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Minor Details: Three-Minute Fiction's Age Rules

This week, along with the nearly 1,000 stories that were submitted to weekends on All Things Considered's writing contest, Three-Minute Fiction, there was a letter from 11-year-old Kahlo Smith of Felton, Calif.

Dear Mr. Raz,

I am eleven years old. I wanted to enter round eight of the three minute fiction contest. I have a story that fits all the guidelines. It's less than six hundred words and begins with the sentence: She closed the book, put in on the table, and finally, decided to walk out the door. But when I checked the entry rules, it said that the contest was open to people eighteen or older. Is there a reason for this?

Kahlo Smith
Felton, California

The question has been asked by kids, teens, students, teachers and parents since Three-Minute Fiction launched in 2009. But according to NPR's general counsel and senior vice president of legal affairs, Joyce Slocum there is no way around the rule.

"The shorthand is that minor children do not have the capacity to enter into a contract," Slocum says. "A child who enters into a contract may have the ability to have it voided by a court even after they became an adult."

Entering Three-Minute Fiction is entering into a contract with NPR, Slocum says. And once a participant has entered and agreed to the contest rules, NPR can use the copyrighted work for its own purposes, which includes being read on the air and posted on NPR.org.

Even after hearing the legalese from NPR's general counsel, Kahlo was not appeased.

"I understand that it's a legal thing that minors cannot enter the competition, but it seems unfair," says Kahlo, who was encouraged to enter Three-Minute Fiction by her mother, an avid NPR listener.

"When I was little I wrote a story about a turtle who gets sent to this shelter for sea animals because it got caught in a plastic bag and then is released at the end of the story," Kahlo says. "My mom was listening to NPR and she heard about the contest and she knows that I like writing so she told me I should enter."

Even though she is not qualified to enter, for her persistence and a surprisingly mature and creative story, Kahlo will receive a copy of Luis Alberto Urrea's latest book. Queen of America.

Urrea said he loved the mystery, the details and the descriptions in Kahlo's story.

"It makes me grateful that I'm old now so I don't have to compete with this kid," he says. "Way to go!"

"It's sort of like I won," Kahlo says. "I still get the stuff, my story still gets read, I'm pretty happy."

Those who are 18 and older can still enter the contest by clicking on the "Submit Your Story" link. Stories must be 600 words or less and begin with the sentence, "She closed the book, placed it on the table and finally decided to walk through the door." All stories must be received by Sunday, March 25, at 11:59 ET.

By Kahlo Smith, age 11

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally, decided to walk through the door. She lifted her bag off a peg, and after a moment of hesitation, slung it over her shoulder. As she shut the door behind her, she looked around, as if expecting someone to stop her. No one did, and she closed the door gently.

It was chilly outside, and she hugged her thin turtleneck sweater closer to her. She glanced up. The first stars were appearing, dotting the night sky with pinpricks of light, like holes in the black blanket draped over some chairs that had served as her "magical fort" as a child.

She pushed her glasses up, looked around, and started down the street. She looked young, too young to be walking the streets at night. No more than sixteen, a passerby might have thought, had they paid any attention to this young girl, walking down the sidewalk alone, arms crossed tightly across her torso, head down.

Cars whizzed by, dark, fast moving shapes, stirring up her long brown hair. She breathed in the winter air, cold and clear in her lungs. She glanced in the window of a coffee shop as she passed it, the warm, bright place contrasting sharply with the cold and dark that surrounded her. She might have been visiting a friend's apartment. She might have been older than she appeared, eighteen or so, walking away from her own apartment. None of the people who walked by her knew, and they certainly didn't seem to care.

She turned the corner, and approached a different building. She hesitated in front of the door. She lifted her hand as if to knock, but then withdrew it and continued walking. It seemed to her then that she was in a bubble of space that was all her own. That she was not a part of the world the people rushing past her existed in, hurrying home, or to late night jobs.

She turned off onto a side street, and stopped at a bus stop, one of those benches with a sort of roof and an enclosure around it, as if trying to fence you in where you sit. She tapped her foot on the hard cement and rubbed her arms with her hands, trying to get some warmth into them.

The moon had risen, casting a white glow on everything, making it look somewhat unreal, almost like a painting. She heard the bus before she saw it, approaching the stop with a crunch of gravel as it left the pavement. The doors swung open as if in invitation. A faint light spilled out onto the three steps leading up into the bus.

She rose from the bench and mounted the steps. She chose a window seat next to a chatty, middle-aged woman. The kind of person you might expect to be an aunt, or even a great aunt. She rested her bag on her lap and pushed her hair up behind her ears. The bus moved on again, with yet another loud crunch of gravel. She didn't look back.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.