle W., 13, just finished 7th grade, Oscar Mayer Magnet School, Chicago
It all started with a dream . . .
I was walking to school and I remember that this morning was particularly cold. As I got closer to the school, I saw a figure starting to approach me. Soon enough I recognized him.
His name was Lucas. He wasn’t in my class but I’ve heard that he wasn’t the nicest person.
As Lucas came closer, I started to panic. I started to run but he caught me.
“Give me your homework before I pound you,” he growls.
Terrified, I turned to face my backpack to get my homework.
As I handed my homework to Lucas, I saw a girl running towards us. As she came closer, I realized that the girl was my best friend Samantha.
Out of breath, she yells, “Stop!”
Samantha walks up to Lucas, standing directly in front of me.
“You’re going to walk away. If you don’t, then I’m not going to the teacher, I’m going to the principal. I’m telling her everything you’ve done, EVERYTHING,” she says confidently.
Lucas looks angry, but he hands me back my homework. He growls at Samantha as he walks away.
When I woke up, I felt a shiver down my spine. That dream seemed too real.
As I got ready for school, I kept thinking about that dream. I shook my head trying to clear the memory.
This morning, I decided to walk with Samantha. I walked over to her house and waited a minute or so for her to come out.
“Hey Ally!” she yells to me as she steps outside.
We started to walk to school until I yelled, “Race you!”
We started to sprint down the sidewalk. Samantha slowed down but I kept running until I got to the school.
When I got to the school, I turned around to look for Samantha.
She was still at the stop sign. Out of breath, I watched as someone came up to her. I recognize him, it’s Lucas!
I started to realize that this situation was a lot like my dream.
Except Samantha wasn’t the bystander, she was the victim. Then, I realized, I’m the bystander in this situation!
I ran as fast as I could to where Samantha and Lucas were.
I see Samantha turn to her backpack, and that’s when I yell, “Stop!”
Once I caught up to Samantha, I stepped in between her and Lucas.
“You’re going to walk away. If you don’t, I’m not going to the teacher, I’m going to the principal to tell her everything you’ve done. EVERYTHING,” I say, trying to remember the words Samantha used in my dream.
Lucas looked at me, then at Samantha. He has this angry look on his face as he walks away.
Today, I realized that heroes aren’t just the people that fly around in capes and fight crime, but. more realistically, they are the people that are courageous enough to stand up for what they believe in.
Sandra Cisneros: “Dreams are stories our bodies write, and stories are dreams we dream with our eyes open. In both, we find solutions to our real problems. You have risen to the challenge and become your own hero in this story.”
Sara Paretsky: “Writers often use dreams to create mood, and that’s what you’ve done very skillfully here. Our lives sometimes feel dreamlike — was it real? Did I make it up? With Samantha’s dream, you create an atmosphere of dread and uncertainty that grips the reader and makes us want to know how the dream will play out in Samantha’s actual life. (When you read or watch Shakespeare’s play “The Tempest,” you’ll see how he uses dreams to explore whether his characters’ experiences are real or just ‘the stuff of dreams.’) You also give your heroine the chance to lay claim to her own voice, her own power.”
Veronica Roth: “My favorite part of this story was the moment the character realizes she has to be the one to take on the hero role. And I especially appreciated the character’s physical reactions to feelings. One thing you could expand on is the dream — dreams often give us weird little signs that we’re dreaming. Are there details that can make this dream feel even more dreamlike?”
Chris Abani: “A mastery of story in such a short space. All the elements are here: setup, complication, rising action, meanwhile and climax — all holding a powerful and emotional message.”
Rosebud S., 13, just finished 7th grade, Central Middle School, Evergreen Park
Beep! The sound of the moving van made me look up from my magazine.
A rusty, light blue Volkswagen Beetle pulled up into the empty driveway. The first to come out of the car was a teenage boy. He stood about five and a half feet tall and looked like he just walked out of an old ‘80s movie.
“Hey,” the boy nervously said as he dropped a box, “can I have some help here?”
I picked up the box he dropped and took a few from the pile he was carrying.
“Wow, you’re pretty strong to be carrying all of these boxes by yourself.”
