In the US, Little ‘Authors’ Write Their Own Books

A French reporter explores the odd and insular world of children’s literature written by children, asking if this is an example of training little entrepreneurs or yet another instance of American yuppies spoiling their children.

Finnoula is diligent. The seven year-old stands behind a small table in the immensity of a New York book fair, asking each person who stops at her booth, “What color?” Depending on the answer, she selects a felt-tipped pen out of her pencil case and, with great care, spells out the letters of her surname on the first page of her book.

Yes, her book.

Before reaching third grade, Finn has already published her second book, Cookies Cookies, and on this day in early June she is presenting it at the popular BookExpo America in Manhattan.

It might be worth noting that her publisher, Little Valley Books, is run by her mother, Stephanie Cahill. After spending twenty years in the book business, Cahill decided to specialize in publishing books written by children, a growing and diverse trend in the United States.

Cahill recalls how she first had the idea:

“Finn has always liked making books with stapled sheets of paper. One day, at the library, when she was only 5, she asked if her books also could be displayed on the shelves. I thought to myself: why not?”

Today, Little Valley Books is touring several young authors.

Christopher, nine years old, has come to the book fair with his mother Dawn. He signs copies of Marvin the Shark until they run out; he is totally comfortable with the publishing industry routine of book tours and promotions.

With his adorable smile, the boy even tells a version of a classic writer’s anecdote: “After I took a writing class at school, I wrote a bunch of books. I love to draw too. One day, I wrote this shark story because it is my friend’s favorite animal. I only found it much later, in the bottom of a drawer.”

Yes, the story of the long-lost and rediscovered manuscript that turns out to be a masterpiece! And even better, the last page of the adventures of Marvin introduces a new character: Max the Crab. The sequel is already being written.

Hard at work charming the rushed visitors of BookExpo, Christopher has to admit that this last-page trick was whispered to him by his mother. Because, of course, the children of Little Valley are edited like any other author. First by their parents, and then by Stephanie Cahill.

Crystal, whose book Diary of a Life Less Sweet will be out in the fall, says that she was helped with some details that were added to her story to make it more interesting and more vibrant. “The goal was to write a story that will touch the hearts of everybody, not only the siblings of a child who has diabetes”, says this very reserved 12 year-old.

Her book tells the story of how everyday life became a bit more complicated since her younger brother was diagnosed with diabetes.

In Cookies Cookies, gluten-intolerant Finnoula addresses such important topics as her disability, the shapes of pastries and her family.

Raising Little Businessmen

As for Marvin the Shark, it is a fable about the importance of not bullying other kids in the schoolyard. So there is plenty of feel-good material from Little Valley Books, one of the few publishing houses in this segment. Publishing child authors is certainly a big marketing operation, but is it a profitable new niche? Certainly not, according to Stephanie Cahill, who says that until now she has not turned a profit (though she does not give any figures).

“The publishing business is tough right now, and especially for small publishers like me”, she says. What stimulates her is the learning process for her daughter and other child authors. “They learn at a very young age all the stages involved in the publishing process; they learn how to express themselves in public, how to promote their work and how to do business. It is important”, says Cahill.

In a world of sharks – not all as nice as Marvin – it is true that it is better to start young. More than that, “it gives them self-confidence. ” This is the argument of many other parents who choose not to even bother with going through a publisher and who self-publish their children’s drawings.

The website Tikatok allows users to freely upload drawings and texts, creating little 8-pages books that can be read online. So with your mouse you can scroll through the rather simple plots of City Dogs in the Wild or An Everlasting Love Story, stories drawn with a felt tipped pen that were doubtless created during single rainy afternoons.

The books are anonymous but the name and the “biography” of the author can be added if the book eventually sells. Often, the ultimate goal is indeed to sell the book. And that’s when things get complicated. Thanks to – or maybe because of – the idea of self-publishing or “publishing on demand”, hundreds of books by under-16 authors end up on the market every year, thanks to the open wallets of parents.

For a few hundred dollars, and on up into the thousands, you can be published by an online publisher like Lulu or Author House. You only need a credit card number and a few clicks to get a printed copy of your book from KidPubPress. For $250, you can buy a publishing package that includes editing of the text, cover design, printing, delivery of five copies, press releases to the local media, selling the book on KidPubPress site and on Amazon and 15 to 20 percent of sales royalties. As a bonus, you can order extra copies of the book any time you want “for only $6.95 each”.

And that is how parents end up with boxes and boxes of books: Christmas presents for the whole family, for friends, for colleagues, and for many years to come. A few actually make a profit: fourteen year-old Ben Heckmann’s parents, in Minnesota, invested $400 and sold around 700 copies online of his Velvet Black: the Incredible Tale of Four Rock Stars.

Interviewed on a local TV channel, Ben proudly explains that “where there’s a will, there’s a way”. A popular expression in the land of the American dream.

The concept of “self-publishing” leaves no place for editing or editors. More than the simple parental encouragement Stephanie Cahill suggests, the practice is evocative of the growing controversy in the United States about parenting styles, a controversy triggered by Pamela Druckerman’s book Bringing Up Bebe. In other words, many are those who accuse American parents of making their children the center of the universe, and thereby raising erratic and unbearable brats.

Turning your child into an author who has never faced a critic or an editor could certainly inflate his ego. But for Stephanie Cahill “this is no worse than child actors or child athletes”.

Very well. But numerous adult authors have shown their irritation. For Tom Robbins, author of Villa Incognito and Wild Ducks Flying Backward, writing literature is a task for grown-ups: “It is crazy to think that you need less talent to write publishable fiction than you do for drawing architectural plans, for pulling out a wisdom tooth, or for piloting a space probe. There are no such things as little literature prodigies. You need experience, more experience than you need to do math or music”, the American writer emphasizes.

For Little Valley Books, “children bring a different perspective, they see things that adults don’t think of, in ways that speak to other children,” says Cahill.

Having said that, Cahill allows that her daughter Finn dictated her first book to her parents. “She would ask her father to read her what she dictated and she would get angry if she found out that daddy did not transcribe word-for-word what she told him”. And so yes, Finn wrote her first book… before she knew how to write.

Mathilde Fassin