Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - March 2, 2012

Maya McNealis, 'Perfect Souvenir'

Maya McNealis, the 13-year-old winner of the teen category, believes there are places that have the power to transform one's outlook on life. "A Perfect Souvenir" chronicles McNealis' experiences in one such place.

The story is a semi-autobiographical story about a girl whose family makes a trip to the Himalayas before returning to the United States after a three-year stint living in India. It's a turning point in her life and she searches for a symbol — a perfect souvenir — to commemorate her last trip and her time abroad.

McNealis, an eighth-grader at Jordan Middle School, said she was inspired to write the story because of her actual time living abroad and traveling while her father was on an expatriate assignment in India.

"It was just a really magical place," she said of her visit to the Himalayas. "I thought the best way to capture that was with writing, so I wove it into a story."

McNealis has competed in other writing competitions, but has more experience with poetry, which she said can be more difficult.

"I like this kind of writing because I don't get stuck as often as when I'm writing poetry," she said. "With poetry you can be limited because of the pattern, but with writing it's easier to pull yourself out and keep going."

To McNealis, who will start as a freshman at Paly next year, the experience was developmental.

"Usually when you're searching for a souvenir it's all about the material but when I was there, I changed, because I decided that wasn't as important," she said. "It's anything that brings back the feelings you felt while you were there instead of something that's cool or fashionable."

Judge's comments

This well-written story is filled with rich and convincing details. Here is a writer drawing on something she knows. The story has the sort of confidence that most often originates from direct experience. The narrator changes due to events in the story. Moreover, she thoughtfully reflects on those changes.

— Eric Van Susteren

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