“Thank you for your help,” he blushed as he struggled to open the door. “My sister refuses to carry any box that’s not hers.”
I carefully set down the boxes on the kitchen floor. “You’re welcome! I’m Brooke! And you are . . .?”
“I’m Connor, and it’s very nice to meet you.” He held out his hand. It was cold, but I shook his hand anyway. “It is very nice to meet you, too!”
“Wel,l thanks again for helping me, I’ll see you around.” I could tell from the tone of his voice that he wasn’t used to talking to a person his age for this long.
“Hey, my mom just bought a whole box of cookies from the bakery. Do you want to come over and try one?” I offered.
Connor’s surprised and happy smile brightened the room, “Of course!”
As we were finishing the last few bites of the fresh cookies, Connor’s phone buzzed.
“Oh, that’s my mom. I have to go home and help her make dinner. Thank you so much for having me over.” He looked at the half empty box of sweets and laughed. “And thanks for the cookies!”
“You’re welcome! I had fun today, I hope we can hang out again soon!” I waved as he ran up his porch steps into his house.
“Lights out, honey,” my mom called from downstairs as the bright moon sat among the stars in the dark night sky.
“OK, goodnight!” I turned to set my phone down on my nightstand.
It was a text from Connor: “Hey, thanks again for everything. I got bullied at my old school, and I didn’t have many friends, so it was nice to hang out with you today. You really are my hero.”
Sandra Cisneros: “What a lovely story about kindness. I think it’s good to right the world by writing the world. Stories guide, teach and change us.”
Sara Paretsky: “You write with a good sense of language — dialogue, descriptions, emotions are all spot on. You take a slice of life and turn it into an interesting story by making us wonder why the boy isn’t used to talking to kids his own age. Why is his sister reluctant to help? And your narrator acts the way a real person [would], namely impulsively. She finds Connor both intriguing and a bit sad, so she invites him in — and then, by her acts of kindness, she learns his secret, and she becomes a hero.”
Veronica Roth: “There are some great descriptions and details in this story! I could feel and see where Brooke was in each scene, and the balance of dialogue and description felt really natural. I’d like to know more about Brooke — what motivates her? What is she thinking?”
Chris Abani: “Very good use of character and plot. And a tender powerful interaction all held within a tender and deeply human story.”
‘Chiyre Man And The Golden Temple’
Charles J., 10, just finished 4th grade, Ariel Community Academy, Chicago
There was a boy named Chiyre Jones (pronounced ki-ree) and he goes on a lot of adventures. He has too many brothers to name out. They were going to go find the golden temple. They had to get some protective gear and so on . . .
They were going to go get some protective gear when one of their archrivals came out of nowhere. It was Morty. Morty is a bad person who robs bank,s but the cops said if he does that ever again he will get into jail for the rest of his life. So when the crew (a.k.a. all of Chiyre’s brothers) were done getting the stuff they need, they went to bed because it was 10:24 at night.
So the next day they went to go find the temple in their Lamborghini SUV and they finally found it after three hours of hard looking.
So all of the brothers went into the temple, it was very dark in there and there was no phone signal, so they had to light a torch.
When they were in the temple, there were a lot of dangerous traps, and, unlucky for them, Fuzzy got caught in one of them, and he was gone.
But Mic Mic has good eyes and what he saw was that there was a monster that captured Fuzzy while he was in the trap, and he ran off with Fuzzy as quick as lightning.
Then they went to go try to find Fuzzy, and when they found him he was in a secret room and had his mouth taped and was stuck in a chair.
When they got Fuzzy out of the chair, Chiyre told Fuzzy to explain what the monster looked like and Fuzzy said that he was black and he was kind of like a ghost.
When he got stuck the monster told Fuzzy to stay in the chair so they ran on to go find him instead. So they have been running for 20 minutes in a huge maze, so Chiyre told all of his brothers to split up.
So the way Chiyre went, he found the monster but he stayed quiet and went back to tell the other brothers and they agreed to do a sneak attack on the monster, so they creeped up and then bam!
They attacked the monster all at once but not even a scratch . . .
When they were all fighting, Mic Mic found something that would turn him back human, so he shot it at him and sure enough he turned back into a human.
And now when they fought him, the monster turned back to the good side and his evil spirit was dead.
