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 photo… Can’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:
1. Griffin Blade and the Bronze Finger (by Luke Herzog, 2015)
Fourteen-year-old Luke Herzog’s second fantasy novel, published by Why Not Books in 2014, is an epic tale set in the land of Alastian. Griffin Blade is a master thief, apparently orphaned years earlier, who steals a valuable gem on behalf of a shady character only to have it stolen from him by a man with only one defining characteristic—a finger made of bronze. Blade’s quest to find the man and the gem reveals that there is far more to both of them. He and his eventual traveling band of misfit companions—a dwarf, a dark elf, a minotaur, a djinn—become the central focus of a battle for power in Alastian. Along the way, Griffin Blade discovers the hero within and the truth about his own past.
2. Just Jake (by Jake Marcionette, 2014)
Publishers Weekly readers were treated to this bit of news in August 2013: “Penguin Young Readers Group's latest debut author is also one of its target readers: a 13-year-old boy. The division's Grosset & Dunlap imprint has inked Jake Marcionette to a two-book, North American rights deal for his middle-grade series, Just Jake. The first book in the series, about a sixth grader trying to establish his social life at a new school, is set for February 2014… Marcionette, who began the books when he was 12, writes about a boy named Jake Ali Mathews whose life is upended after his family moves from Florida to Maryland. In his new school, Jake struggles to start fresh, while also avoiding the local bully… PYRG plans to publish the second book in the series in February 2015, and has an option on the planned third title.”
3. Total Teen Adventure (by Tony Budolovic, 2010)
Tony Budolovic was born in 2000. He hates bugs, loves the Harry Potter series, sings pretty well—and writes books. He actually wrote his first, The Way to the Future, a book about dragons, ghosts, and potion shops, at age 6. At age 10, he published Total Teen Adventure, which was about character older than he—teenagers. In the 180-page novel, a group of teens find themselves taken from summer vacations and tricked into being part of a competition in which everything is secretly recorded on camera.
4. The Magnificent King of Pasta (by Jacob Shaw, 2009)
Ten-year-old Jacob Shaw weaved the tale of William, the orphaned son of mixed parentage—in the sense that his father was a wise welder, but his mother descended from villainous lineage. He wields a heap of magic and a deep conscience, as he attempts to save Pastaland from the evil Salastro. Just consider the description—from a fourth-grader: “The windows, skewed and rotated on their axis, were trimmed with a cheap glaze that could pass for gold leaf, contrasting with that pale blue, speckled paint that covered most of the rest of the house. The color scheme moderately mirrored that of a robin’s egg, if he were to have bred with the famous fairytale’s swan-who-lays-golden-eggs.”
Take a couple of dyslexic identical twins, give them matching writing skills and creativity, then be doubly impressed. By age 12, Brianna and Brittany Winner had finished their first novel, The Strand Prophecy. The following year, it reached national distribution through Barnes & Noble, and the Winners won a Benjamin Franklin Award for Best Adolescent Fiction. Before they even finished high school, they completed four novels (including the next two books in the Strand series), a guide to writing, a screenplay, and a comic book—and they started a nonprofit called Motivate 2 Learn, its aim being to inspired young readers and writers to overcome any obstacles in their way.
6. How to Talk to Girls (by Alec Greven, 2008)
He became a New York Times bestselling self-help author—at the age of nine. Alec has seen the error of his friends’ ways when they tried to talk to girls, so he told him (and thousands of other readers) how to do it. Ditch your sweatpants. Comb your hair. Don’t look desperate. He soon booked TV interviews with the likes of Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and Ellen DeGeneres, and he later wrote How to Talk to Moms, How to Talk to Dads, and How to Talk to Santa.
Nancy Yi Fan was born and raised in Beijing, but moved to Syracuse, New York, at age seven. As a sixth-grader, when she began to learn more about the September 11th terrorist attacks, she awoke from a vivid dream about birds and decided to sit down at her computer and write a manuscript that might somehow convey a message of peace. The result: Swordbird—about the bluejays and cardinals in Stone-Run Forest. It was eventually published by HarperCollins in 2008. First printing: 50,000 books. She followed that with a prequel, Sword Quest, and a third book, Sword Mountain. Currently, she attends Harvard University. She also has three pet birds.
