Author! Author!

Have a child who'd love to see his or her name in print? These young writers share their secrets.

Back in the fifties, I had one of those pocket-sized diaries, burgundy leather with gilt-edged paper, secured with a clasp and a tiny gold key. Here, in painstakingly correct Palmer method, I would confide my secrets.

While today's children are equally likely to be recording their thoughts with word-processing software and saving them onto a disk, their dreams haven't changed. Lots of kids aspire to become published writers.

Sometimes, it happens. Wisconsin resident Jessica Wilber turned her penchant for journal writing into a how-to book. Jessica began keeping a journal in the second grade. As a seventh grader, she turned in a book about journal writing for a class assignment. Lots of hard work, rejection, and revisions later, she finally saw her book, Totally Private & Personal (Free Spirit Publishing, 1996), in print.

This year, Jessica added to her success with The Absolutely True, Positively Awesome Book About...Me!!! (Free Spirit Publishing), a journaling book aimed at girls ages six through ten.

Jessica says she writes "[with the] hope that journaling will help girls believe in their own power. I want them to realize that their thoughts and feelings are important and valid."

Some kids are lucky enough to have a parent already in the "writing business." Minneapolis siblings Zoe, age seventeen, and Evan Stern, fifteen, who wrote Divorce is Not the End of the World, (Tricycle Press, 1997) are the children of Ellen Sue Stern, herself a published author of self-help books.

Zoe's first publishing success was a book she co-wrote with her mother, titled Questions Kids Wish They Could Ask Their Parents (Celestial Arts, 1993). Following their parents' divorce, she and her brother collaborated on their book, which is subtitled Zoe's and Evan's Coping Guide for Kids Zoe's most recent effort is an inspirational book of colorful postcards, called Protect This Girl (Tricycle Press, 1999). Zoe says she chooses book themes that she believes will help other kids. "I hope they'll take my experiences and find them meaningful," she says. "I try to enhance other people's lives with my words."

Nine-year-old Heather Nissenberg also has her mother to thank for getting her started in publishing. Heather's mother, Sandra, is a registered dietitian and the author of several cookbooks.

When Sandra realized that kids should be telling their parents what they liked to eat, and not the other way around, the idea for Heather's cookbook, I Made It Myself (John Wiley & Sons, 1998) was born. Heather, an eleven-year-old sixth grader, says the best part of being a cookbook author is "eating the recipes." She solicited recipes from her friends as well as supplying her own.

As with most enterprises, it's helpful to have a unique angle. The Stern children's perspectives on the tough issue of divorce was one. Writer Samantha Abeel collaborated with adult watercolor artist Charles Murphy on a book of poems dealing with her learning disabilities. Her book, Reach for the Moon (Pfeifer-Hamilton, 1994), is moving and inspirational.

Minnesota author Megan Brown self-published a book featuring creatures she called Burbles. Her book, The Christmas Burbles (Best of Small Press Publishers, 1996), published when she was nine, has a character who suffers from greed, and subsequent guilt, before all is resolved in a happy ending.

Then there's Kate Lied, who was eight years old when she wrote a story she'd been told by her aunt about the family's experience during the Depression. She submitted it to a neighborhood bookstore contest, where it caught the attention of one of the judges, illustrator Lisa Campbell Ernst. Enlivened by Ernst's captivating pictures, the book was published in 1997 by the National Geographic Society.

Free Spirit Publishing has published more than one youthful author, not surprising for a company that specializes in self-help books for kids and teens. Managing editor Elizabeth Verdick explains it as a fresh and natural outgrowth of their niche: "Along with experts, like psychologists and teachers, Jessica Wilber is a great example of an author who had an important message to share with other preteens and teens."

In addition to Jessica Wilber's work, Free Spirit has published two books written by Wendy Isdell. Isdell, now twenty-four, wrote A Gebra Named Al when she was in the eighth grade; it appeared in print in 1993. Her next book, The Chemy Called Al (about a lion with mysterious powers), was published three years later. Isdell continues to write constantly. "It's an addiction, I think. Like chocolate," she admits. She recalls the pride she felt when her work was published, and her pleasure at receiving letters from fans.

Despite her success, she's still in search of an agent and a publisher (Free Spirit no longer publishes fiction). In the meantime, she has written several more books and is returning to school to pursue a master's degree in liberal studies.


Reality check

It's important to remember that relatively few adults, much less children, manage to have their work published. "Book publishing is very difficult, and it takes a pretty resourceful kid," cautions Mary Cummings, education director at the Minneapolis-based Loft Literary Center. "I always advise children and adults not to start with a book, but to start smaller."

Cummings suggests contests as an excellent way to get started. Isdell decided to get her work published after it won the 1989 Virginia Young Author's Contest. In the Twin Cities, the Pioneer Press runs an annual contest in collaboration with the Minnesota Children's Museum to encourage creative writing among school-aged kids. Still, the competition is fierce. Last year, only eleven essays were chosen out of approximately six thousand entries.

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