When the pals got back home, they helped the person into an ambulance.
Then the pals went back home and got a picture of the temple and that was the end and they lived happily ever after.
The End, or is it?
Sandra Cisneros: “Dear Charles, I doubt this is the end. You sound as if you have many more chapters in you. Write, write, and write some more!”
Sara Paretsky: “You’ve written a very exciting adventure story with a lot of good details. One thing I liked especially was the way the brothers all worked together to support each other. I cared what happened to them because they cared what happened to each other. I also liked that your monster turned out to have a good side that was hidden. I also liked ‘The End, or is it?’ That leaves room for you to write a sequel, and I hope you will.”
Veronica Roth: “There’s so much imagination and adventure here! And I love all the names. I’d love to know more about these characters and the temple — what is special about this place, and what do your characters want to do there before they are interrupted?”
Chris Abani: “I remember adventure stories growing up and how they would have me enraptured. I feared a good adventure was lost in this age of computer games, but this story reassures we are good. Sleuthing, smarts and good fun. A strong and entertaining story.”
‘Just Like Mom’
Brynn B., 11, just finished 5th grade, Dummer Elementary School, Sandwich
It started out as a normal day. I woke up and got ready for work. I showered, did my hair and makeup and went downstairs for breakfast.
The kitchen was empty. My mom wasn’t home from her shift yet. I started making breakfast. Toast and jam for me and coffee and eggs for my mom.
You see, my mom is a nurse at a local hospital. She has night shifts each night. Sleeps by day, works by night.
The coffee was just starting to come out when I heard car tires and the knob turning.
My mom walked in with tired eyes.
“Good morning, Mom,” I said.
She smiled weakly at me and went into her bedroom to change out of her coat and scrubs. She came out wearing a sweatshirt and yoga pants.
I poured her coffee into her mug and put her eggs on a plate. She sat down and started eating. I set my food on the table and looked at her.
“Mom? Are you OK?” I said in a calm voice.
She nodded. “Mom, why don’t you get some sleep. I’ll drive to work,” I said calmly.
She looked as if she was going to argue but then she said, “Well, I suppose you’re right. I’ll get some sleep. Have a good day at work, sweetie.”
She got up and walked into her bedroom. I walked over to the table by the door and took my keys. I walked to the garage door and got in my car. I started the drive to my job. I drove past the pond.
It’s not frozen over yet. I thought.
That’s when I saw the little boy. At first, all I saw was his mittens flailing in the pond. Then, when I looked back, his head was just above the surface.
I jumped out of my car. I looked for anything I could find. My eyes landed on a dead tree nearby.
It was small enough to hold, so I grabbed it.
I yelled, “GRAB ONTO THIS!”
For a split second, nothing happened. But then he stuck his hand out of the ice in a thumbs up.
I slowly inched the tree out.
His mittened hands grasped the branch for a second and then slipped off.
I yelled out to him, “TAKE YOUR MITTENS OFF AND HOLD ON!”
I saw mittens being flown onto the ice. His little hands grasped the branch.
I slowly pulled him towards me. Once he was on solid ground, I picked him up and gave him a blanket from my car.
I immediately asked myself, “What would Mom do?”
The answer was easy: Take the little boy to the hospital.
When we arrived, the doctors and nurses took care of him and called his parents.
When I got home, I told my mom the story and she was so proud.
As I lay in bed that night, I knew that I wanted to become a nurse and help people like my mom does everyday.
Sandra Cisneros: “Your story has two heroes. The person telling the story and the mom who is the role model. We learn from our personal heroes, and this story showcases this.”
Sara Paretsky: “This story comes alive because of the details you include when the narrator is saving the little boy’s life. You make us see the mittens, first flailing around, then sticking up out of the water even when we can’t see the boy’s head any more. Finally, the narrator tells him to throw the mittens onto the ice. You also make us believe that your narrator knows exactly what to do in this crisis: how to spread weight across thin ice to keep from falling through, how to calm a panicked person, then how to keep him warm and get him appropriate care. These are key elements to writing a story that other people want to read.”
