Every year, the Outdoor Writers Association of America (OWAA) puts on a contest to identify the brightest up-and-comers in the field of outdoor media. Open to students in grades 6 through 12, the Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards are presented to 12 winners: six in high school and six in middle school, with first, second, and third place finishers in both poetry and prose.

Winners are selected by the OWAA's five-member education committee via a blind review process. Each of the first place winners receives a $200 cash prize, with second place finishers getting $100 and third place finishers getting $50. All 12 of the winners receive a free student membership to OWAA for a year, as well as press coverage in Outdoors Unlimited, OWAA's print magazine.

“One of the main tenets of our mission is to garner the next generation of outdoor storytellers," said Chez Chesak, executive director of OWAA. "We want to reward these young people for their great work and inspire them to turn outdoor writing into a career." 

This year, out of 76 entrants, the judges have made their selections. Below are the 2020 recipients of the Norm Strung Youth Writing Awards. 

First place, high school prose: Sophia Samantaroy

Young girl in red tank top

OWAA bio: As of this fall, Sophia Samantaroy is a freshman at the University of Rochester majoring in environmental health. Based in the Washington, D.C., area, she enjoys hiking, biking, playing tennis, writing, and exploring neighborhood parks. She lives with her family, a dog, and a gecko.

Second place, high school prose: Hannah Nguyen

Young girl climbing with blue helmet on

OWAA bio: Hannah Nguyen is a sophomore at Madison High School in Vienna, Virginia. She spends he free time doing competitive gymnastics, travel soccer, scouts, and volunteering with animals.

Third place, high school prose: Alex Zhai

Young boy in blue fleece in the mountains

OWAA bio: Alex Zhai is a senior at The Harker School in San Jose, California. He loves to run and hike in the Santa Cruz Mountains and enjoys spending time with his family at beaches along the California Coast. These natural surroundings constantly inspire him in his creative endeavors, and he often uses landscape photography and nature poetry to document and share his time in the great outdoors.

First place, high school poetry: Olivia Lee

Young girl standing on seashore

OWAA bio: Olivia Lee is a senior from California School of the Arts—San Gabriel Valley. She has received recognition for her art and writing from the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Princeton University, and the California Coastal Commission. Her work has been published in Body Without Organs, TAB, The Heritage Review, Blue Marble Review, and The Rising Phoenix Review, among others. She is a weathered bug-catcher and can often be found near tide pools and at the Natural History Museum. Her favorite book is The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery.

Second place, high school poetry: Nathan Phuong

Young boy with white shirt and glasses

OWAA bio: Nathan Phuong enjoys kayaking, biking, and hiking with his family in the country's wild spaces. He has visited dozens of national parks over the years, some of his favorite being Bryce Canyon, Great Smoky Mountains, and Acadia. He also enjoys reading, swimming, and watching movies in his free time.

Third place, high school poetry: Lauren Young

Young girl in black coat standing by the ocean

OWAA bio: Lauren Young is a student from Connecticut. She likes to use creative writing as a way to reflect on personal observations and events that occur around the world. She prefers poetry, and when not writing, can be found listening to music, bullet journaling, or playing Sky: Children of the Light.

First place, middle school prose: Thanisha Chowdhury

Young girl wearing gray hijab and glasses

OWAA bio: Thanisha Chowdhury is a 15-year-old nature lover who lives in Northern Virginia. She enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with friends and family. She hopes that her writing will inspire an admiration of the natural world in others and encourage them to do what they can to treat it well. Her OWAA submission also won a Gold Medal at the 2020 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.

Second place, middle school prose: Gabriel Appler

No bio or headshot available.

Third place, middle school prose: Sophie Fonseca

Young girl in white tank top on the beach

OWAA bio: Sophie Fonseca is an adventurous 13-year-old girl who’s always been an avid reader. In the past couple of years, she’s developed a passion for writing and also enjoys spending time with friends swimming, camping, skating, singing and dancing in the rain. 

First place, middle school poetry: Kaia Wootton

Young girl headshot

OWAA bio: Kaia Wootton just turned 14. She was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, and is currently a freshman in high school. Kaia showed a proficiency in writing very early on. She began writing poetry in kindergarten and was a published author at 10 years old. In addition to writing, Kaia enjoys surfing, riding roller coasters, going to the beach, watching scary movies, playing piano, dogs of all breeds, hanging out with friends, and the Oxford comma.

Second place, middle school poetry: Demi Lavapies

Young girl headshot

OWAA bio: Demi Lavapies is a young writer who currently attends Harvard-Westlake School. She enjoys reading, skiing, dancing, and painting. Demi's favorite genres to write are short stories and poetry, for which she has won multiple awards, such as a Scholastic Art and Writing Award.

Third place, middle school poetry: Abby Bates

Young girl headshot

OWAA bio: Abby Bates attends Chicod School in Greenville, North Carolina, and loves the music of Queen, The Beatles, Green Day, and Hamilton the musical. She enjoys camping, bonfires with friends, thrifting for clothes and vintage records, and performing in local theater.

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