8. Maradonia and the Seven Bridges (Gloria Tesch, 2007)
This young San Diegan started writing her first book when she was 10. She celebrated her 13th birthday with the publication of Maradonia and the Seven Bridges and Maradonia and the Escape from the Underworld. Over the next couple of years, she produced four more books in the series—Maradonia and the Gold of Ophir, Maradonia and the Dragon Riders, Maradonia and the Law of Blood, and Maradonia and the Battle for the Key.
9. Conspiracy of Calaspia (by Suresh and Jvoti Guptara, 2006)
They’re twins, born in 1988 to an Indian father and British mother in England. When they were 11, they wrote the first draft of Conspiracy of Calaspia, a fantasy novel about Bryn Bellyset (16-year-old heir to a drink empire who races to save Calaspia from an evil force thought to be extinct). By the time the twins were 17, it was a published bestseller. More than 70,000 copies are in print, and the book was the first in a trilogy known as the Insanity Saga. The twins are said to be now working on a second series.
10. Help Hope & Happiness (by Libby Rees, 2005)
When Libby Rees, a little British girl, was six years old, her parents split up. When she was 9, she wrote a 60-page book about it, Help Hope & Happiness, a self-help guide on how kids can cope with divorce. It was published a year later by Aultbea Publishing and has been translated into Dutch, Italian, Japanese, Taiwanese, and Mandarin. Aultbea signed her for two more books (a good portion of the money earned going, per her wishes, to Save The Children). Her second creation, At Sixes & Sevens, gives helpful hints for kids moving from primary to secondary school.
11. Heartsongs (by Mattie Stepanek, 2001)
Jimmy Carter gave his eulogy. Oprah Winfrey called him one of her most memorable guests. He lobbied for peace and people with disabilities on Capitol Hill. He has had foundations, scholarships, public parks, and special days named in his honor. His words have been put to music in Carnegie Hall. And he published five books of poetry—starting with Heartsongs when he was still a pre-teen. And all of this before he passed away just before his 14th birthday in 2004. Stepanek finally succumbed to a rare form of muscular dystrophy, the same disease that took his sister and two brothers in early childhood, but his message endures.
12. Eragon (by Christopher Paolini, 2000)
Paolini graduated from home-schooled high school at age 15 and started writing a book called Eragon, set in the mythical land of Alagaesia. His parents’ small publishing company published it in 2002 when their son was 18, and that summer the stepson of author Carl Hiaasen discovered the fantasy novel in a bookstore and loved it. The following year, Hiaasen’s publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, published a second edition. It became a New York Times bestseller and led to three more books in the Inheritance Cycle—Eldest, Brisingr, and Inheritance—which have sold in excess of 33 million copies. The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes Paolini as the youngest author of a bestselling series.
She was touted as the “teen successor to Anne Rice,” writing her first novel, the young adult vampire tale In the Forests of the Night, when she was 13. Random House published it two years later, in 1999, and she earned praise from everyone from Publishers Weekly to Rosie O’Donnell. Her next novel, Demon in my View, was published the following year and was an ALA Quick Pick for Young Readers. She wrote two more books in the vampire series over the next two years, then completed a critically acclaimed five-book series about shapeshifters, She returned to the original series, writing five more novels, and is now at work on a separate trilogy. Prolific prodigy.
14. French Fries Up Your Nose: 208 Ways to Annoy People (by Alden Nusser, 1995)
Maybe it’s the kind of book that should be written by a 12-year-old boy. Ninety-six pages, published in 1995 by Camelot, which describes it thusly: “An irrepressible 12-year-old author has compiled a funny, winning collection of annoying ways guaranteed to irritate and amuse at the same time. This outrageously witty book features memorable tips for being a pest in the car, at the dinner table, and when shopping for sneakers.”