Veronica Roth: “This act of heroism was so tense! I like that there was some struggle there to save the little boy and that you kept us in suspense. I was curious to know whether the character’s realization at the end (that she wants to be a nurse) is a new one. Did she change because of her experience?”
Chris Abani: “I love the risk at the heart of this story, the uncomplicated but powerful choices that are presented. How much change happens in such a short space. And the echo of gratitude is such a nice touch.”
‘The New Student’
Julia H., 11, just finished 5th grade, Harte Elementary School, Chicago
I, Sophie Johnson, was a seventh grader at Brooks Middle School, in Boston. I had a pretty normal life. I had a mom, a dad and a 16-year-old sister Jayla. Not amazing or anything but not boring either.
My BFF was Carli White. We’d known each other since first grade, when our teacher, Ms. Marissa, put us together at the Diamond Table. Sure, we’d had fights over the years. We’d even stopped speaking for one whole week once. But in the long run she was still my best friend, and I was hers.
One morning, Carli and I had just gotten to school. We were quietly chatting, waiting for Ms. Bernstein to begin class.
“Ahem,” called Ms. Bernstien. “AHEM!”
The class quieted down.
“All right. Now, today, we have a new student. Please try to make her feel welcome. Her name is Harper Smith. Harper, would you like to introduce yourself?” asked Ms. Bernstein.
“Hi,” said Harper shyly, eyes downcast.
“I’m from Wisconsin, and I like to read,” added Harper softly.
“OK. Thank you, Harper. Now, where is an empty desk for you?”
I raised my hand.
“Excuse me, Ms. Bernstein, there’s an empty desk right here,” I said, pointing to the desk next to mine.
“Yes, perfect!” declared Ms. Bernstein. “Harper, you can take that seat right there next to Sophie.”
Harper walked over. Carli and I gave her a small wave, so she smiled at us. She slid into her seat. Then, Ms. Bernstein asked us to begin solving the morning bell ringer.
The rest of the morning passed uneventfully.
At recess, I hung out with Carli by the swings. We chatted about my sister, this party we’d both been to and just our lives in general. We felt a little guilty for not hanging out with Harper, who was standing all alone near the slide. But we told ourselves that we deserved some “just us” time.
A few minutes later, some girls came up to Harper and began to tease her about her outfit and her hair.
After a few minutes, Carli and I noticed and walked over to them.
“Hey!” called Carli. “Leave her alone.”
“Yeah,” I cried. “At our school, we don’t bully other kids!”
“Excuse me?” asked one girl. “And what are you going to do about it, dork?”
“She’ll tell the principal that you’re bullying the new student at school, and he’ll call your parents,” Carli shot back. The girls backed off a few steps, held a whispered conference, then ran away, pretending to hear their friends calling.
Carli and I high-fived, then turned to Harper. “Thank you,” she whispered gratefully. “You don’t know how much this means to me.”
“Any time,” we replied. “Hey, we’re going for ice cream after school. Wanna come?”
The bell rang then, so we all ran off toward the gate. I had a feeling that Harper was going to become very good friends with me and Carli.
Sandra Cisneros: “Your story reminds me of when I was the new kid, which felt like always. It reminds us that it costs us nothing to be generous and kind and brings great rewards. Thank you for this message, especially now.”
Sara Paretsky: “One of the things readers want when we read a story is to feel we can believe in the characters. They’re fictional, yes, but if they act and talk like real people, then they come to life, and we believe in them. You’ve done that very skillfully here with the way Sophie thinks about her friendship with Carli and the way all the characters speak in your story. Sophie feels guilty for ignoring the new girl, but she and Carli deserve ‘us time’: That is exactly how real people think and react. I love the bullies ‘pretending to hear their friends’ — exactly what we all do when we’re embarrassed or ashamed. Writing good dialogue is a gift. I hope you’ll keep working on your gift and produce many more believable stories in the years ahead.”
Veronica Roth: “It’s great that you let your characters be a little flawed — they weren’t always perfectly welcoming, and their friendship had had ups and downs, which is very true to life! And I could really hear your narrator’s voice in my head. I’d love to know what things look like around your character — set the scene for us!”
Chris Abani: “I love how easily and effortlessly this story embraces the humanity of its characters, even the bullies. A deep forgiving and loving coming of age.”