Judging the youth section of the 2020 Furphy Literary Award has been a wild and thrilling ride.
I had forgotten how fertile, provocative, brave and sometimes just stir-crazy the teenage imagination can be.
This year, there were 56 entries from young people aged between 13 and 18 from across the Goulburn Valley. The reading was split between myself and fellow judge, writer, teacher and librarian Pauline Roberts from near Seymour.
I read stories about faeries, the hunt for Jack the Ripper, sexual abuse, schoolies, first love, autism, the lost Ark of the Covenant, viruses, demons, ghosts, bushfire, and war — lots of war stories.
After a month of reading, I sat back exhausted and delirious at this dive into the teenage mind. It was also a deeply heartening experience to know there are young people out there fuelled by the same flame that has illuminated my life.
It's good to know the flame of polished writing is still alive and bright in these times of memes, illiterate social media posts and ill-considered tweets.
It does require effort and sometimes courage to gather your thoughts and lay them out in a controlled and deliberate manner.
A well-written tale says as much about its author as it does about the characters involved.
The precision and wit of Jane Austen's writing, together with her sharp observations on the English middle class, reveal someone with a poised and sparkling intelligence surrounded by a loving family and sometimes scandalous friends.
On the other hand, we don't know much about Emily Bronte at all, apart from her dark and brooding novel Wuthering Heights and some poems. They tell us she must have had a dark and brooding childhood, which by the accounts of others was true.
So too in their writings, our teenage Furphy authors reveal a little about themselves — their passions, their fears, their writerly talent and their capability of insight.
It is worth remembering that well-written fiction is still the most powerful tool we have of living another life, of stepping in someone else's shoes and hopefully changing minds.
Facts and statistics on war, poverty, inequality and injustice can be ignored until they are distilled into human experience in novels such as Oliver Twist, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Grapes of Wrath, 1984, or To Kill a Mockingbird.
Each of our young Furphy award writers has, in their own way, helped us see the world in a new way and has contributed to our understanding of the human experience.
The winners of the youth and open short story sections are prime examples of writers using large uncontrollable events to reveal individual human insights.
Youth winner Elly Miechel's story reveals a new human truth about the well-told story of the Titanic, while open section winner Ruby Todd's story uses the lens of individual experience to deepen our understanding of the Melbourne-Voyager collision tragedy.
Each is exquisitely written and each is a reminder of the power of fiction to see the world through another's eyes.
The revamped Furphy Literary Award now offers the richest short story prize in the country. I applaud organisers for placing such importance on good writing, and for giving our young writers a platform to stand alongside their older peers.
● John Lewis is a senior journalist at The News.