Lylla Younes, of Alexandria, La.,grew up in a house filled with poetry. There were no poets at home, but her dad, Maan Younes, is an avid reader of poetry. Each Friday night and some Saturdays, he gathered Lylla, her brother Abraham, and his wife Sue to read poetry.
The words flowed forth and stuck with Lylla and Abraham, both of whom are now award-winning creative writers.
Lylla, 17, is now a National Student Poet appointed by the President's Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers. She and four other teens from across the nation were chosen from 8,000 applicants.
"I'm proud, but I'm humbled," said Lylla's mother, Mrs. Younes.
She talked in depth about Lylla's talent, and attributes it mainly to her family's love of the written word.
"I don't know where she gets it from," Mrs. Younes said. "My sister is a songwriter/singer. My late sister was a writer. But, we are big readers."
Mrs. Younes calls Lylla the "late bloomer" when it comes to writing, as it was Abraham who first received accolades. Two years ago, however, Lylla entered the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards program, which selects and brings to the forefront the winning National Student Poets. She won "silver" for a personal essay about her grandmother's battle with Alzheimer's. The award afforded her a trip to Carnegie Hall. This time, though, it was her poetry that got her the top prize.
"I've been applying to Scholastic since freshman year," Lylla said in a phone interview from her high school in New Mexico.
She knows a thing or two about persistence, or "stubbornness," as her mother said. She attends United World College, an advanced high school for students from 80 countries. She'd applied for admissions once before but didn't get in.
"She was fortunate to be stubborn enough, which she is, by the way, to apply again," Mrs. Younes said. "Everything (at the school) is more in-depth. She has two years of intense, advanced math, two years of intense chemistry and so on."
In-depth and intense suit Lylla just fine. Reading her poetry doesn't feel like reading high school poetry, either in subject matter or word choice.
Her poem "Billy," in which she mentions "Bobby Darrin in '55," something she obviously didn't live through, details the declining life of man.
"White Powder" catapults a reader from innocence to depravity within a handful of lines. It's the kind of writing that terrifies parents, Lylla's mother included.
From sidewalk chalk to cocaine, Lylla chronicles a life of addiction in just a few short verses.
"You think you know your own child, and then you read their writing and you know more than you ever knew before," Mrs. Younes said.
She had a moment of parental concern, but it was fleeting.
"Knowing Lylla, I guess I understand," Mrs. Younes said. "Lylla's a kid who went through a lot. She had scoliosis and had to wear a back brace. It was very, very difficult for her. She has empathy, and that shows in her writing.
That's something the Mr. and Mrs. Younes have instilled in their children from an early age. It was a nursing home where Lylla volunteered that she met the subject of "Billy." ''White Powder" came to be while Lylla volunteered as a tutor the Hope House in Alexandria. She was 15 years old when she wrote it.
"Just working at the Hope House and being in that area of the city and tutoring the little kids, I got to see such innocence that was clouded over by such darkness," Lylla said.
Cocaine use is something of which Lylla has no first-hand knowledge, but that doesn't mean she doesn't understand the implications of it.
"I think writers are the biggest liars, but they're also the biggest truth-seekers," Lylla said.
Though Lylla loves writing, she's a math and science person at heart. She said doesn't plan to major in English or creative writing because she doesn't want writing to lose its appeal. She has begun writing more recently, however.
"Writing is something that just came in bursts, which was not very often," Lylla said. "Just this week it started dawning on me that I'm writing more. Now I'm in class scribbling on the corner of my note pad."
Of course, she's having the high school experience of a lifetime, and being surrounded by brilliant, creative teenagers and the landscape of Albuquerque surely has something to do with a spike in Lylla's writing.
"People have this idea that writers are really dark people, and that kids who write are all goth and everything," Lylla said. "But, the kids I know who write, and the other kids who won [the] poetry award, are all really bubbly. A lot of kids, when they write, they try to make it too rich and too complicated. I did the same thing, but now I'm focusing on simplicity."