Mentor Texts

Writing Rich Reading Responses: Participating in Our Summer Contest

Four key elements that can make a short response sing, with work from previous teenage winners as inspiration.

Credit...Images from Times articles students have chosen over the years for our Summer Reading Contest. See the bottom of this post for photo credits.

Our new Mentor Text series spotlights writing from The Times that students can learn from and emulate.

This entry aims to support those participating in our 10-week Summer Reading contest in which teenagers are invited to choose any article, essay, photo, video, graphic, podcast or illustration published in 2021 on and tell us why it got their attention. At the end of each week, judges from the Times newsroom pick favorite responses, and we publish them. It’s that simple. We also have an interview with two previous winners who can help students understand what makes a successful response.

For even more on how to help support your students’ independent reading and writing, please see our related writing unit.

Credit...The New York Times Learning Network

Teachers across subject areas have likely asked you to write “responses” to assigned texts since you first learned to read independently, so you’ve probably already had a good deal of practice with the skills you’ll need for this challenge. But if your responses have never gone much beyond stating your feelings, we can help you sharpen your game.

An excellent reader response is much more than just “I liked it” or “I hated it,” though those reactions matter. As this video explains, it’s more about analyzing your engagement with a text, whether that text is a novel, an article or a photo. Reader-response theory acknowledges that every reader brings different experiences and beliefs to these interactions, and asks you therefore to be active, paying attention to the emotions, observations and questions you have as you go.

If that sounds complicated, the 14 short examples below from previous student winners should show you that it’s not. You’ll read a poignant personal piece about a lifetime of feeling “awkward,” a funny essay about eating bagels in California, and a thoughtful analysis of how the news media reports on Beyoncé. And you’ll see, we hope, that there’s room on our site for all kinds of genuine, thoughtful reactions — including yours.

Credit...Luis Mazón

Click around and see what gets your attention right away. You might begin on the home page, or use this guide, 21 Things Teenagers Can Do With a New York Times Subscription, to get a few other ideas.

Choose a piece or two to work with as we go through the next set of exercises, keeping in mind that anything published on in 2021 is fair game for this contest. You can pick an article, essay, Op-Ed, video, photo, podcast or infographic, and you can choose any subject you like, whether politics or pythons, meditation or memes, face masks or flying cars. We often point out that there are as many ways to read The New York Times as there are Times readers, and part of the fun of this annual challenge is experiencing the paper from so many different points of view.

In fact, that’s the most common reaction we hear from our Times newsroom judges after each summer is over. Here’s how Nancy Wartik, a 2016 judge, reflected on her experience:

What struck me about the submissions was how wide-ranging the topic choices were! It didn’t so much surprise me when students wrote about Pokémon Go or how exercise may help with studying. But there were essays about insecticide’s effect on bee sperm; disappearing sea ice; a new art museum in Paris; the death of a young woman jogger in New York; hunting lionfish; sexual assault in South Sudan; the Oklahoma City Thunder and lots more.

It impressed me to find young people tackling so many different subjects.

What will you discover? With over a thousand new pieces published in the paper each week, there’s plenty to choose from.

Credit...Janet Hansen

This contest invites you to tell the story of your own relationship to a news item or an opinion piece; to find yourself or your community in a data point on a graph or in a story told via video; to be conscious of how your identity plays a role both in what you choose to read and how you read it.

For instance, a pet owner will likely scan this piece about Winston the pug with more trepidation than someone who doesn’t own animals. A Jets fan might react to this article about an N.F.L. draft pick who “moves people like furniture” differently than a Patriots fan will. And if you are from a Vietnamese family, you’ll likely bring a whole other set of associations to this essay about cooking than would someone from a different tradition.

So ask yourself …

  • Why did you choose that particular item? What about it got your attention?

  • What connection does it have to your life and your personal history?

  • What did you know or think about the topic before you read the piece?

  • What background knowledge or associations were you conscious of as you read?

The best responses come out of a real connection between a piece and a reader. As one of our 2018 judges, Alan Blinder, put it:

I love essays from writers who talk about how the topics in an article, photograph, etc., intersect with their own lives. Those entries are often powerful and poignant — and typically come with a fluid writing style that gives the reader the sense that no one is manufacturing an idea just to finish an assignment.

Here are two tips, followed by three examples to show you how they work in practice.


