Got a novel idea? It’s easier than ever to get published, but if the imprint on the spine of your masterwork is Xlibris or iUniverse, don’t expect placement on the New York Times bestseller list. There are always exceptions, such as Christopher Paolini, a hardworking homeschooler who completed his first dragon novel (Eragon) at the age of 17, marketed it aggressively with his family for several months, caught the attention of a bestselling author, landed a major publisher, and eventually sold millions of copies of the Inheritance series, along with a movie deal. S.E. Hinton wrote the mother of all YA novels, The Outsiders, at the age of 16. Mary Shelly was 19 when she wrote Frankenstein, the same age as Dav Pilkey (of Captain Underpants fame) when he published his first novel. Amelia Atwater-Rhodes began her prolific career of fantasy/sci-fi/horror fiction at the age of 13. Walter Farley wrote The Black Stallion while still in high school (though it wasn’t published until he was in his twenties). And the world’s most famous memoir was written by a young girl who was 13 when she began it—Anne Frank.
So it happens—very rarely–that teenage authors see their work get published by big names like Random House and Simon & Shuster. In the past, the only other option was photocopies with a plastic comb binder or paying a vanity press to print your book between hard covers and stick you with about 930 copies you couldn’t sell after hitting up all your relatives and friends. Now, however, we have options: digital technology makes the process much cheaper and easier, so you can get a limited number of good-looking softcover copies, from an online service like Amazon’s CreateSpace. Or you can go through a print-on-demand company, or even the local Kinko’s. Lots of would-be Paperback Writers are rushing to have their great stories printed up and hawked online, including teens and pre-teens. As little as $250 (to KidPub Press) will get you a manageable number of copies, and with parental help some kids can even make a small profit. I’ve received several complimentary youth novels; the problem is, I’ve not been able to finish a single one yet. Young people can publish their stories in book form, more easily than ever. But should they?
That’s the question asked by the New York Times in an article (registration required) called “Young writers Dazzle Publisher (Mom and Dad).” The same subject was addressed more personally in The Guardian. There’s no doubt that self-publishing can be a huge confidence boost for an aspiring writer, but kids, however bright and talented, simply lack the experience and emotional range to create fictional depth. Author Tom Robbins, quoted in the Times article, put it bluntly: “There are no prodigies in literature. Literature requires experience, in a way that mathematics and music do not.” Students who can’t achieve a grand fictional theme also have trouble with nuts and bolts. Self-publishing companies provide little or no editorial supervision, meaning that many finished books are riddled with grammatical and punctuation errors—often enough to make a reader fear that language is doomed. Some culture-watchers fear that kid-publishing is too much too soon, and young authors who should be allowed to mellow slowly in the cellars of experience are shortcutting the process, to their future detriment.
My personal opinion is that most aspiring authors, of any age, should wait on the book-length publication and try to build a resume with publishing credits from a more objective audience. If they’re serious about writing, they should look for contests (like ours!), youth publications, and local markets (newspapers, regional magazines, etc.), and submit their work to the glare of fussy editors. Every author has to not only hone his craft, but also find his audience and tailor his work to please or edify them. Writing isn’t just about self-expression; it’s about communication—that is, if you want to publish at all. Self-publishing is often just self-indulgence (that’s how “vanity presses” got their nickname). God bestows gifts upon us to be used for each other, not our own personal enjoyment or satisfaction. If you want to write, practice your craft, find your audience, and get ready for a lot of hard work.
But . . . though literature may not have any prodigies, it does produce outstanding talents, like the young authors listed above. This year saw a new one:
The Peculiar, by Stephan Bachmann. Greenwillow, 2012, 384 pages. Age/interest level: 10-up.
. . . the faeries were simply a part of England, an inseparable part, like the heather on the bleak gray moors, like the gallows on the hilltops. The goblins and gnomes and wilder faeries were quick to pick up English ways. They lived in English cities, coughed English smoke, and were soon no worse off than the thousands of human poor that toiled at their side. But the high faeries—the pale, silent Sidhe with their fine waistcoats and sly looks—they did not give in so easily. They could not forget that they had once been lords and ladies in great halls of their own. They could not forgive.
