Books·The First Page

City of Masks by Annabel Li

Annabel Li, 13, is one of 10 finalists in the Grades 7 to 9 category of The First Page student writing challenge.

2019 finalist: Grades 7 to 9 category

Annabel Li, 13, is a 2019 finalist in the Grades 7 to 9 category for The First Page student writing challenge. (Submitted by Annabel Li)

City of Masks by Annabel Li is one of 10 stories shortlisted for the The First Page student writing competition in the Grades 7 to 9 category. Students across Canada wrote the first page of a novel set 150 years in the future, imagining how a current-day trend or issue has played out. Nearly 2,000 students submitted their stories.

Li, a student at Handsworth Secondary School in Vancouver, writes about the pressure to conform.


"Civá! Your new mask is here!"

Má calls from our small kitchen. I instantly stop my apprentice work and shove my chair over and scramble to meet her, hearing the delicate floorboards creaking as I go. On our rickety dinner table sits an ocean-blue glass box, with Má standing over it, beaming with pride. "For your fourteenth birthday," she says with a flourish, and I waste no time in carefully opening the glass folds, letting the fresh, crisp smell of the Factory wash over me. I daintily remove my new mask and let it sit in my hands.

It is a white thing of beauty, of perfect, sculpted features, with high cheekbones similar to Má's and Giga's mask and the forehead like Pá's but the nose is all my own. I turn it left to right, letting the gas lamp's light cast dancing shadows over the swan-like curves. "Try it on before I take it from you!" crows Giga as she enters the room.

Since Giga has not passed ten yet, her mask is full of button noses and wide eyes, for she is but a child. Children who haven't matured yet only need to wear to their mask outside, but Giga loves hers so much she can't bear to part with it.

I am scared of what looks back at me from the mirror, but I tell myself that it doesn't matter. It's the outside that is what everyone sees.

"All right, I'll try it on," I tell Giga, and she laughs and claps her hands. I enter our bathroom, shut the leaning door, and peel off my child-like mask. I gaze into our grimy, fractured mirror, and wince.

I haven't seen my true face in ages — my greasy black hair, pale, marred skin, thin lips and dark, midnight eyes. I am scared of what looks back at me from the mirror, but I tell myself that it doesn't matter. It's the outside that is what everyone sees. I hold my new mask up to the light, and put it on my face.

It fits perfectly, exaggerating my contours to elegant curves. And then the features begin to colour themselves — the skin tone a light bronze, my lips become plump and scarlet, my eyes an iridescent green. Flowing, coiled locks of auburn brown spring from the forehead of the mask and perfectly cover my dead excuse for hair. I stare at myself — my perfect face, my mask.

Sometimes it is hard to forget that my world is built on deceptions and lies.


About The First Page student writing challenge

CBC Books asked students to give us a glimpse of the great Canadian novel of the year 2168. They wrote the first page of a book set 150 years in the future, with the protagonist facing an issue that's topical today and set the scene for how it's all playing out in a century and a half.

Kelley Armstrong is the bestselling author of more than 40 books. (Kathryn Hollinrake)

Two winning entries — one from the Grades 7 to 9 category and one from the Grades 10 to 12 category — will be chosen by bestselling YA author Kelley Armstrong, most known for her Darkest Powers and Darkness Rising series. The winner will be announced on CBC Books on March 11, 2020.

Both winners will receive a one-year subscription to OwlCrate, which sends fresh boxes of books to young readers across Canada on a monthly basis. In addition, each of the winners' schools will receive 50 free YA books.

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