  • Tell us a story or give us some history about your life and background to explain why a piece got your attention — then, in that context, explore the effect the piece had on you. All three of the essays below follow that structure.

  • Reveal as much or little about yourself as you’re comfortable doing, and as is appropriate to the topic. These three pieces can show you a range: While both Christine Choo and Lisa Mishra write about painful personal experiences, Lauren Coppins describes happy memories of summer camp, and uses them as a lens through which to talk about an entirely different camp experience.

Example I: In 2018, Lisa Mishra, of Princeton, N.J., chose an article headlined “Everyone Has an Accent” and wrote:

My mother came to the U.S. not only with the desire to give me a better future but also with a heavy Indian accent. It’s the accent that made me who I am today, the accent that helped me with my math homework and comforted me when I cried. For me, it’s perfect.

As I grew up, though, I noticed smirks and giggles following my mother’s speech. I remember seeing an online ad that offered courses to “Get rid of your Indian accent today! Feel like a better American!” Knowing that there were courses designed to help people “get rid of” their accents suddenly made my mom’s pronunciation seem embarrassing.

The hierarchy for accents became apparent at school too. Dull English sentences were transformed into something hilarious when said in a nonnative accent. As students burst out laughing, I’d wear my unaccented English like a shield and say, “Oh I don’t talk like that, so I’m not offended!” I lie, though; even if I don’t talk like that, my family does.

This article not only put into words what has been a daily struggle for me but also gave me the strength to fight it. As the author puts it, “no one speaks without an accent,” so I shouldn’t be embarrassed of the one that raised me. The Indian accent will always be a part of my family identity, and I wouldn’t change that for anything, not even if it would make me feel like a better American.

Example II: Another 2018 winner, Christine Choo of Singapore, chose an article headlined Why Trying to Be Less Awkward Never Works and wrote:

Six-year-old me could never have imagined freezing up just because I was stuck in the train with someone I’ve met only once. I was spunky, bubbly, and definitely not awkward. I would’ve struck up a conversation that could’ve lasted for hours.

But with every new candle on a birthday cake that I blew, the bubble of self-consciousness in my body also began to blow up, and soon I found myself trapped in it. Now I actively avoid looking up from my phone on trains, so that I won’t see anyone I know (hopefully, they don’t see me too).

It’s lucky that my nerves show up in innocuous ways, like smiling excessively, so most who don’t know me well can’t tell I’m feeling awkward or panicky. But inside me, it’s always a vicious cycle of nerves. At home, I often think of everyone I talked to that day, all of whom I maybe offended. I’m afraid this sheer awkwardness, and the fear that comes with it, will develop into something worse.

I’m interested in this article because I don’t want to let my awkwardness stop me from doing things that I want to do. I’m interested because I want to form relationships which don’t have awful first memories. I’m interested because I don’t want to ignore someone who needs help just because I’m too nervous again.

I like to think that reading this is a good step in helping me find my 6-year-old self again. Maybe today, I’ll try not to glue my eyes on my phone on the train.

Example III: In 2017, Lauren Coppins, of Pennington, N.J., chose a video, Ukraine Summer Camp: Learning to Fight,and wrote:

The best summers of my life were the ones spent at sleep away camp. Our days were spent testing our skills on the archery range, competing in sports events for Color Wars, or staying up late singing our favorite camp songs. But what if the archery bows were replaced with rifles, the sports games turned into rigorous obstacle courses, and the cheerful tunes we sang became chants of allegiance?

Welcome to summer camp in Ukraine.

Since 2015, a Ukrainian regiment has been sponsoring a military summer camp for children ages 9 to 17. As shown in the Daily 360 video, “Ukraine Summer Camp: Learning to Fight,” this intense boot camp includes physical conditioning, practicing weaponry skills, and learning military tactics. Using children for military purposes is a highly concerning issue that isn’t exclusive to Ukraine, and their president supports this premature training and patriotic brainwashing to help fight the pro-Russian rebels in the east. Some of these children are learning how to handle machine guns before they’ve even reached 5th grade.

However, despite all of this, the kids still end the day the same way we did at my camp — telling stories around the fire. Every night, we’d go around sharing our highs and lows of the day, just as these kids do. So even though they may never know what it’s like to be in the final night talent show or experience the thrill of the 1,000-foot zip-line, it’s comforting to know that at least this one humane piece of summer camp endures.

