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 KidsZoe'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 Alwhen 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.

Or, opportunity may come knocking right in your child's school. The WAITS (Writers & Artists in the Schools) program run by COMPAS (Community Programs in the Arts and Sciences) sends writers to schools statewide, and for the last twenty years has published an annual anthology of the best student writing, featuring 70 to 100 kids each year. In December two years ago, then-seventh grader Yen Dang had the distinction of having two works published in the anthology--one a touching poetic piece and the other a humorous short story. No small accomplishment, according to program director Daniel Gabriel, for this young Hmong girl who had entered kindergarten speaking virtually no English!

 

Magazines and zines

Low-budget magazines--or zines--are another great way to get ideas out there. From the highly professional, award-winning New Moon: The Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams, to a zine run off at a neighborhood copy center, to an online e-zine, the sky's the limit.

Nancy Gruver, publisher of Duluth-based New Moon, explains that she started her magazine seven years ago to fill an unmet need. "I remembered being miserable and confused by all the contradictory messages when I was that age," she recalls. She wanted to provide something better for her daughters. Today the magazine, which seeks to take girls seriously and "build a healthy resistance to gender inequities," carries no advertising and boasts a growing circulation of 25,000.

The editorial board is made up entirely of girls ages eight to fourteen, with about seventy-five percent of the writing done by girls selected worldwide. Editorial Board member Kellen Sheedy--a seventh grader living in Duluth--got involved because her mother is the science advisor. "For the longest time, I've wanted to be a writer," she says. She keeps a journal and loves to read, but she's also a soccer player who hopes one day to be an orthopedic surgeon.

At the other end of the spectrum is the zine published by the Walker Art Center's Teen Arts Council (WACTAC) two to four times a year. The zine contains writings and drawings by council members and other local teens, as well as information about Walker events. According to program manager Christi Atkinson, the zine not only helps raise awareness about the Walker Art Center, and about publishing, but also gives teens a much-needed voice.

E-zines--or zines which are e-mailed on the Web--are opening up whole new vistas in self-expression, often with the kids being light-years ahead of their parents.

Two sisters from Shoreview, eleven-year-old Kori Wahman and fifteen-year-old Megan each have their own zines. Kori's, SUGAH, is e-mailed each month via AOL to a list of more than 231 subscribers. Kori, a sixth-grader who wants to be a writer, says she got the idea from her big sister. "It can be a lot of work," she admits, "but I really like doing it."

Megan reports that her zine, DIVAS, has 822 subscribers. She currently writes the entire zine herself and fills it with popular subjects like beauty, fashion, and fitness. Says Megan: "I've always been good in language arts and I got my inspiration from other online magazines."

 

Surfing the Net

Finally, there are Web sites. While a long way from that little gilt-edged diary, they are places where technologically--and graphically --oriented kids can express their creativity and make contact with kids sharing similar interests.

Former DIVAS partner Sarah Cramer, an eleventh grader from Appleton, Wisconsin, now focuses on designing Web sites. She says it's not that difficult to get started. "How much you need to know depends on what you want your Web page to look like, how complicated you want it to be."

For information about how to obtain free Web page space, Sarah recommends going to eccentrica.org and freeservers.com.

For information on the skills necessary to create a more elaborate Web page, she suggests reading HTML for Dummies (IDG Books Worldwide, 1996) or the HTML help site www.htmlgoodies.com.

"Online publishing is more accessible for adults and kids--and there will be an expansion of those opportunities," concludes Cummings. But, she emphasizes, "publishing is only one way to get your work out there. Creating your own book by hand and giving it to a loved one is another great way to share your work and reach an audience."

 

Deborah Sugerman is a Minneapolis freelance writer and mother of two sons.


Some Additional Advice

If your child is serious about being published, here is additional advice from teachers, editors, already-published kids, and Janet Grant's The Young Person's Guide to Becoming a Writer (Free Spirit Publishing, 1995):

 

1. Make your work look professional. Type your manuscript and check for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors.

 

2. Don't sound too formal; use a conversational voice.

 

3. Solicit feedback. Although it may be difficult to share your work at first, you'll find that others' comments can be invaluable. But always evaluate the advice you receive.

 

4. Look for encouragement. A teacher, friend, or other mentor can provide support.

 

5. Write all the time. As with any craft, you need all the practice you can get.

 

6. Do you homework before sending your manuscript around. Consult The Writer's Market, Market Guide for Young Writers, and Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market (all published by Writer's Digest Books) when selecting potential publishers. If a company has published similar titles, it may be more, rather than less, willing to want yours.

 

7. Above all else, don't get discouraged.

 

--D.S.

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