15. The Neon Bible (by John Kennedy Toole, 1989)
Toole wrote The Neon Bible at the age of 16 in 1954. It is the tale of a boy named David who grows up in rural Mississippi in the mid-20th-century and discovers—through one strong memory per chapter—about racial, religious, social, and sexual bigotry. Toole couldn’t get it published. Then he wrote A Confederacy of Dunces, which again found difficulty navigating the publishing gauntlet. Toole committed suicide in 1969. His second book was published posthumously. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Eight years later, after much in-fighting between Toole’s mother and other relatives, The Neon Bible was published. In 1995, a film was released, based on the book.
16. My Book for Kids with Cansur (by Jason Gaes, 1987)
Jason Gaes, stricken with a rare form of cancer known as Burkitt’s lymphoma at the age of 7, decided to write a book about—about his successful two-year battle with the disease, about operations and radiation and chemotherapy, about how friends don’t laugh at baldness, about how parents can help and kids can cope. His twin brother, Tim, and older brother, 10-year-old Adam, illustrated it. In 1987, a company called Melius Peterson published it. The misspellings remain—“The spinals and bone mairos are bad no matter how far you count but they go faster if you curl up and try to relacks…”—which makes the book even more accessible. The subtitle: A Child’s Autobiography of Hope.
17. This Can’t Be Happening at MacDonald Hall (by Gordon Korman, 1978)
A seventh-grade English teacher required his students to write a novel during the school year, if you can imagine that. The assignment became the manuscript for young Gordon Korman’s first book, which was published by Scholastic Press in 1978. Korman eventually wrote six more books in the MacDonald Hall series and has gone on to be a prolific author of numerous book series (including several in the 39 Clues series). In all, he has sold more than 17 million books.
18. She was Nice to Mice (by Ally Sheedy, 1975)
Before she was famed actress Ally Sheedy (Breakfast Club), she made a TV appearance on “To Tell the Truth.” Why? Because she was Alexandra Elizabeth Sheedy, 12-year-old published author of a historical tale based on the life of England’s Queen Elizabeth I. The narrator is a little rodent who lives in Buckingham Palace and meets the queen and William Shakespeare, among others. It has been described as “the memoirs of a literary mouse.”
19. Looking Back: A Chronicle of Growing Up Old in the Sixties (Joyce Maynard, 1973)
Yes, a memoir by a teenager. But she was no ordinary 19-year-old. Maynard won a slew of writing prizes in high school and then was hired by New York Times Magazine to write “An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back on Life.” That led to a complimentary letter from 53-year-old J.D. Salinger, which led to two-dozen more letters, which led to an affair and finally co-habitation with the reclusive writer. Per his request, she didn’t mention him in her memoir, although she later got LOTS of attention when she broke her silence in her 1999 memoir Home in the World. She also put Salinger’s letters up for auction. They were purchased for $156,500. She has written several more books, including To Die For, which became a film starring Nicole Kidman.
20. Letters of Thanks (by Manghanita Kempadoo, 1969)
A dash of satire, a dollop of parody, and written by a 12-year-old West Indian girl. Kempadoo conceived the book as a series of increasingly desperate thank-you notes from Lady Huntington, which reflect her true feelings as her true love, Lord Gilbert, sends her increasingly outlandish gifts—the actual gifts from “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”
A classic. Read by middle schoolers in the 1980s and still in the 2010s. Susan Eloise Hinton began writing the coming-of-age novel about young gang members when she was 15. It took her about 18 months to complete it, and it was published in 1967, when she was 18. Hinton became a household name, although she was convinced to use a non-gender-specific pen name. The novel was adapted into a film starring the likes of Tom Cruise, Rob Lowe, and Matt Dillon, and it has sold more than 14 million copies.
22. How the World Began (by Dorothy Straight, 1964)
At the age of 4, little Dorothy wrote the book for her grandmother in 1962. Her parents loved it (no surprise), decided to seek out a publisher (somewhat of a surprise) and found one (big surprise). Pantheon Books published it in 1964. It’s now considered a rare book, simply because of the author’s record-setting age.