Credit...Mason Poole/Parkwood Entertainment, via Associated Press

It’s not enough just to choose something that connects to your life and simply say, “This article was interesting to me because I like to cook and it will help me cook better.” Instead, we hope you’ll pay close attention to what goes through your mind as you read, thinking critically about your own reaction to the text.

You only have 275 words or so to work with, so this can be done lightly, in a paragraph or so. After all, as Anastasia Economides, a Times staff editor who judged in 2016, pointed out:

At their age, I was always too intimidated to even read The Times, let alone reflect my thoughts on the very big issues that adults with authority are trying to tackle. After reading some of these well-processed statements and passionate opinions and empathetic voices, I have newfound faith in our future leaders-in-the-making.

Ask yourself:

  • How did this piece impact you? Did it teach you something? Challenge you? Reassure you? Move you? Make you angry? What emotions did it stir, and why?

  • What happened as you read? What was going through your mind? What specific lines, quotes, words or details stood out? Why?

  • What questions did it raise for you? What does it make you want to know more about?

  • What connections can you make between this piece or topic and something else you know about? Why? For instance, does it remind you of something else you’ve read, seen or heard? Something you’ve studied in school?

  • What did you think of the piece overall? What were its strengths and weaknesses?


  • Take us into your thought process as you read by describing what you notice and wonder as you go. For example, check out how Hannah Li made sense of the Times’s reporting on Beyoncé by explaining her initial confusion and how she resolved it.

Example: In 2017, Hannah Li, of Syracuse, N.Y., chose “To Beyoncé or Not to Beyoncé: The Challenges of Confirming the Birth of Her Twins,” and wrote:

As long as you’re not living under a rock, you know Beyoncé recently had twins. That’s not news. But what was news to me was that The New York Times took great precaution when publishing the story. I mean, it’s Beyoncé! We want all the news we can get regarding her pregnancy. We don’t care if it’s just rumors! Right? Wrong.

In “To Beyoncé or Not to Beyoncé: The Challenges of Confirming the Birth of Her Twins,” Maya Salam explains her process of confirming details. When the rumors first leaked, all the gossip mags and many news sources jumped to publish something about the twins. Facts couldn’t be confirmed since neither Beyoncé or Jay-Z were talking, but that didn’t stop publications. Salam contacted many sources she had deemed reliable but she came back empty-handed from most. Nevertheless, she persisted and eventually found solid information.

This made me realize that The New York Times actually cares about all its facts, even in the most trivial aspects of life. Beyoncé is famous, so gossip mags and fans don’t really pay attention to the fact that even though Queen B is sometimes seen as a goddess, she is, in fact, human. So it’s important to keep the facts about her twins straight. In this era of fake news, it’s important to stay vigilant about what we hear and read, especially on the news. And if news sources have to work hard to get the facts straight on something as lighthearted as Beyoncé, then they must work even harder to maintain the veracity of harder topics.


  • Show how a piece changed your mind or broadened your understanding of an issue. Notice how, in just 273 words, Louise Dorisca managed to write a stirring, beautifully expressed reaction to the 1619 Project, which was not just one article but an entire special edition of The Times Magazine. Then take a look at how John Fernandez Philippides embedded family history in his explanation for how a piece on cars changed his mind about data privacy.

Example I: In 2019, Louise Dorisca of Florida chose The 1619 Project and wrote:

It’s been 400 years since the first slave ship landed in America. Four-hundred years later, the country it was built upon remains. For me, the word ‘slavery’ brings up images of people, humans, being dragged away from the only home, family, and freedom that they have ever known, and being loaded into floating wooden prisons as cargo. From that moment on, they were no longer humans, they were slaves, and they would forever be.

I thought I could fully wrap my head around the severity of it. However, truthfully, I was never one to lament slavery. I never personally felt victimized by it, though I knew that if I was born only 300 years ago, I would be a slave. When I was younger, I recall my father telling me about his country, Haiti, and how it was the only place on Earth where if a black man stepped foot there, he was free. I now understand that freedom from slavery does not come without a price, and Haiti is still paying for theirs.

America is paying off their freedom, and it is very costly. Traces of slavery are found throughout America’s health care and prison system, in the wealth gap, and in the education we receive, like scattered pieces of broken glass. And as long as those pieces remain, I will be a victim of slavery. Even though I didn’t receive the whip to my back like my ancestors did, the scars will still remain. I am now aware of them. If I continue to be, maybe my children, and their children after, won’t have to be born with those scars, too.

