The four winners of the Anderson Park Short Story Competition are, from left, Malia Cesareo, Aaria Shah, Ila Bhattacharjee and Samaara Navani. (Courtesy of the Friends of Anderson Park)


In one story, a girl grapples with grief after the loss of a loved one. In another, time travelers strive to fix a broken world.

The young competitors in this year’s Anderson Park Short Story Contest weren’t given many constraints — they could be led by their imaginations and creativity. There was only one rule: Somehow, the park had to factor into the story. 

And so this year’s four winners took on a range of subjects — including empathy for the homeless, and the loss of childhood. The winners were announced April 1, and their stories have been published on the Friends of Anderson Park website. 

The competition was created by Ann Anderson Evans, a writer and great grand-daughter of Charles W. Anderson, the man who donated land to Montclair to make it a public park in 1903.

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“The creativity and thoughtful themes that emerged this year were delightful and exceptionally engaging,” Anderson Evans said in a press release. “Montclair has some truly talented young writers in its midst.”

Friends of Anderson Park, a non-profit organization founded in 2006 and dedicated to thoughtful stewardship of the park, has been organizing the event since 2018. The competition is geared toward middle-schoolers who have an interest in writing but haven’t had the opportunity to sharpen those skills.

“Ann Anderson Evans is very passionate about giving validation to younger writers and nurturing young writers,” Lisanne Renner, one of the founders of the organization, said. “Giving them a space and a voice to be heard and an outlet for their creativity.”

Renner said some writers take this rule about including Anderson Park to heart, and make the park a very integral part of their story.

This year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Renner thought the contest would have few entries. To her surprise, the organization received 19 entries. The most entries sent in any year was 25.

“Their stories are influenced by what they read. So, you can see they are reading science fiction, they are reading adventure stories or they are reading stories about relationships and conflicts you know? Family dynamics,” Renner said. “A lot of the stories we get involve some level of fantasy. Or science fiction. Or just family drama like dealing with divorce or death, or broken relationships, like boyfriend or girlfriend issues. But I would say a lot of it can qualify as science fiction and that is a reflection of what the kids are reading.”

Each winner received $75 in prize money. The judges were Judy Newman, president of Scholastic Book Clubs; Sharon Dennis Wyeth; Nancy Star; and Ann Anderson Evans, a Friends of Anderson Park trustee. 

The Friends of Anderson Park will have an outdoor public reading on May 2 in Anderson Park. The rain date will be May 23.

Montclair Local, with Renner’s help, asked the four winners about their participation in the contest. They submitted their responses in writing.

Time travel

In “When Time Tampers With You,” by Buzz Aldrin School sixth grader Aaria Shah, characters use time travel to heal a dystopian world.

What made you decide to enter the contest: “I decided to enter the contest because I felt like I had the potential to. Before this competition, I had already written multiple one-page stories and I wanted to try and write a full short story so I could be proud of myself.”  

How did you feel when you won? “I felt accomplished. Although my grammar wasn’t amazing in the story, it was shocking to see that I had written a 9-page story in such a short amount of time!”


Samaara Navani, also a sixth grader at Buzz Aldrin, wrote “The Tree” — about a girl learning to move beyond grief after the death of her father.

What made you decide to enter the contest: “A few years back, my older sister entered the contest. I was also intrigued to enter but, of course, I was not of age. However, this year I was so excited that I had finally reached the age limit. The reason why I was so interested in this contest was because I love writing, I always have. I like to think of it as an opportunity to put all my thoughts on paper. Anything that’s on my mind I can put into the story. So that is why this contest about story writing really fascinated me.  Also winning meant that my thoughts/words have meaning to others too.”  

How did you feel when you won? “When I first got the email that I won my jaw immediately dropped, I could not believe my story was picked as a winner! The real thing that shocked me was I had been writing since I was little, and the fact that my writing got recognized made me light up with joy!”


Malia Cesareo, an eighth grader at Montclair Kimberley Academy, wrote “Pigeon Man,” which explored open-mindedness through a student’s interaction with a homeless man.

What made you decide to enter the contest: “I entered the contest because I wanted to prove to myself that I was a good writer. Since I walk my dog through Anderson Park, all the time, it wasn’t hard to imagine what it would look like inside a story.”  

How did you feel when you won? “When I found out I won I was so excited I screamed. My mom came running into the room thinking that I had seriously injured myself.”

Fleeting childhood

Ila Bhattacharjee, an eighth-grader at Buzz Aldrin, wrote “Fairy House,” a meditation on fleeting childhood. She received the Friends’ Olmsted Oak Award, for writing a compelling story named after the giant white oak tree in Anderson Park. 

What made you decide to enter the contest: “I decided to enter the contest because I do enjoy writing and I thought it would be fun and interesting to try it out.” 

How did you feel when you won? “I felt really excited and happy when I won because I didn’t really expect to and I had worked hard on the story.”