Elena Barham, winner of the BBC Young Writers’ Award, chats her writing journey for Little Acorn


The BBC has been organizing the Young Writers’ Award with the University of Cambridge for eight years. The challenge encourages young people in the UK aged between 14-18 years to submit stories of up to 1,000 words. The winner this year is Elena Barham from Barnsley, whose story Little Acorn impressed Katie Thistleton, host of BBC Radio 1’s Life Hacks, and her fellow judges. We had the honour of chatting with Elena on her writing journey.

Elena Barham receives the YWA award presented live during the broadcast of Radio4s Front Row program. 4/10/22. Photo Tom Pilston

Elena is no stranger to writing competitions. In fact, the 19-year-old actually has 7 years of competition experience under her belt. While Barnsley is not particularly nurturing of young talents, Elena has her family to thank for being a reader family, and her mother, in particular, for being always supportive in her writing endeavours. What drew Elena to the BBC competition is that it does not specify the topic, which allows her imagination to run free. This of course is also challenging in its own way, as there are just endless possibilities for one to write about. Being an avid fan of the competition and having followed it for years, however, has left Elena feeling confident about her own story.

When Elena started Little Acorn, it was not intended to be a short story. In fact, considering herself first and foremost a novelist, the piece became 3 times too long for submission. While Elena has to cut out a lot of the descriptions, the plot has always been clear to her. Little Acorn started with Harriet moving to live with her Gran after too many “uncles” come in and out of her and her mother’s lives. And through meeting the neighbor’s young son, she started engaging more with their family, finding comfort and companionship in them until tragedy strikes … The sudden shift in mood is done deliberately, as Elena hopes to acknowledge how young friendships often are changed by out-of-the-blue revelations.

The characters in Little Acorn are incredibly well thought-out, with Elena including distinct male figures to play various roles — those from the past, those who are here temporarily, and those who bring hope. They are a stark contrast to the women who suffer silently in the story, something that Elena wants to highlight is happening as frequently today as it used to be in the 1940s. And for Harriet, Elena has always known she wants to portray her as a strong, working class Northerner, which she believes is perfectly narrated by Sophie McShera from Downton Abbey. 

While the BBC competition also celebrates more mature writers, Elena believes that the young writers in her category are just as socially aware of issues as them. In fact, to her, perhaps teenagers tackle such issues even more directly, which is evident from none of the young writers shying away from their themes.

As for what her future writing journey entails, Elena has her hands full — novels, poems, plays, she is writing everything. Having just started at the University of Sheffield, she is also excited to join in all the clubs that allow her to pursue this dream.

All the shortlisted stories are available to listen on BBC Radio 1’s website. Submissions for the 2023 award will open in January 2023.

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