Books·The First Page

Underground Artist by Henry Nguyen

Read the first page of Henry Nguyen's novel imagining the world in 150 years.

2017 finalist: Grades 7 to 9 category

Henry Nguyen is a finalist for the 2017 The First Page student writing challenge in the Grades 7 to 9 category. (Courtesy of Henry Nguyen)

Underground Artist by Henry Nguyen is one of 10 stories shortlisted for CBC Books' 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. Over 2,400 students submitted their stories.

Nguyen, a student at University Hill Secondary School in Vancouver, B.C., tackles censorship, art and AI in his piece.

I was doing a bad job of keeping the different paints apart on the paint palette. It wasn't even a palette, more like a disposable foam plate. It barely sufficed, but I shouldn't be complaining. Painting was illegal. 

The government started persecuting artists 20 years ago, right when AI was beginning to gain traction in the art market. AI art was mostly textbook propaganda: silly yellow posters of The Octavian overlooking the brothers sprawled across Parliament Hill to as far as the eye could see. The colours too bright, the triangles too straight and the grass too green. 

My stubborn little head insisted that art was too "human" for AI. And that stubborn little head is what brought me here, into a warehouse in Chilliwack, at night, painting Thomas Jefferson before the Continental Congress. I didn't even know why I still painted. Money was better found elsewhere, besides the fact that it was illegal.

A bright flash of light glared in my eyes. I heard shouting from outside the garage door followed by a dozen more flashes of light, glaring through the cracks of the warehouse door.

It was the police. I threw the foam plate onto the canvas and stuffed the two paintbrushes into my coat.


Farewell, Jefferson. I turned the blue and orange faced Jefferson towards the warehouse door. I had planned this escape. I lowered my body down the tunnel and grasped the ladder. The trapdoor banged shut above me.

The rusted rungs of the ladder bit into my fingers. I could just make out a faint light from the end of the tunnel.

"Right foot down. Right hand down." I tried to calm myself. "Left foot down. Left hand do—" There was something on the rung. I could just see it. Wet, yellow. Like paint. I scrunched my face closer. It was paint! 

But I certainly hadn't used yellow paint. How had it gotten here? 

A scurry of footsteps and a bang of metal echoed below.

I heard shouting from outside and the crash of the garage door. I hurried down the ladder. Their flashlights scanned the room, occasionally blinding my eyes through the slits on the trapdoor. There wasn't much time left.

I feared whomever was below the tunnel. But I had to keep descending: the police had surrounded me above.

About The First Page student writing challenge

CBC Books asked students to give us a glimpse of the great Canadian novel of the year 2167. 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.

Two winning entries — one from the Grades 7 to 9 category and one from the Grades 10 to 12 category — will be chosen by award-winning YA writer Erin Bow, author of The Scorpion Rules. The winner will be announced on CBC Radio's q on Jan. 24, 2018.

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 YA books.

CBC Books' next student writing competition is the Shakespeare Selfie Student Writing Challenge, which will open in April 2018.