Example II: In 2017, John Fernandez Philippides of Boston chose “Cars Suck Up Data About You. Where Does It All Go?” and wrote:

Born in 2000, I have rarely worried about the risks of the digital age. But this article about the information that cars collect about us spurred a dramatic shift in my opinion about privacy and data-tracking. For a long time, I didn’t care what information companies and the government knew about me. I couldn’t believe that my mom required us to keep our new Amazon Echo turned off and far from where we talked. When I complained about her unfounded paranoia, she revealed that her reasons for moving Alexa were more complex than I thought.

My mother’s family lived in Argentina during part of the “Dirty War,” a period starting in 1976 when the government abducted and killed thousands of Argentine citizens. Her father suspected that the government was spying on his family. When a group of soldiers entered their apartment and tore through his family’s belongings without their consent, they fled to the United States. I learned that the fear of surveillance is more deeply instilled in my mother than it ever could be in me, and my apathy began to erode.

Last week, as I read about how auto companies sell information about our driving habits and daily routines, sometimes without our consent, I wondered whether my family would have survived if the Argentine government had access to that kind of data and technology.

Now, unless I need her, Alexa remains turned off in my study.


  • Explain the lens through which you’re reading something, in much the same way Jordan Ferdman explored a moral principle to explain how she interpreted an article about the vaping industry.

Example: In 2019, Jordan Ferdman of New York City chose an article headlined “Dozens of Young People Hospitalized for Breathing and Lung Problems After Vaping” and wrote:

I couldn’t have been older than 8 years old when my parents introduced to me the concept of intent versus impact. The idea that when you hurt someone, or your actions have a negative consequence, your intent is not what matters.

I cannot help but wonder if executive James Monsees understands my parents’ guiding principle. Though he acknowledged the rampant use among underage Americans, Juul products continue to sell. The effects of this are not, by any means, difficult to find: Shelia Kaplan’s “Dozens of Young People Hospitalized for Breathing and Lung Problems After Vaping” makes this abundantly clear. The bathrooms at my school are affectionately referred to as the “Juul rooms.” A well-known — and admittedly overdone — joke passed around in the hallways is about “toilets in the Juul room.” It would be easier for me to count my friends that don’t own a Juul than to count the friends that do. The vaping device has become so ingrained in teenage life that it’s difficult to go a day without seeing one peeking out of a pencil case or smuggled up a sleeve. Several of my classmates cannot go more than an hour or two without taking a hit in the school bathroom or, in some cases, the back of a classroom.

Executives claim hooking teenagers on nicotine was not the intention of the company, which is valued at $38 billion. But it is the impact, and failure to not only own up to that but to take larger steps to mitigate its damages is a disservice to the country’s youth.



How the Hummingbird Bill Evolved for Battle

In the South American tropics, where hummingbirds must compete for food, evolution has drastically reshaped their bills.

The hummingbird and the flower. It’s a perfect pair. Just look how the long, slender bill matches the shape of the flower. But as anyone with a popular hummingbird feeder knows, these birds are also furious fighters. The Aztecs knew it. Their god of war was a hummingbird. Warriors were known to wear their feathers into battle. They were so on target. Scientists working in Colombia have found that, for some of these birds, evolution has actually turned their beaks into swords. To study these birds, researchers set up high-speed cameras in the rainforest. They recorded interactions that looked like dueling fencers. The hummingbirds had some pretty good moves. There’s the stab, where the bird charges its rival like a jousting knight, or the feint and parry, where the birds fight it out, beak-to-beak, until one tosses the other aside. And, of course, the pinch and pluck, where the birds use their strong bills to bite and rip out feathers. All hummingbirds fight. But in these birds, the males had beaks that had been radically reshaped. These were thicker, more rigid, often hooked at the end. And in some cases, they had jagged points like rows of teeth. These weaponized bills were much less efficient at feeding. The hooked bill and the serrations both interfered with the tongue. But then again, a weaponized bill allowed the males to control access to the flowers. It doesn’t matter how well you drink, if you don’t let anyone else near the nectar. At one time, it seemed like bill shape was all about matching the flower. Now, it’s pretty clear — a bird does not live by nectar alone.

