A Way With Words

A mixed-up robot occupant of the Magic Kingdom gets drunk on bleach. A mutant race of alligator-humans takes over an abandoned resort near Shingle Creek. Bloodthirsty lovebugs escape from a lab at UCF. And a decimated City Beautiful is ruled over by King Buddy Dyer XIII.

It’s a dystopian world of the future, created by 15 Central Florida high school students and published recently in a captivating collection of short stories titled, appropriately, What Happened to Orlando?

Not that the writers want Orlando to be this way. This was a fiction-writing exercise, sponsored by the local Page 15 child literacy program and independent publisher Burrow Press. Students were asked to write about a futuristic catastrophe and base it in Central Florida, and nearly 300 ninth-through 12th-graders entered. Ryan Rivas, who oversees Page 15 programs as well as Burrow’s operations, narrowed down the selections with the help of colleagues, then worked one-on-one with the young writers to polish their works. Local artist Lesley Silvia created arresting illustrations for each story, and the book was published in December.

So why the bleak subject? Well, why not? From 1984 and The Road to The Hunger Games and Fahrenheit 451, dystopian settings have provided some of the most compelling fiction. “It wasn’t anything personal about Orlando,’’ Rivas says. “We love Orlando. But we thought the kids would have fun destroying it.”

“Part of Page 15’s mission is to find connection points where we can get kids excited about writing,’’ he says. “And so there really are no rules, and they can let their imaginations run wild. And then we follow up and say, okay, let’s do some editing.’’

The stories, set in worlds decimated by rampant viruses, nuclear bombs or science experiments gone wrong, are literally page-turners. None more so than “Second Sun’’ by Jacob Zimmerman, a freshman at West Orange High School. “It is almost impossible for the human mind to imagine what I saw on March 1st, 2052,’’ his story begins. And later, after the post-nuclear world has taken hold: “I was mugged six times in Ocoee, shot at three times while walking through the ruins of downtown Orlando, and once held in the back of a pick-up truck by kidnappers who didn’t realize there was no one left to pay the ransom.’’

“The hardest part for me was picking a point of view,’’ Jacob says of how the story came together. “I started with a soldier and I drifted into some sort of missile technician and I finally decided that a civilian would be best.’’ The 15-year-old says he’s thinking about expanding his story into a novel.

Certainly, any of these talented writers could do the same. Listening to them give readings just before Christmas at a book release event, one could only think, as Rivas put it: “I just get speechless at the end of these things, thinking, ‘Where did these kids come from?’ ’’

Joining Jacob in What Happened to Orlando? are Joshua Chang, Sophia DuRose, Ally Friedman, Anisha Gupte, Rose Helsinger, Zachary Kobrin, Annie Magee, Juliette Michaels, Keegan Muller, Katherine Ngo, Lona Nguyen, Jay Patel, Sannmit Shinde and Trevor Tarnowski. To order a copy of the book ($15), go to burrowpress.com/books. There, you’ll also find last year’s collection from teen writers, Wars Are Dumb, as well as an abundance of works by adult authors published by Burrow Press.

So what will the subject be for the next Page 15 competition? “Certainly something edgy,’’ Rivas says. “That’s what keeps the kids interested.’’

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Speaking of edgy, that chocolate creation you see on the cover is the real thing—a work of art fashioned by Peterbrooke Chocolatier in Winter Park to illustrate this month’s story on all things chocolate. Our art team designed the cover template, which was then sent to chocolate masters Kevin and Jami Wray, who ordered the mold. The Wrays hand-painted the white chocolate lettering and added dark chocolate details before pouring milk chocolate into the mold. Oh, yeah, and a magazine editor who will remain nameless just couldn’t wait for the cover photo shoot before partaking of the treat. It was that good.


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