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Queen Camilla praises 'brilliant' young writers at star-studded Buckingham Palace reception

Her Majesty has revealed the winners of the 500 Words competition

Queen Camilla with finalists for BBC's 500 Words© BBC / Getty
Emily Nash
Emily Nash - London
Royal EditorLondon
March 7, 2024
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The Queen has praised the “brilliant” young winners of this year’s 500 Words competition as they were announced at Buckingham Palace for the first time.

Her Majesty addressed finalists, judges and guests in the ballroom, where she said “many of our country’s greatest authors” had been honoured for their work over the years.

She named Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who was knighted there in in 1902 “by my husband’s great-great-grandfather, King Edward VII”, JRR Tolkein, Penelope Lively, Philip Pullman, Bernardine Evaristo, Jacqueline Wilson, adding that others, “just as illustrious, have been to Windsor Castle for their Investitures... including you, Sir Lenny (Henry) and the literary hero, Paddington himself, who so poignantly had tea there with the late Queen Elizabeth II not so long ago.”

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Camilla revealed that since its inception in 2011, the competition had produced “half a billion words that have been written, typed, scribbled and tumbled onto thousands of pages by children across the UK, read by an army of volunteers and then sent to Oxford University Press to form the biggest collection of children’s writing in the world". 

She added: “That means that between you, you have created more than a million stories of thought-provoking adventure for future generations to study and enjoy.”

In conversation with host Romesh Ranganathan, the Queen shared her delight that the competition was back after a three-year hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s absolutely brilliant,” she said. “I can’t believe it that having missed three years, I never thought we would get the show on the road again, but thanks to a lot of helpful people at the BBC, here we are today. I’m so thrilled that everyone has been able to come. I suspect there are a lot of excited children waiting to see if they have won.”

Asked where her love of reading had come from, she replied: “I think it came from my father, who loved reading. He had the biggest collection of books you’ve ever seen. When we were children he used to sit on the end of our beds and read…every sort of story.”

Britain's Queen Camilla (C) poses with children during a reception for the BBC's 500 Words Finalists at Buckingham Palac© Getty
Queen Camilla with young guests at the palace reception

Romesh also asked the Queen what she enjoyed reading to her grandchildren and there was laughter as she replied: “My grandchildren are all teenagers now, I think they’ll be reading to me!”

She added: “I think when we started there were the obvious books, like The Gruffalo, Hairy Maclary, onto The Faraway Tree, Swallows and Amazons, then Roald Dahl came along, and then the great Harry Potter. They’ve read ever since.”

Her Majesty addressed 250 during the awards ceremony for 50 finalists, which saw six overall winners presented with medals.

Britain's Queen Camilla (R) speaks with children during a reception for the BBC's 500 Words Finalists at Buckingham Palace© Getty
Queen Camilla praised the talent of young writers

Hosted by Romesh and Roman Kemp, a host of celebrity readers shared the winning entries with the audience, while the ceremony opened with a charming dance performance by Britain’s Got Talent star Skylar Blu, to the song Pure Imagination, performed by the Capital Children’s Choir and with a cameo appearance from Wonka star Timothée Chalamet, who appeared in a portrait, doffing his hat to the little girl.

Skylar was seen opening a book about Buckingham Palace then finding herself transported into the State Rooms and dancing her way through them and into the ballroom. There was also a performance of When I Grow Up by the cast of the West End musical Matilda.

Former Strictly star Oti Mabuse presented the bronze medal for the 5 to 7 age group to Henry Beeston for his story The Alien and the Purple Planet, telling him: “You should be really proud and it’s an honour for me to read it.”  Hollywood star Luke Evans read a story by Aaron Baker, the bronze medal winner in the 8 to 11 age group, while Alisha Weir, star of Matilda, the movie, read Pony with a cone on solving crimes, by Clara Webb, six, who won silver in the 5 to 7 category.

Queen Camilla with Alisha Weir, Luke Evans and Oti Mabuse© Getty
The Queen with Alisha Weir, Luke Evans and Oti Mabuse

Mum Elspeth said: “I’m speechless, I’m tearing up. We call her our little Matilda, she absolutely loves reading. We went to see the stage show last week. She watches Matilda all the time.”

Alisha told Clara: “I loved the story, you smashed it.”

Downton Abbey and Paddington star Hugh Bonneville put on a Scottish accent to read The Scottish Gangster by Spencer Marshall, winner of the silver medal for 8 to 11. Spencer, 11, from Glasgow, jumped for joy when his name was announced, telling Roman: “I thought I would be a failure,” and that he felt “amazing.”

Hugh told him: "It’s wonderful that you got it down on paper otherwise we would have lost a good story.”

Speaking afterwards, Spencer described his medal as “the best thing ever”. Mum Gillian joked, “I hope he’s going to be a writer and not a criminal.”

Queen Camilla with Tom Hiddleston© Getty
Sharing a joke with Tom Hiddleston

Singer Olivia Dean read the gold medal-winning story for the 5-7 age group, Message in a bottle, by Evan Stoll, who received his medal from the Queen. Camilla also presented a gold medal to Olive Campbell, who won the 8-11 category for her chilling fantasy story Cellmate.

As she met the winners over tea in the Picture Gallery, the Queen told Henry Beeston: “You’ve got to write another one for next year.”

She was also persuaded by a couple of the winners to sign books made up of the shortlisted stories and illustrated by six top artists: Axel Scheffler, Joelle Avelino, Fiona Lumbers, Sue Cheung, Jamie Smart and Steven Lenton.

500 Words encourages children of all abilities from across the UK to write without fear of spelling, grammar or punctuation errors.

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