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In the South American tropics, where hummingbirds must compete for food, evolution has drastically reshaped their bills.CreditCredit...Kristiina Hurme

A Science Take video one 2019 winner wrote about.

Any reader response will instantly become more powerful if it is grounded in specifics drawn from the text itself. We often get submissions that only glancingly reference the original piece and, instead, use it as a jumping-off point for a story or rant on the topic. But it’s not an effective reader response if we can’t find evidence that the student actually read the piece and got anything from it.

So as you go, ask yourself:

  • What lines, words, details, images, quotes or paragraphs stood out in this piece?

  • What information, ideas or opinions did it offer that were new for you?

  • What would you most like to remember?

  • Which quotes best support what you want to say about the piece?


  • Since you’ll have fewer than 300 words for your reaction, focus on the detail, quote or insight in the piece that made the biggest impression on you, and build toward it. That’s what Ella Jenkins did in this reflection on hummingbirds:

Example I: Ella Jenkins, of Leesport, Pa., chose a ScienceTake article and video headlined “The Hummingbird as Warrior: Evolution of a Fierce and Furious Beak” and wrote:

This article interested me because it completely surprised me and made me rethink everything I knew about hummingbirds.

Every year, the arrival of the hummingbirds seems to signify the start of summer. My family is always on the lookout for the familiar, startling buzz of these magnificent creatures. As a child, I was always enchanted by the rapid flutter of wings and long slender beaks that seemed to appear out of thin air. Even now, these birds still manage to capture my attention. Whenever I see a hummingbird quickly fly past the patio window or briefly rest its wings while getting a drink from the feeder, I find it nearly impossible to stop watching until it inevitably flies away.

From my many years of observing hummingbirds, I always assumed that the sole purpose of their long, graceful beaks was to allow them to drink the nectar from flowers. After reading this article however, I now know that I was missing a piece of vital information: male hummingbirds use their beaks to fight each other and also have a very violent disposition. Apparently, hummingbirds use their beaks as weapons to pull feathers, stab, and push their competition.

Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined these seemingly sweet birds attacking their rivals over a mate. The birds I thought I knew so well have a violent side that I was shocked to know existed.


  • Scatter small, salient details from the piece throughout so that it is obvious how closely you read it. Notice below how Brian Ham embedded those specifics, beginning with his first sentence. Then read Claire Tempelman’s exploration of the 2016 electoral map to see all of the ways she referenced the information she gleaned from it.

Example I: In 2018, Brian Ham of Seoul, South Korea, chose an article headlined “The Rich Are Planning to Leave This Wretched Planet” and wrote:

What could possibly motivate someone to wear a 180-pound suit with diapers and drink tubes, rotate senselessly in a centrifuge, induce claustrophobia and risk death, all while coughing up 55 million dollars in the process? The answer is right above us: space.

For me, space is so alluring because it turns fears into works of art. Despite my thalassophobia, I still find myself attracted to the vast nothingness, the impossible emptiness of the skies. When I’m playing football at sunset on a cloudless night and look up at the infinite sky, I don’t feel distress or panic, even though I realize that I’m just a trivial speck of dust in the galaxy.

Philippe Starck, designer of a project aimed to launch millionaires into space, describes it as “a first approach to infinity.” Spending a split nanosecond in the blackness will result in instant death, and yet there’s just something so cozy about drifting in a spaceship with dangers all around but not within, the same coziness one feels snuggling under a blanket while a thunderstorm wages war on the world.

All of this is why the article “The Rich Are Planning to Leave This Wretched Planet” attracted me so much. Reading about how my seemingly impossible fantasies could come true was surprisingly relaxing and satisfying. I just have a small problem with the title; space travel shouldn’t be about escaping a miserable world, it should be about discovering and rejoicing in a new one.

Example II: In 2018, Claire Tempelman of New York City chose an interactive feature headlined “An Extremely Detailed Map of the 2016 Election” and wrote:

I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, an infamous “liberal bubble.” I don’t know anyone from the UWS who has publicly declared themselves a Trump voter. The map reflects this, with much of Manhattan a deep blue.

After Donald Trump won the election, lots of students in my school were shocked. “How could he have won?” one kid asked. “The whole world isn’t the Upper West Side,” our teacher answered.

