Literature by and for Youngsters. Merlyn's Pen magazine spreads magic of kids' creative writing and art. PUBLISHING
EAST GREENWICH, R.I. — IF you want to find out what 10-to-14 year-olds really think, read Merlyn's Pen, a magazine devoted to the writing of young people. It's all there: stories about kids who get beaten up by the school bully (and take revenge), having to choose between a friend and a gang, parents' divorce, being disgusted with friends who are using girls, fear of dropping the ball, time travel, monsters. While the magazine can be seen as a window to their innermost feelings, it's not meant to be an angst-filled confessional. Merlyn's Pen is literature for youngsters, by youngsters.
Today, 14,000 students in 3,600 schools read it. And the Parents' Choice Foundation has given the magazine its Gold Award for Magazine Excellence three years in a row.
``Of all the magazines that publish work by children, I thought it was the best one,'' says Gail Pool, a magazine critic and Parents' Choice judge. ``They get work that is very high quality, and it's genuine.''
It was started by English teacher Jim Stahl, who five years ago was teaching at the American International School in Vienna. He found his students' writing so exemplary he felt it should be published. To his dismay, no American publisher would touch it. Out of his desire to provide a literary home for young writers was born Merlyn's Pen.
Each issue of the magazine has a photograph or illustration on the cover by a student and is filled with stories, poems, plays, parodies, artwork, reviews, and puzzles. There's a place for students to comment and critique one another's work.
Designed for the classroom, the magazine includes an activity guide for teachers. When he first started the magazine, Mr. Stahl envisioned it as a place where students could secretly send their writing, without teacher or parent involvement. Now, he says, ``We rely on teachers having a strong hand in guiding the student toward submission.''
``My teacher really helped,'' says 11th grader Lori Betourne, whose story ``Christmas and the Sears Catalog'' was published in December. ``She's really big on Merlyn's Pen. One other guy in my class gets published and it was really a prestigious honor to get selected. Writing is a big part of my life. I've started being more serious about creative writing and getting it printed.''
The editor and publisher himself started out as an ``awkward'' English student. ``I have empathy for kids having trouble,'' says Stahl. The reason: the writer models were all adults.
``I'd like to help change the paradigm that governs the teaching of English right now,'' he says. ``Introducing students to literature by young adults for young adults gives them a foothold in the world of literature that is their own. Let them explore, enjoy, feel at home there. Then introduce them to adult literature. Students seeing students in print can come to see themselves as authors.''
That translates into more interest in the techniques of writing. ``The kids begin to recognize style and voice in writers,'' says Linda Rief, whose seventh and eighth graders at Oyster River Middle School in Durham, N.H., read and use Merlyn's Pen.
``They recognize different genres; what are the criteria for a piece of science fiction, or an effective piece of poetry. It's one of first places where kids can see that poetry doesn't have to rhyme, that there are other things that go into it besides formulas,'' says Ms. Rief.
The magazine receives between 3,000 and 5,000 submissions a year, which are read by 15 free-lance editors, many of them teachers Stahl has worked with. Only 2 percent of the manuscripts are published. But, says Stahl, every submission gets a personal response from an editor.
``Whether he's publishing a piece or just responding, he makes students feel that there is an audience that really wants to hear what they have to say,'' says Ms. Rief.
The students clearly write about subjects that are important to them. Often that means death. ``Oh, boy!'' says Stahl, shaking his head. ``Death's a hot topic. In at least five out of the 15 magazines, I've found myself apologizing for the amount of serious, heavy literature. I suppose it's a sociological commentary to make here; what does it say when the best writers of a specific generation choose to write about very heavy topics?''
This forces the small magazine to confront major publishing issues. ``We don't censor anything,'' he says, ``but we question if we choose to publish a brilliant story in which suicide is the topic and the story is overwhelmingly powerful, are we doing our readers a service or disservice by publishing it?''
At one point the editors and he dreamed up a ``Make Us Laugh Contest'' with a $50 prize, to leaven the mix. They received 100 entries. The usual payment is three copies of the issue it appeared in and the indispensable writer's' tool, ``The Elements of Style,'' the classic by William Strunk and E.B.White.
Not all the work is weighty. There's a story called ``Goldilocks vs. the Three Bears'' that starts, ``Ladies and gentlemen of the court: For the last few centuries you have heard only one side in the case of Goldilocks and the Three Bears....'' (Daniel Palumbo, 8th grade, Bayonne, N.J.).
``The students choose things they care about a great deal - I hear their voices in there,'' says Ms. Pool. ``Some of the children's magazines seem overly polished.'' Stahl says the staff feels it's important to keep the writer's voice alive, so the editors don't whisk out every extraneous adjective.
But each published story is revised at least once, and editors give a toll-free number to students to discuss changes. ``When you have the real-life goal of publication to shoot for, revision becomes meaningful,'' says Stahl.
The writing is not representative of society as a whole. Most of it is by middle-class whites, many of whom are in the gifted and talented programs in schools that can afford subscriptions to the magazine. Stahl would like to see more pieces by minority youths, but says that Merlyn's Pen, still in the red after four years, can't yet afford scholarships.
Stahl is setting up a Patron of Language Arts program that will enlist corporate sponsors as subscription donors for entire schools or school districts.
The magazine has broadened the horizons for some of its young contributors. Several have gone on to publish elsewhere. Miss Betourne was selected for a state writing contest; Amity Gaige, of Reading, Pa., has been recommended for other projects. ``Today I got a letter from a school in Massachusetts that would like to reprint the poem that Merlyn's Pen printed,'' says Miss Gaige.
The magazine is also creating bridges between countries. A few weeks after Merlyn's Pen published a poem about Hiroshima, it received a letter from a classroom in a small West German town. ``[The students] said they were moved by it,'' Stahl says, ``and asked things like, `What did you mean by this image? Some of us thought you meant this, others thought you meant that.'' To encourage this kind of interchange, Merlyn's Pen republished the poem, the letter from the West German class, and the poet's answer, which encouraged further communication.
For more information, contact Merlyn's Pen, 98 Main St., East Greenwich, R.I. 02818, or call 800-247-2027.
Merlyn's Pen, a magazine for young writers, reads and publishes work by students 12 to 16 (US Grades 7-10), not 10 to 14, as stated in Monday's daily Monitor.