Young Whidbey Island author wins big in writers’ competition

Hannah McConnaughey is all smiles after unexpectedly winning the adult category of the Spirit of Writing Contest 2010.   - Michael Stadler photo
Hannah McConnaughey is all smiles after unexpectedly winning the adult category of the Spirit of Writing Contest 2010.
— image credit: Michael Stadler photo

“Agents” was started in the backseat of a car while she and her friends were playing a spy game.

“Agents” is 13-year-old Hannah McConnaughey’s story that took first place in the adult category of this year’s Spirit of Writing Contest sponsored by the Whidbey Island Writers Association.

“Her mother called from her back porch this morning, in panic,” Dorothy Read, association chairperson and contest coordinator, said.

“It appears Hannah had entered a children’s/YA piece in the Spirit of Writing Contest for writers 18 years of age and older.”

“We didn’t think she would win anything,” said Hannah’s mother, Ashley McConnaughey.

The truth is that Hannah’s homeschool advisor, T.O. Bakken, suggested Hannah enter in the adult category in order to get the sort of rigorous and blind review reserved for adults. Bakken felt the Freeland girl’s work was too advanced to compare her to other eighth-graders, and she needed the critique to be one that would not take into account her young age.

“We wanted the work to be judged on its own merit,” Ashley McConnaughey said, “and the entry form didn’t require an age, so we decided to go ahead and submit it with the adult entries.”

“This is a very unusual young woman, truly a prodigy,” Read said. “WIWA is an organization that encourages writers of all ages and that has a heart. I would like to think that someday Hannah will remember this as a pivotal experience for her in her writer’s journey.”

Indeed, Hannah is very excited by the prospect of reading the winning chapter of her full-length story, “Agents,” to various Sno-Isle Library audiences in January. She also said the story continues, and she hopes to have it finished sometime next year.

“I have an ending, though not exactly a happy ending,” Hannah said.

Thus far she has written 10 chapters of “Agents,” the story of five siblings who are being secretly trained (without their consent) as agents for an under-the-radar children’s Central Intelligence Agency. She plans to write more than 20 chapters before the book is finished.

Hannah started the story in the summer 2009 on a whim.

“We were playing some game about spies, and I decided to write it down,” she said.

Although this is the first idea for a story the young author took beyond chapter one, she does remember writing a story about a bear that she entered in the student category of the Spirit of Writing Contest at age 6.

“It wasn’t entirely good, but I thought it was,” she said.

Beyond the game of spies that inspired the story, Hannah said she has focused somewhat on the atmospheric quality in “Agents.”

“I knew that I wanted to a have certain things happen — like their dad being a CIA agent — but the other thought I had was trying to keep it realistic,” Hannah said.

“I wanted to keep the foreboding and the very stark realism and how the main characters (the siblings) are light, and how the character of Jerome and the training center are dark. I like that dark-and-light contrast,” she said.

But now she’ll have to take a short break from writing to answer the call of her fans.

Hannah will receive a certificate, but will not be eligible to win the grand prize of a Whidbey Island Writers Conference scholarship, unlike the second-prize winner, Susan Jensen. Read said Hannah is encouraged by the writers association to apply for a “student” conference scholarship.

Although it might be humiliating to be outdone by a 13-year-old, Jensen supported Hannah’s win with grace and enthusiasm.

“The ‘18 years old or older’ rule for being in the Spirit of Writing Contest was probably put in place to protect young people from having to compete with older writers, not the other way around,” Jensen said, noting the irony of the situation.

“I applaud Hannah. After 12 years of teaching high school English, I’m honored to lose to her — and applaud the English teachers everywhere who nurture such talent,” she added.

As for the adult entry form of the Spirit of Writing Contest, Read said it will be changed to include: “I am at least 18 years of age.”

In conjunction with Sno-Isle Libraries, Hannah will join other winning authors to read their work at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 13 at the Coupeville Library, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 19 at the Freeland Library, at 3 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 20 at the Oak Harbor Library and later that day at 7 p.m. at Clinton Community Hall, and at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 27 at the Langley Library. Click here to find out more.

“In the Spirit of Writing 2010,” a soft-cover anthology of the winning contest entries, will be displayed at island libraries from Saturday, Dec. 4 through January.

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