I chose this map because of how clearly it demonstrates that some places are such separated bubbles. It’s easy to see how views can feel so monotonous. Ideology bubbles aren’t good — they can lead to ignorance and polarization.

However, we might not always be as separate as we think. Another reason why I found the map so interesting is that it clashes with the classic voter maps we all see around election season, with each state colored either red or blue. Even though this may be helpful in showing electoral votes, it doesn’t show the real US. The US isn’t chunky blocks of red or blue — it’s more complex, with varied splatters of blue on shades of red.

Although many kids in my neighborhood view Trump voters as distant, almost foreign people from Texas (or Staten Island), only a half-hour drive away is the nearest majority Trump district, and only a few hours upstate, still in New York, a “liberal state,” are some deep red areas. Maybe some bubbles should be burst.

Credit...Leigh Wells

Though a reader response shares some characteristics with formal essay writing — you might, for instance, make a claim and support it — the register you’ll write in is much more informal. We want your real voice and personality to come through, the way they do in the pieces below. As you’ll see, regardless of the topic they chose, these writers just seem to be having fun.

Ask yourself:

  • How would you tell a friend about this piece? What elements of your real voice can come through in your writing? For example, if you’re funny, be funny. If you use slang, use slang (within reason, remembering, of course, that you’re writing for a general family audience!). If you tend to make wild connections or creative analogies, be our guest. Let who you are come through in how you react.

  • How can you loosen up, be playful and experiment? Are there aspects of the piece that can inspire your own writing and style? How?

  • Where does this topic take your imagination? Can some of those thoughts be part of your response?


  • Have a little fun in the spirit of the piece you choose. For example, look at all of the ways Cody Busch-Weiss played with punctuation, below, as a fitting reaction to an article about punctuation.

Example: In 2019, Cody Busch-Weiss, of Santa Barbara, Calif., chose a Style piece headlined “The Em Dash Divides” and wrote:

The glorious em dash — the king of all punctuation marks! The em dash is bold, daring, and versatile. What other punctuation mark can be a semicolon, colon, comma, and parentheses?

Semicolons are by the book foot soldiers; they do a good job linking two would-be sentences. The em dash, on the other hand, is a colorful punctuation mark — it can be used to make a strong point! The comma is great for describing, listing, and linking clauses, but it is easy for commas to flood a sentence. The em dash comes to the rescue when the commas take over a sentence — saving it from sinking in a sea of commas. Parentheses describe details about a sentence (usually making the details seem less important). An em dash makes the details seem like part of the sentence — an important part of the sentence. Em dashes can still be overused — they can distract the reader from the point of the sentence — in many cases ruining the point — and in others just making the sentence hard to read — also ruining the point. A good sentence should have lots of kinds of punctuation marks — not just one — and keep the punctuation as subtle as possible; the punctuation should allow the sentence to be helped by the punctuation, not dominated by it, as the article suggests.

For all the good an em dash can do, it’s not on your keyboard. Just like other good things, you have to know where to find it. The em dash — the Swiss Army knife of punctuation — can greatly improve your writing — just don’t overdo it!


  • Don’t worry about breaking what you may think of as “rules” for formal writing. Notice, for example, how Claire McClannan began her piece with a one-word sentence, or how Kelly Song’s first paragraph was a staccato series of two-word sentences. Pay attention to Claire’s puns, and Kelly’s slang. Do you think they work? We did.

Example I: In 2016, Claire McClannan chose a Science article headlined “The World’s Disappearing Sand” and wrote:

Sand. The most boring thing you never thought about. But as it turns out, our cities depend on it, and we’re running out.

I never thought I’d be intrigued by sand. Yet here I am, about to tell you why sand is interesting. Not interesting so much as problematic. Because you can’t just build cities upon any old run-of-the-mill desert sand. It has to be from riverbeds, flood plains, or beaches. Which damages the environment. A whole bunch of animals have been killed and two dozen little islands in Indonesia have all but disappeared! The cherry on top of this gritty ice-cream sand-dae is that activists and government officials trying to fight against this destruction are being killed by sand gangs, which are things now, apparently.

Another thing that spells bad news is that sand is heavy. Therefore, it is real expensive to transport. Since more and more communities in America are banning sand mining, that means it needs to be transported even farther. Which brings up even more environmental problems with pollution.

I used to only think of sand as the thing that gets uncomfortably wedged in your swimsuit. But now I’m concerned about it. This issue affects anybody who wants to move into an apartment. Or work in an office. Or do literally anything that includes concrete, roads, or windows.

