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Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Should parents publish the books their children write?


The New York Times article ("Young Writers Dazzle Publisher (Mom and Dad)") describes the TV news coverage as "breathless." The Old Gray Lady sounds a tad breathless herself, hyperventilating over the threat coming from "hundreds [emphasis ours] of children and teens who are self-publishing books each year."

The Times quotes the novelist Tom Robbins, who frets about what might come next—"'Kiddie architects, juvenile dentists, 11-year-old rocket scientists?'" and adds, "'There are no prodigies in literature."

We have the greatest admiration for Robbins, who is reputed to be a painstaking craftsman—he can spend an entire day perfecting a single sentence—and who published his debut novel in his 30's. But on this point we disagree. For we believe that in literature, as in other arts, prodigies do occasionally appear. Consider Christopher Paolini. Consider this tween writer:

Nor is self-publishing by children a new phenomenon:

The self-styled Genius C. B. who edited this issue of the Young Mens Magazine in 1829 was, of course, Charlotte Bronte. Along with her siblings, she wrote and illustrated page after tiny page of youthful stories, plays, and poems, and stitched them into miniature magazines.

Granted, the Bronte juvenilia are curiosities that few read today. So it's fair to ask, of today's "hundreds" of new, parent-pubbed stories, how they'll be judged by actual readers. To answer that question, at least for ourselves, we sampled the work of the six young authors featured in the Times article. And we found two whose writing piqued our interest.

Running Scared
By Mac Bowers
IUniverse, 2012
Poe thinks this isYA contemporary thriller

First sentence: That morning, on my first day in Mistle, Mom insisted on driving me to school.

Bowers is 15. Her sample struck us as comparable to many adult-authored genre ebooks we've sampled. It has better grammar and editing than quite a few. The sample quickly builds the mystery and hints at romance, as any good genre novel should. The blurb could do a better job of hooking readers—it's so general it could apply to almost any thriller. (A blurb should tell us what makes this story different from every other story, Ms Bowers.) Still,

If you enjoy thrillers, then the sample should tell you whether you want to read this one.

The Last Dove:
The Trilogy of Aeir
By E. S. Hines
XLibris, 2012
Poe thinks this is younger YA fantasy

First sentences: Since the beginning of our races here on the isle of Aeir, we have had magic. Not parlor tricks, but real magic; the kind that allows a fully clothed man to turn into an animal of his choice and back into a human being, to Change.

This high school junior writes with a lyrical voice perfect for painting her unusual world. In Aeir, the choice of which animal to become is passed down through generations, creating competitive tribes who specialize in certain skills—the Otters are boatbuilders; the Wolves, warriors; the Swans, musicians. Only the Doves "loved freely and married whomever they wished," weakening their blood lines and diminishing their special skill--peacemaking. This has thrown Aeir into turmoil. An intriguing premise.

If you enjoy animal fantasy, then check out her sample.

It's curious that the Times column doesn't actually critique the writing itself. Rather, the article's focus is the concern expressed by those who "see the blurring of the line between publishing and self-publishing as a lost opportunity to teach children about adversity and perseverance."

Adversity and perseverance. Really? Is this what people believe? That writing and reading should be work for kids, not fun? That writing should never provide easy gratification? That kids who enjoy writing should be taught early on just how difficult and discouraging the publishing world can be?

That's not what we think. In fact, we're not convinced that it hurts kids at all when a parent enables them to self-publish.

After all, being "published" is never the final affirmation. Connecting with readers is. One publisher of kid-written stories says that "When the kids get the box of books with their name on it . . . they're like little rock stars." True; it feels terrific to be published. But not nearly as good as when total strangers buy your story, and beg for another.

There's another reason not to fight this new trend. It can't be done! Kids know this, even if older folks don't. You don't need Dad's money to make your story "real." All you need is determination and access to the Web. (Had the Net existed in 1829, do you think the Brontes would have settled for swapping miniature hand-written magazines with their siblings?)

All right. We've said our say. What do you think?

Susan Chapek collaborated with SC Poe on today's column.

NOTE. Bronte images (MS Lowell 1. Bequest of Amy Lowell, 1925) are used with permission of the Houghton Library, Harvard University. Click here to see more images.


  1. Maybe the issue is with parents buying their kids way to everything?
    If you’ve experienced the incredible résumé-padding teens are encouraged to do when strategizing college-applications, and the number of come-ons from marketers who, for thousands of dollars, will make your kids seem like they were on a mission to negotiate peace with world leaders, you’ll know what the problem is. Our family stayed clear of this and hopefully taught our kids real values.
    Doing real great work is not easy. It’s immensely satisfying, but it isn’t facile-‘fun.’
    {Oh, and yes- there have been *some* good writers who published when they were young.}

  2. Hmm, interesting. But your example is perhaps extreme, and seems to imply some borderline cheating--the college app coach you describe is actually making the kid "seem" better than he/she really is. We don't *think* any of the families featured in the Times article hired ghost-writers or materially altered the kids' writing to make it "seem" more professional.

  3. The mother of Elizabeth Hines worried that her self-published daughter (The Last Dove, $22.99) would be criticized. But consumers who are being asked to pay for your work have a right to third-party reviews to help judge its value. Simple as that, Mom.