In an alternate, Victorian, steampunk England, the town of New Bath (built on the ruins of the old Bath) has become the home of an alien race that invaded generations before. Like conquering Normans who didn’t conquer, they’ve settled down and intermarried to create an in-between breed called “Peculiars”: half-human, half faery, and definitely low-class. Bartholomew Kettle and his sister Hettie, deserted by their faerie dad, live a hardscrabble life in New Bath with their human mother. One day trudges after another until a lady in a rich plum-colored gown appears in the neighborhood, and shortly thereafter Bartholomew’s only friend, a changling like himself, disappears in a jet of stinking smoke. In alternating chapters, a mild-mannered, weak-willed young parliamentarian named Arthur Jellyby is trying to stay on good terms with John Wednesday Lickerish, the first full-blood faerie to achieve high office in the British government. All Jellyby wants to do is get along and get ahead, but soon some very strange happenings, all clustered like persistent mosquitoes around Lickerish, propel him to uncharacteristic action. Once Jellyby’s path converges with young Bartholomew’s the action races to a strong, if abrupt, conclusion. A sequel is on the way
The selling hook for The Peculiars is that the author began it at the age of 16. Born in Colorado, Stefan, now 19, lives in Switzerland and attends the Zurich Conservatory of Music. The hype about his age makes him a little squirmy: “I hope the book can stand on its own.” I think it does. His prose style is elegant and polished but not overly formal, with very few of the awkward turns of phrase that plague beginning writers. In fact, I didn’t find any. The story is slow to take off and feels a little standoffish at first, with characters too prickly or bland to like. But it gathers steam and substance as it goes along, building to a real moral dilemma that lands a reader solidly on the side of the protagonists.
What if you’re a young author who would love to write a book, but don’t want to do all that, you know, writing? Here’s an idea that might be fun to try, from established Newbery-winning author Jennifer Holm. Her character, 13-year-old Ginny Davis, tells her stories with “stuff.” Middle School Is Worse Than Meatloaf chronicled her 7th-grade year, but I didn’t catch up with her until
Eighth Grade is Making Me Sick: Ginny Davis’s Year in Stuff, by Jennifer Holm, illustrated by Elicia Castaldi. Random House, 121 pages. Age/interest level: 10-14.
Ginny’s 8th-grade year, like her 7th, starts out with a list of resolutions: “1. Try out for cheer. 2. Convince Mom to let me bike to school. 3. Fall in love. 4. Work on art (sketching every day) 5. Save money . . . 10. Ignore horoscopes!” (She’s a pisces.) Most of them she won’t keep, but that’s understandable as her year takes a turn for the worse just before Christmas and keeps going down until she’s literally sick. The story is fairly conventional: what’s interesting is how it’s told–through clippings, emails, texts, notes, school assignments, website pages, book covers, everything except prose narrative. And photos; we never know what she looks like. The effect is something between a graphic novel and a Pinterest page.
Ginny is fairly typical, well-adjusted, and happy, but her developing gastro-intestinal problems stem from some unusual stresses related to family and finances. Not to mention growing up; the rocky transition between Ginny’s childhood and adolescence is especially telling in the contrast between stuffed animals, cutsey cards and “tummy tablets.” She’s too much into Vampire Vixens (her fave website) and isn’t above forging a parent’s signature on her report card, but she’s serious about developing her art talent and loves her Grandpa Joe. And her mom and “StepBob,”in spite of their occasional cluelessness. Oddly, her dad isn’t in the picture at all, not even on the margins. I would expect a birthday card, at least, but maybe that was explained in the previous book.
Ginny’s story is chiefly interesting to me for its imitative possibilities. How much can you tell about a person from her “stuff,” and how can selected clips and snippets be arranged to tell a story? What are the advantages of this form of storytelling, and what are the limits? That’s something you can definitely try at home.