Saturday, May 30, 2015


Eragon. The Outsiders. The Diary of a Young Girl. All three books, classics in their genres, were written by teenagers. While electronic publishing and purchasing has revolutionized the book industry, the trend toward democratic publishing—if it’s good, it’s good—has also meant that an increasing number of ultra-talented young writers have emerged as published authors.

We at Why Not Books are particularly proud of our prodigy. We didn’t allow ourselves abnormally high expectations upon publishing (in 2012) 11-year-old Luke Herzog’s Dragon Valley—his 200-page fantasy novel about five baby dragons spawned in a laboratory, who are set free in a magical valley and navigate the evolution of themselves and their home over the next thousand years (there’s even a map and an extensive character glossary). Sure, children’s authors like Newbery Award-winner Kwame Alexander compared him to a young Rick Riordan, but we wondered: How would young readers react to a young writer?

Then we began to fulfill book orders from all over the country, and Luke started to receive emails from kids… It’s my favorite book. I’ve read it five times… I did a book report about it for school… I made a sculpture of Blue, the water dragon. Here’s a photoCan’t wait for the sequel… All the while, he was busy writing his second novel, a fantastic fantasy tale called Griffin Blade and the BronzeFinger, the story of a good-hearted rogue who learns—during an epic journey of adventure and redemption—that his attempt to retrieve a personal treasure brings him something far more valuable.

So let’s celebrate the imagination—and sometimes, the off-the-charts talent—of youth by listing some of the most precocious publishing performances in history. To make this list, you must have been published while you’re still a teenager, sometimes far younger. So Bret Easton Ellis and Stephen Crane and Mary Shelley, all of whom first published novels at age 21? Far too old.

Starting with the most recent book but eventually traveling all the way back to the mid-17th century, here are 30 books from 30 prodigies:

Friday, May 22, 2015


Great writing can be a slog—it may reek of natural talent, but it tends to be the product of musing and pacing and tweaking and editing and complaining and rearranging. And that’s all in one day. But if we were to search for the purest form of the written word—literature that comes from the heart, fully formed, organic—might we find in the simple act of letter writing? Not necessarily letter writing for posterity’s sake, but also for intimacy. A letter from a parent to a child.

In 2014, Why Not Books published the co-authored memoirs of the late Carolyn Goodman. She was the mother of slain civil rights volunteer Andy Goodman, who was infamously murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964. But one of my favorite passages from MyMantelpiece is a letter written by Andy’s father, Bobby Goodman, who somehow managed to be a civil engineer and a dazzling poet simultaneously. It was sent to his oldest son, Jonathan, when the boy was only a toddler in 1942. And it was mailed to New York City from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Bobby was temporarily overseeing a project. Carolyn loved it so much that she saved it for more than 60 years.

This is how the letter began:

Dear Jonathan,
Now that your vocabulary has reached the extensive proportions of many words and varied intonations, and the expression in your wonderful eyes so filled with your own particular meanings, I think it time we started to correspond with one another. I’ll write the first letter and you don’t, unless you wish to, have to answer until you’re off and away to college. And even then, should the press of higher learning consume too much of your time, I won’t mind if you don’t write me as much as I might wish, just so long as you still smile as you do now, and so long as you leap about the world with the joy of living, of discovering new things, of experimenting with your mind through the exciting maze of the world’s way. The important thing for both of us, Jonny, is to keep the spirit you now possess turned toward making the best of what we find around us, not by acquiescing to all things as they are because it is too difficult to mold them closer to our own desire, but by seeing our life as a constant struggle with complacency everywhere.

Damn, that engineer could write. And it makes me wish I had better utilized my passion for the written word—starting when my sons were born, maybe even a few months earlier. Letters as life lessons and legacy—that would have been nice. Alas, I was busy writing about other people, for other people. But thanks to Emily Temple, who compiled a list (at of some fascinating letters that iconic writers wrote to their children, I can be a sort of vicarious author-father.

Friday, May 15, 2015


When a writer is building a character, crafting a back story, or setting a scene, nothing is an accident. The character lugs around an oversized purse? Speaks with a slight lisp? Drives a VW bus? Is Canadian by birth? It’s all purposeful.

With that in mind, I decided to explore a specific example of the writer’s choice—choosing a college. A few years ago, I wrote a magazine feature about fictional references to Cornell University (in novels, short stories, stage plays, screenplays, and TV scripts). I figured it was a good piece for Cornell Alumni Magazine for three reasons: 1) It was fun research, 2) It was a fascinating journey through the potential reasons why a writer might inject such a specific college reference, and 3) Cornell seemed like the perfect tool for exploring the concept. Harvard? There are surely thousands of literary references. Fresno State? Maybe none. But Cornell holds that middle ground that makes it ripe for the picking.

In Behind Closed Doors by Shannon McKenna, for instance, a millionaire’s girlfriend is described thusly: “American citizen, degree from Cornell, summa cum laude, woo woo, smart cookie. Fluent in six languages, yada, yada…” But occasionally writers chide Cornell as the college that isn’t in Cambridge. In the short story “Jim the Man,” Herbert Gold writes, “As a student at Cornell, Jim had carried a green sack bulging with books because at Harvard they carried green sacks bulging with books.” And in the movie Stella, Stephen Collins’ character admits, “I had to fight with my parents to go to Cornell. They both went to Harvard and think Cornell is slumming it.”

Thursday, May 7, 2015


When we at Why Not Books were musing on the title of our beautifully illustrated (by award-winner Zachary Pullen) picture book about the sport-altering 1913 U.S. Open golf championship, we realized that this true story was even greater than the sum of its parts.

It wasn’t just about Francis Ouimet, the unknown amateur golfer who lived across from the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, taught himself how to play be sneaking onto the course, and qualified for the Open there against the world’s finest golfers. And it wasn’t just about Eddie Lowery, the four-foot-tall, 10-year-old kid who didn’t have a father at home, who idolized the 20-year-old Ouimet and offered to carry his bag. No, it was about the magical combination. Eddie calmed Francis down; Francis propped Eddie up. Together, they shocked the world in a story not about golf, but about hope, loyalty and a friendship that lasted half a century.

So we chose a title that conveyed the most compelling aspect of the story simply and succinctly: FRANCIS AND EDDIE.

And when it comes to books, we’re in heady company. Headier company. Some of literature’s finest masterpieces were couplings like ours—titles showing the power, if paired properly, of one simple word: And.