Example II: In 2015, Kelly Song chose an article from the Food section headlined “Why Is It So Hard to Get a Great Bagel in California?” and wrote:

Spinach hummus. Grass-fed beef. Soy lattes.

This is how the world pictures San Francisco: A city of vegan-loving, gluten-free, high-maintenance maniacs. And now our bagels, still young and innocent, are being attacked. As a San Francisco high school student, I felt compelled to respond.

Yes, I admit, New Yorkers left us in the dust on this one. The glorious, good ol’ New York bagel — how could anyone compete? It’s beautiful and magnificent, even low-key majestic if you will. And we deserve every ounce of criticism for our sad excuse of a bagel.

But there is no reason to assume San Francisco is in any way spoiled or pretentious simply because it is lacking in the bagel department. While our little circular friends may not be up to par, we’re not all that bad. We have a killer slow-drip and a “hella” (get it?) good sourdough. We are California, so undeniably hipster and tech-y, yet so desperately needed in this burrito-deprived world.

My point is, there’s room in the food world for two. Yes, we do like our pizza thin-crusted, but that doesn’t necessarily make us monsters. We’re all just a bunch of foodies, living on the same earth and breathing the same air. Doing the same wine-tasting tribal call. And just because my bagel isn’t perfect, doesn’t necessarily make me a sore loser.

So let’s end this food war, shall we? Please, accept this In-N-Out burger as a peace offering. Take it, really, there’s no need to be ashamed.


  • Go where your imagination takes you. Notice, below, how Annie Ma followed much of the advice we’ve given elsewhere in this post, about connecting the article to her own life, explaining how it impacted her thinking, and referencing specifics from the piece. But then pay attention to how, in her final paragraph, she projected what she’d learned into the future, imagining a scenario that could become “the new normal.” For our judges, that made the piece stand out.

In 2019, Annie Ma of California chose an article headlined “There Was No Gunfire in Times Square. But the Panic Was Still Real” and wrote:

Last Wednesday, while waiting for my bus to depart from the Santa Cruz Metro Center, I was falling asleep to Ed Sheeran when I heard the sound I never thought I would hear. It was like a thousand cymbals had clashed at one moment. In an instant, I was huddled beneath my seat, my body reduced to a twitching sack of adrenaline and jelly. The subsequent panic, gunshots, and dread made the waiting the worst 20 minutes of my life. I eventually learned that the shots were the result of a heated argument rather than a mentally unstable domestic terrorist.

Although no one was injured, the incident speaks to the severity of America’s gun problem. As Mr. Wilson explains, the population is so inundated with news of shootings that any loud sound — a vehicle backfiring, a store sign falling — can trigger widespread panic. More and more Americans are experiencing what it’s like to fear for their lives at the hands of a gun. We are actually, as Mr. Wilson puts it, living in a “new normal.”

As I listened to the car radio the next morning, I wondered how it might sound if shootings became so frequent they were reported like traffic: “A shooting at the Cupertino Target has the block zoned off and slow traffic backed up into Stelling. Additionally, police investigating a shooting at the Autumn Festival has the southbound 280 exit 13 closed.” It may very well be the new normal if we don’t take action to avoid it.

We’ve woven in comments from our judges throughout, and we end with a fitting note from Pia Peterson, who writes for The Times’s Reader Center:

I love thinking that today’s students are gaining an interest in the world or expanding their knowledge base on certain topics by reading these articles. I would always encourage them to read more. The Times’s reporting is incredible, but it’s not the end all be all. If you’re interested in an article, Google the topic. Google the author. Read around. Get a book on the subject. Go to protests. Talk to experts. Talk to your grandparents, if you’re lucky enough to have them around. There is always more to learn!

Top Art Photo Credits (from left to right): Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times; Axiom Space; Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times; Minh Uong/The New York Times; Gilles Sabrié for The New York Times; Erin Schaff/The New York Times; Rebecca Smeyne for The New York Times; Erin Jang; Kristina Barker for The New York Times; Mason Poole/Parkwood Entertainment, via Associated Press; Katherine Taylor for The New York Times; Gracia Lam; Ivor Prickett for The New York Times; Seth Wenig/Associated Press; Janet Hansen; Ryan Pfluger for The New York Times