When the very young write that first big book

At the age of 18, when many young people barely have a career path let alone a full vision of themselves and the world, Nigerian-born British author Helen Oyeyemi wrote a novel called "The Icarus Girl."

Today, two years later, the newly published tale of a troubled 8-year-old girl is being called "an astonishing achievement" by critics who are already comparing the young Ms. Oyeyemi to literary greats two and three times her age.

Noting her youth, some reviewers are using the word "precocious" to describe Oyeyemi. But they can't call her something else - the first young author to make it big.

In fact, Oyeyemi has joined a short but prestigious list of teen novelists that extends back nearly two centuries, from 19-year-old Mary Shelley and "Frankenstein" to today's Christopher Paolini, whose "Eragon" fantasy series, begun when he was 15, has fans almost as devoted as those of the Harry Potter books.

It's not a frequent occurrence but it has happened in different places and at different times: A teenager arrives, seemingly out of nowhere, with a blockbuster book.

But a youthful sensation doesn't always translate into a distinguished literary career. For many teen authors, that first book proves a hard act to follow. Some never again meet with the kind of praise critics heaped upon their first offerings.

Perhaps that should not come as a surprise. Writing a great book before the age of 20 is an accomplishment so extraordinary that some adults struggle to understand how it's even possible. They wonder how one so young can manage to write with authority in an original voice.

Originality is especially difficult because teenagers tend to learn writing by copying the styles of others, says Adam Potkay, professor of English at the College of William & Mary in Virginia. "Anybody who's taught creative writing in high school knows that people tend to find a model and imitate it."

Sometimes young authors are accused of getting help from adults. Shelley, for example, was surrounded by 19th- century intellectuals who seemed perfect suspects for overenthusiastic mentoring.

Often, though, there is a natural roughness to books by teen authors, including Shelley's, that provides a clue that they're indeed the products of young minds.

" 'Frankenstein' is not a polished work. It's clunky and slapdash at times," Mr. Potkay says. "It's no less powerful and fascinating, but there's something that's not perfectly ripe in it."

Centuries ago, children were seen as either pure vessels or miniature adults. Today, Western cultures tend to view adolescence as a tumultuous time when innocence is often lost, and modern teen authors reflect that.

Oyeyemi's protagonist, Jessamy, is the bright but disturbed child of a British father and a Nigerian mother. She is given to violent tantrums and has few friends. On a trip to Nigeria she meets TillyTilly, a barefoot girl only she can see. At first TillyTilly's friendship seems to help Jessamy, but later she becomes a more complex presence in Jessamy's life.

At 16, S.E. Hinton also wrote of the struggle to fit in. Her novel about "greasers" and "socs," "The Outsiders," is still a mainstay of middle- and high-school literature classes nearly 40 years after its release. Ms. Hinton never reached the heights of "The Outsiders" again, although several of her novels were made into movies and she continues to write today.

The prospects of one-hit-wonderdom for Oyeyemi, author of "The Icarus Girl," are unclear, of course. Now 20 years old, she is attending university in Britain and has a two-book novel deal worth a reported $700,000.

It may be easier than ever for others to follow in Oyeyemi's footsteps. Today's publishers are eager to work with teen authors because they want to reach younger readers, says Timothy Harper, who wrote "Your Name in Print: A Teen's Guide to Publishing for Fun, Profit and Academic Success" with his teenage daughter. "Giving [teens] stuff that they want, that's being produced by their peers, is a big step in the right direction."

Literary success at a tender age

S.E. Hinton


"The Outsiders" (1967)

Written when she was 16

Joyce Maynard


"An Eighteen Year Old Looks Back On Life" (1972)

Published when she was 19

Helen Oyeyemi

Nigeria/ England

"The Icarus Girl" (2005)

Written when she was 18

Christopher Paolini


"Eragon" (2003)

Begun when he was 15

Françoise Sagan


"Bonjour tristesse" (1954)

Published when she was 19

Mary Shelley


"Frankenstein" (1818)

Written when she was 19

Source: Monitor staff

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