ST. LOUIS COUNTY — Though Marlee Cox is an award-winning wordsmith, she has an agreement with her parents about when they can read her work.
"I only let them read it if it gets an award," said the 16-year-old junior at Mehlville High School. Lucky for her parents, and for Marlee, her short story "Sonata in the Key of Bea" recently received a gold medal for the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers' National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. The award recognized her story as one of the best student literary works in the country. She also received the American Voices Medal, which declared her story the best submission from the Midwest.
"I was really excited," Marlee said of the award, but admitted, "I was a little disappointed my poetry didn't win."
It's the second year in a row Marlee has topped the nation in student writing. In 2011, her poem "Samsara" was also awarded a gold medal. This year, more than 200,000 works of art and writing were submitted to the contest. Marlee's short story was one of the 1 percent, or 1,200 works, chosen for national recognition.
A recreational writer, Marlee said she was not aware of her talent until recently.
"I didn't realize I was good at writing until I started winning things," she said. Her honors English teacher, Cheryl Ogolin, said she recognized Marlee's skill from her first writing assignment.
"She had such command, word choice and sophistication of thought," said Ogolin, who compared Marlee's writing to American novelist Joyce Carol Oates. "She's one in a million. I've never read work like hers. You can't help but to be captivated."
That sophistication of thought shines through in Marlee's gold medal short story "Sonata in the Key of Bea." The work reveals the struggles of a young man trying to determine what went wrong when his unrequited love committed suicide.
"I wanted to explore destruction," she said. "And if a person can destroy themselves on an emotional level."
Complex themes intrigue Marlee, which is why this summer she will be touring landmarks of the Civil Rights movement in New York and the American South with the Clayton-based Cultural Leadership, which fosters social activism among high school students. She hopes to study international relations in college.
"Whatever I do, strong writing skills will help me," she said. "I want to concentrate on modern social justice and diversity."
As for her next piece, Marlee is currently working on a short story that combines three topics: the John F. Kennedy assassination, Catholic saints and frisbee golf.
"I get obsessed with something and I'll think about the metaphoric resonances," she explained. "I like to outline the way I think."