A funny thing about fantasy: it’s often derided as kids’ stuff, yet it’s so often the work of older people. Tolkien was in his ’60s when The Lord of the Rings was first published, C.S. Lewis in his 50s by the time he wrote The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and George R. R. Martin the same when A Game of Thrones was first unleashed. Hell, J.K. Rowling seems positively newborn for publishing the first Harry Potter novel at 32. But Christopher Paolini takes the cake: his novel Eragon, an epic about dragons and knights and swords and prophecies, became a smash hit when he was 19, securing Paolini a Guinness World Record for being the youngest author of bestselling books. The plucky, precocious Paolini completed three successful sequels in what became the Inheritance Cycle, and Eragon was turned into a Hollywood film—now that’s some real fantasy shit.
The origins of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein are almost as famous as the monster she brought (back) to life: in 1816 Mary Godwin and her lover Percy Shelley spent the summer in Geneva with Lord Byron and his pregnant mistress, Clare Clairmont. Upon Byron’s suggestion that they each conceive of a ghost story, 19-year-old Mary, recalling Luigi Galvani’s recent experiments with electrically forcing the muscles of corpses to twitch and contort, wondered about the possibility of re-animating a whole body, effectively bringing the dead back to life. Her idea gave her the inspiration for Frankenstein and gave the world the foundation of modern science fiction.
A Season in Hell & Illuminations
Although the date of the composition of Illuminations is inexact—sometime between 1872 and 1874—the French poet Arthur Rimbaud stopped writing completely in his early 20s and died in his 30s. His most productive period was in his teens, and the specific inspiration for Illuminations was Paul Verlaine, Rimbaud’s lover, with whom Rimbaud had a tempestuous relationship that ended in 1874. Although Rimbaud’s only published book in his life was his prose-poem “A Season in Hell,” Illuminations is a more versatile accomplishment. His collection of 42 poems has stood the test of time, and Rimbaud’s myriad gifts, under such control for a teenaged boy, are on full display.
The Early Stories of Truman Capote
Truman Capote loved talking about his own gifts as a writer, and in fact presented his development as a deliberate process that went exactly as he planned it. Though we may remain skeptical of the veracity of such a claim, the stories from Capote’s “first phase” of short story writing—discovered in 2013 in the New York Public Library Archives—when he was a teenager attest to Capote’s assessment of his early efforts, and, moreover, contain many of the qualities for which his later fiction and nonfiction would earn worldwide acclaim. Also, the book features a fantastic introduction by Hilton Als, the New Yorker critic and author of White Girls, which, for my money, is totally worth the cover price alone.
The Outsiders 50th Anniversary Edition
S. E. Hinton
Hinton was 16 when she wrote this timeless classic about Ponyboy and his friends, and the rivalry between teenage gangs that leads to violence. First published in 1967 and eventually adapted into a film directed by Francis Ford Coppola, The Outsiders was an important novel in the development and establishment of the YA genre—that is, literary fiction aimed at or at least that includes in its demographic teens.
The Icarus Girl
An 8-year-old girl who has difficulty making friends meets TillyTilly while visiting Nigeria. At first, Jess is thrilled to have someone to talk to and play with, but soon it becomes apparent that TillyTilly isn’t quite what Jess thought she was. Based in Nigerian mythology and published when she was 20, Oyeyemi’s The Icarus Girl forecasted the novelist’s so far remarkable career, with her most recent novel Gingerbread receiving, like all her work, rave reviews.
The Diary of a Young Girl
First published in 1947, Anne Frank’s diary has become the most recognized and horrifying evidence of the Holocaust. But it’s sometimes hard to remember that the writer of these gorgeous words, unbelievably wise sentiments, and resolute conviction was 13 when she wrote them, and under incredible duress and terror. When one thinks of oneself at 13, how frivolous we were and how carefree, it is shocking to compare that to the bravery and intelligence of Anne Frank, who accomplished more in her short years (though tragically she never knew it) than most of us would in multiple lifetimes.
My Brilliant Career
An Australian and feminist response to Jane Eyre, Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, which she began when she only 16, tells the story of a young woman’s coming of age in New South Wales. A frank and bracingly honest novel, the book was so controversial upon its initial publication that Franklin withdrew the book from publication until a decade after she died.
Nearly every season, the literary world is introduced to some wunderkind writer who, at some wildly young age like 21 or 22, has crafted a debut novel that is wise way beyond its fresh-faced author’s years. The attention placed on their books has as much to do with the novelty of precocity as it does with the merit of the work, if only because most of us, having lived through our early 20s without producing a masterpiece, know how difficult such a feat is to accomplish. Moreover, many readers enter into these highly extolled books almost suspicious of such quickly realized talent, so that the impassioned responses are drastically polarized.
The fact is, a book written by a very young author is noteworthy, no matter whether it’s commended as a rare event or condemned as a fraud. We are always on the lookout for prodigies and virtuosos. Some of us had, at one time in our lives, imagined that we might be touted by the establishment as a brilliant yet unbelievably young star, and have watched with varying degrees of resentment and jealousy those who are ballyhooed in our stead. Still others, mindful of history, dream of one day discovering their generation’s Shakespeare, an undeniable artist on whom all subsequent creative efforts are compared. We all have our reasons.
But something else is often true: many writers presented as wunderkinds do not maintain a long career, or whatever potential was observed in that first book somehow dissipates with time. So I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some books written by incredibly young writers—teenagers, in fact—but also ones whose potential wasn’t tenuous or an ephemeral stroke of luck, but a sign of the virtuosity to come.
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