Demystifying child prodigies.

Keeping an eye on kids and parents.
July 12 2004 4:00 PM

Wordbound

Child writers break into print.

J.K. Rowling has been credited with getting a generation of kids (even boys!) to become more enthusiastic readers, but has anyone remarked on her other feat? The catalyst of a fantasy renaissance, she's the unmistakable force behind a boomlet in precociously youthful (and successful) writers. This year a teenage word-wizard has overtaken Harry Potter on the New York Times children's books best-seller list: Christopher Paolini's epic-fantasy Eragon, written when he was 15, is now in the top spot. Meanwhile, Flavia Bujor's The Prophecy of the Stones—a best-seller in France and Germany in 2002, the year she turned 14—has been sold to 20 publishers; one of them is Miramax, which printed 65,000 copies in April. Last month, the national media covered the death at 13 of one of America's best-selling poets—an invalid named Mattie Stepanek, who broke into print at 11 with fanciful meditations on his dead brother, angel-wings, hope, peace, and other "special things," work he'd been composing since he was three. His five Heartsongs volumes have sold more than half a million copies, and his funeral was packed.

In the realm of child prodigies, young writers have historically been a source of special curiosity. That's not just because they're a rarity in the ranks of recognized child marvels, though they are; they're easily outnumbered by whizzes in the more formally structured fields of music, math, chess, and now computers, where clear levels of expertise and standards of excellence prevail (and life experience isn't crucial). It's also because, compared to their wonkier counterparts, they're harder to pigeonhole as awe-inspiring cases of pre-wired wunderkinder. How much of the literary impulse is innate, and how much is imitative? What's naive insight, and what counts as real wisdom, and who's judging? In prompting questions like these, creative-writing prodigies force us to focus not just on the mysteries of natural genius, but also on the cultural genesis and uses (and abuses) of precocity. These days you don't need to have, or be, a bona fide prodigy to find that topic unusually relevant. Rearing children in the shadow of the current "superkid" ideal is enough to stir up confusions in the whole family: Are kids flowering thanks to all the intensive enrichment (Baby Einstein videos are only the start), or is childhood disappearing under the pressure of fast-track expectations?

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An earlier vogue in young literary virtuosos made headlines back in the edgy 1920s, amid generational and cultural ferment. Curiosity about the underage authors quickly turned into controversy. The Young Visiters (subtitled Or, Mr. Salteena's Plan), a novel originally written in 1890 by a 9-year-old named Daisy Ashford, had been unearthed and published with fanfare in England in 1919. It soon appeared in the United States, and a flurry of poetic precocity followed. Most notable were several collections of poems by a Brooklyn girl named Nathalia Crane, who made her debut, Janitor's Boy and Other Poems, in 1924 at 10. What was uncanny about Crane's poetry, as about Ashford's novel, was how unchildlike much of it was.

Both Nathalia and Daisy, whose Mr. Salteena plots to become a gentleman, lit on topics that were considered way over the heads of children (certainly in those days)—not least, social class and sex. They treated them with a satiric edge that seemed unwittingly keen, coming from two girl writers still in pinafores. (The teenage Jane Austen's work showed how comically caustic about romance and social rank she could be, but she was older.) Their work sparked debates not just about literary quality, but about authenticity. In the legendary tradition of Thomas Chatterton, the 18th-century child poet accused of forgery, Ashford's book was ascribed by some to J.M. Barrie, who wrote an introduction to it; there were charges that Crane's work was a hoax. And, predictably, their lives came under scrutiny. Ashford had grown up to become a mere secretary, and Crane's father was her big booster, which served as fodder for classic fears about a dark side to child prodigies: overbearing families and bleak futures.

It's not hard to detect underlying jitters about jaded children and unscrupulous adults in the reception of precocious literary talent three-quarters of a century ago—jitters that have only intensified today. But you won't find anyone giving the current crop of child writers a rough time. Quite the contrary: They've been welcomed with open arms, just the kind of junior wonders to soothe our fears about the "hurried child." Soaring to the top of the charts (and in the case of Stepanek, marketed more to adults), they and their quest fantasies send a reassuring message that childhood hasn't been eroded after all. Instead, it's enjoying wholesome crossover appeal.

Other whiz kids can't match them for cozy allure. Math talents tend to be viewed as weird (in this country, at any rate, Steve Olson notes in his recent book Count Down, a fascinating portrait of the U.S. team of high-schoolers at the 2001 International Mathematical Olympiad). Sports phenoms—like Freddy Adu or LeBron James—have a worldly taint, thanks to too much money, publicity, and the ruthless Svengalis behind their careers. But young fantasy writers are bookish word-lovers—no small feat in a plugged-in generation and one their elders can not only appreciate but imaginatively abet. (Rowling readers, after all, come in all ages and sizes.)

These publishing sensations haven't been cast as disconcerting upstarts, either eerily pure or inexplicably astute, mystifying to adults. Instead, they fit a more domesticated profile of industrious protégés—by their own accounts, not just their publicists' portrayals. It's not every day that you get a child's-eye view of precocious giftedness (no doubt partly because prodigies tend to clump in nonverbal domains). But the main theme of the young literary lights of the Rowling era is, what else, the maturation of youths who are more than ordinary Muggles—in other words, the prodigy's story of coming to terms with unusual powers and expectations. What's striking is their emphasis on the crucial assistance of grownups in the process: Sui generis child genius, effortlessly emerging, isn't part of the message. Remember your parents "who sacrificed themselves for you," the heroines of Flavia Bujor's fantasy are exhorted. Mattie Stepanek, miraculously brave in the face of a rare form of muscular dystrophy, dwells on his debt to the mentor/mediators (not least his mother) without whom his words would not have spread.

Such a tamed-down notion of child talent can encourage sentimentality—and indeed, Bujor's tale of three girls equipped with magic jewels reads a little like Harry Potter meets Hello Kitty, and chicken-soup-style uplift echoes in Stepanek's lines. Still, the time is ripe for a dose of demystification. The truth is that youthful talent rarely flowers without adult tutoring. Behind almost every young miracle there's a mentor, guiding but also sometimes goading, given how much hard work it takes to realize even (or especially) great gifts.

Christopher Paolini's Eragon, which is riveting, gets it right. The deeply rewarding bond between his hero Eragon and the aging wise man Brom (who believes in practice, practice, practice) is fraught with frustration—for both of them. It's tempting to suspect that the Montana homeschooler whose epic became a family project (Paolini's parents first published and helped market it) is writing from experience. That's not to imply some dark story behind the media portrait of bucolic solidarity on the Paolini home front; it's only to inject a note of reality and to suggest a good augury for Part 2 of now 19-year-old Paolini's trilogy. Prodigies thrive on studiously tailored solicitude, but the record suggests that perfect family harmony isn't generally the secret to mature creativity.

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