‘Truly so grateful’

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Karen Yang

West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South graduate’s ‘Chicken Feet’ wins prestigious writing award 

Chicken Feet is a “short story steeped in feelings of alienation, survival, and lots and lots of chemistry puns.”

The story written by Karen Yang, now a graduate of West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, captivated the judges in the fiction/drama category of the 2023 Penguin Random House Creative Writing Award contest.

This prestigious accolade, in partnership with We Need Diverse Books (WNDB), honors five high school students who will receive $10,000 in scholarship money each to support their academic pursuits, along with a week-long professional development program courtesy of Penguin Random House to nurture their creative writing skills.

The contest drew submissions from all 50 states.

“I remember screaming, ‘OH MY GOD,’ so loudly when I first found out,” Yang exclaimed, adding she is “truly so grateful for this award.”

It’s an award, Yang thought she never could achieve.

Yang’s winning piece, Chicken Feet, stood out in a pool of over 1,000 entries. A personal piece that follows the life of an Asian American teenager who finds love.

“I wanted to write a story that sounded almost exactly like me,” Yang explained. “It was the first piece I wrote for myself, not for school, and I wrote it in a way such that the reader can place themselves into it, balancing being both Asian and American.”

Yang drew inspiration from Interior Chinatown by Charles Yu, the winner of the 2020 National Book of the Year for fiction about an aspiring Asian American actor that must deal with constricting stereotypes and cultural expectations, as well as her own experiences as an Asian American. She incorporated elements such as visits to the Great Wall and the struggle against the sweltering Chinese summers, all with her signature sprinkle of humor.

For Yang, this award holds immense significance beyond its monetary value. She is thrilled to become a part of the larger writing community, embracing the opportunity to connect with fellow writers and enthusiasts.

Yang’s passion for writing ignited during her eighth-grade year, when her English teacher gave her quirky prompts that sparked her creativity.  Writing has since held a special place in Yang’s life, though she admits that she has had “highs and lows.”

“I used to put a lot of pressure on myself for winning competitions, but I found that I did not enjoy the writing I produced,” Yang said.

Yang reveals a valuable lesson she learned along her writing journey – the importance of enjoying the process and finding fulfillment in her own work.

“When I started writing for fun and for myself, I’ve found that it’s my outlet that’s always there for me,” she said.

Outside of her academic pursuits, Yang immerses herself in literature and history. A National History Day competition finalist, she works as a tour guide at Morven Museum and Garden in Princeton. Looking ahead, Yang envisions a future as a museum director, inspired by her internship at the Library of Congress and the profound impact literature can have on people’s lives. She will be attending Harvard University in the fall where she will study English or history.

Other winners included:

  • Michelle Obama Award for Memoir – Madison Corzine, of Timber Creek High School, Fort Worth, Texas.
  • Amanda Gorman Award for Poetry – Isabella Rayner of Marvin Ridge High School, Waxhaw, N.C.
  • Maya Angelou Award for Spoken Word – Melissa Vera, Edgewood High School, West Covina, Calif.
  • NYC Entrant – Gloria Blumenkrantz of Frank McCourt High School in New York.

Claire von Schilling, executive vice president and director of Corporate Communications and Social Responsibility at Penguin Random House said, “For 30 years, Penguin Random House’s Creative Writing Awards program has amplified the voices of exceptional public high school students.”

“Our partnership with We Need Diverse Books helps us reach students in underrepresented communities across the country, and the new Michelle Obama Award for Memoir — alongside Mrs. Obama’s unparalleled support and advocacy — have given us an even larger footprint,” she said. “We are thrilled to honor this year’s brilliant winners and the decades of changemakers who have preceded them.”

Caroline Richmond, executive director of WNDB said, “Each year it’s wonderful to hear the diverse perspectives of young voices across the country. Amplifying these students’ stories and learning from what they have to say is an invaluable experience. We look forward to seeing what these students accomplish in the future.”

In addition, 83 honorable mentions were awarded for their entries. They will receive a “Creativity Kit,” which includes writing resources and books.