As Hollywood scours the literary world for the next big screen adaptation with franchise potential, studios may want to start paying attention to another pool of authors to borrow from. We recently spotted an article in the New York Times about young writers — many scribes under the age of 18 — that have been seeking untraditional ways to share their written word with the world. It seems that self-publishing companies — outlets already increasingly popular with adult authors — are inspiring more children and teens to sell their tomes online, allowing them to “bypass the traditional gatekeeping system for determining who can call himself a ‘published author.'” Some writers are scoffing at the idea. Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’ Tom Robbins told the Times, “There are no prodigies in literature. Literature requires experience, in a way that mathematics and music do not.” We wanted to see if he was right, and decided to look back in history at several child and teen authors past the break. If there’s a young author you appreciate that we didn’t include, let us know below.
Most likely the first author that came to mind when you saw our article was Anne Frank. She never lived to see her story achieve international fame, however. The Dutch-written diary Frank kept about her everyday experiences while hiding with her family for two years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands was published posthumously. She started recording her experiences shortly after her 13th birthday. Eventually Frank and her family were discovered and sent to the concentration camps in Germany where the young writer died from typhus in 1945. The only survivor was Frank’s father who returned to Amsterdam after the war and discovered her diaries had been saved. The thoughtful, wise, and moving commentary on war and human life — something Eleanor Roosevelt praised Frank’s book for — was published in 1947 and eventually translated to English for a 1952 publication.
English writer Thomas Chatterton was an 18th century child genius who was prone to fits of fantasy, solitude, and peculiar behavior even as a young boy. He began writing poetry, letters, and satirical works that were published in local journals before he was 12-years-old. Eventually he left his family’s attic — where he would lock himself away all day writing — and moved to London where he started to go broke, being paid a pittance for his operas, political writings, and poems. Chatterton committed suicide at just 17-years-old, poisoning himself with arsenic. The young author’s works were controversial in that he was accused of forging several of his poems, though many texts released since that time have accounted for his genuine talents.
You may have recently watched Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe in theaters starring in Hammer Films’ new chiller The Woman Black . The film is based on Susan Hill’s 1983 gothic ghost story of the same name, but before Hill was penning haunt tales, she was 15-years-old and writing about a middle-aged couple’s relationship. The Enclosure’s sexual content created a controversy, causing papers like the Daily Express to run headlines that screamed: “Schoolgirl writes sex novel!” Her early success provided further opportunities to explore the minds and emotions of her characters in a relatable way, something she’s still adept at doing.
English author Daisy Ashford was only 4-years-old when she wrote her first story. It wasn’t published until 1983. A similar thing happened with Ashford’s more popular book, The Young Visiters, which was published in 1919. The novel centered on England’s 19th century society life. In her thirties, Ashford rediscovered the manuscript and shared it with a friend, not realizing it would eventually make its way into the hands of a publisher who adored the work. It became an instant success and was printed preserving the young author’s punctuation and spelling errors, with each chapter maintained as a single paragraph. Peter Pan creator J. M. Barrie wrote the story’s introduction, which led to rumors that the naïve work was really his. Ashford also became a kind of proto-meme when her name was used during the 1920s to criticize authors who wrote in a childish manner.
John Kennedy Toole
Troubled scribe John Kennedy Toole achieved widespread fame for his posthumously published novel A Confederacy of Dunces. Before the southern novelist wrote his popular New Orleans tale, however, he penned what he called a “grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South.” Toole’s The Neon Bible was written when he was only 16-years-old, but wasn’t published until after his death in 1989. Sadly its release was mired in a weird legal battle with Toole’s family (for what seems to be solely for money), but that may have suited Toole fine since he wasn’t fond of the story. It’s since been adapted several times and has provided a look into the young mind of one of literature’s more complex figures.
Maureen Daly’s 1942 novel Seventeenth Summer is credited with establishing the young adult genre. The author started writing the book when she was only 17-years-old, but it wasn’t published until several years later. The story centers on a teenage romance and deals with a young woman coming to grips with all the emotions the relationship stirs. The book talks about teen lifestyle issues like sex and drinking, which made it controversial and groundbreaking for its time. Seventeenth Summer made Daly an award-winning author while she was still a high school student.
We’ve mainly explored fictional works by child and teen authors, but kid writers have also broken into the self-help industry with enormous success. Alec Greven’s How to Talk to Girls made the then nine-year-old a New York Times bestselling author. The story was featured just about everywhere you can possibly imagine, including the talk show circuit. The elementary school student wrote the advice book after watching boys on the playground get shot down by their female classmates. “I saw boys having trouble getting girls to like them, getting ditched and getting all miserable and everything, so I wanted to write a book that helped them,” he shared during a 2008 interview. A few tips from the book include “Comb your hair and don’t wear sweats,” and “Don’t act desperate.” He eventually followed up with How to Talk to Moms, How to Talk to Dads, How to Talk to Santa, and Rules for School.
Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain were fans of Scottish scribe Marjorie Fleming who became a published child author. Sadly she died at only eight-years-old and never lived to enjoy her success. She began journaling under the tutelage of her cousin, was an avid reader, created multiple poems, and became a celebrated writer during the Victorian period. Fellow Scot Stevenson said of Fleming, “Marjory Fleming was possibly — no, I take back possibly — she was one of the noblest works of God.” Her writing — an early model of a female author finding her voice — has been preserved at the Internet Archives.
Party girl novelist Françoise Sagan wrote about characters that often mimicked her own life: worldly, disillusioned, fashionable, and self-destructive. Her 1954 story Bonjour Tristesse — which followed a troubled bourgeois family on the French Riviera — was published when she was still a teenager and became an instant success. In 1956 Sagan told the Paris Review, “I simply started [Bonjour Tristesse]. I had a strong desire to write and some free time. I said to myself, ‘This is the sort of enterprise very, very few girls of my age devote themselves to.’ … Instead of leaving for Chile with a band of gangsters, one stays in Paris and writes a novel. That seems to me the great adventure.”
Later this month, the UK will be seeing one of French actor Vincent Cassel’s newest screen projects, Dominik Moll’s The Monk . The story is adapted from teen novelist Matthew Gregory Lewis’ 1796 book of the same name. The gothic tale was written in just 10 weeks and was a challenging read, containing overlapping stories of violence, incest, and obsession. Although the novel could have easily called the author’s morality into question, Lewis was accepted into the ranks of high society thanks to his successful, dark, and tragic work. The writer apparently also hung out with another celebrated young author, Mary Shelley.