23. Arbre mon ami (by Minou Drouet, 1957)
By age 8, the little French girl was such a well-known poet that the writing community in France was buzzing about her. By age 9, someone else had published a book about her—L’Affaire Minou Drouet. By age 10, she herself was published. Over the next eight years, she toured as an author, as well as a piano player and guitarist. She also published three more books in that span. At age 21, she embarked on a career as a singer-songwriter and children’s novelist.
24. The Diary of a Young Girl (by Anne Frank, 1947)
An account of intimate and anguished thoughts, hopes and frustrations, purity amid persecution, it is arguably the most profound and respected publication by a young author. She wrote it as a young teenager (she received the diary on her 13th birthday) while confined to an attic, before her family was betrayed and Anne succumbed to typhus while in a concentration camp. But after the war her father, Otto, the only survivor of the family, found that her diary had been saved and saw to its publication in 1947. It has since been translated into more than 60 languages.
25. The Far-Distant Oxus (by Katharine Hull and Pamela Whitlock, 1937)
Hull was 14 and Whitlock 15 when the English schoolmates, while taking shelter from a rainstorm, decided to collaborate on a book for children and about children—and written by children (or at least adolescents). They wrote alternate chapters, and Whitlock added illustrations. One year later, in 1937, their book (it’s about ponies) was published, the title coming from a Matthew Arnold poem. Fidra Books reissued the novel seven decades later. As for the girls, they followed it up with two more books over the next two years.
26. The House Without Windows (by Barbara Newhall Follett, 1926)
Follett wrote her first novel at age 12, although she did receive help from her father, editor Wilson Follett. When she was 13, the book was published by Knopf, and she became famous. At 14, she published The Voyage of Norman D, which received more critical acclaim—at about the time her father abandoned her mother for another woman. Although she continued to write, she never published again. At age 25, depressed and unhappy in her marriage, she walked out of her apartment with $30 in her pocket. She was never seen again.
27. Poems by a Little Girl (by Hilda Conkling, 1920)
Starting at the age of 4, around when her father died, precocious little Hilda Conkling—the daughter of poet Grace Conkling—wrote her own poetry. Usually, she would recite it, and her mother would write it down. Soon it was being published in magazines like Good Housekeeping. At age 10, her first collection of poetry was published, followed by another collection two years later called Shoes of the Wind. Two years after that? A third collection: Silverhorn.
28. The Young Visiters (by Daisy Ashford, 1919)
Little Daisy finished the manuscript for this book—a novella about upper class 18th-century England—at age 9 in 1890. Twenty-nine years later, it was published, preserving her juvenile grammar and spelling—with an introduction by J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan. That’s a bit like a fourth-grader writing a book today—with a foreword from J.K. Rowling. Still, in the 1920s, Ashford’s name was sometimes referenced as a means of criticism for a naïve or childish style of writing, as when Edmund Wilson dismissed F. Scott Fizgerald’s This Side of Paradise as “a classic in a class with The Young Visiters.”
Mary Shelley (who wrote Frankenstein at age 21) may have been too old for this list, but not her husband. He never found renown in his lifetime, but posthumously he came to be admired by everyone from Robert Browning and Oscar Wilde to George Bernard Shaw and Upton Sinclair. Known for his poetry (including “Prometheus Unbound”), he actually published two Gothic novels (and two poetry collections) by the time he was 19 years old. In Zastrozzi, he expressed an atheistic worldview through the villain who lends his name to the book’s title.
30. Youth’s Behaviour (by Francis Hawkins, 1641)
You’d be hard-pressed to come up with an earlier literary prodigy. Hawkins was a 17th-century English Jesuit, son of a well-known grammarian and physician. At the age of 10, around the year 1639, he published a translation of An Alarum for Ladyes. A couple of years later, he published Youth’s Behaviour, or Decency in Conversation amongst Men, which went into several editions and was the kind of book taught in schools (young George Washington dutifully copied the rules).