Precocious writing talent in very young children is frequently under recognized by teachers and parents, is often under valued by society and is largely under developed in children within the public school systems. According to Daniel Feldman in Nature's Gambit, and Jane Piirto in Understanding Those Who Create, genius is rarely identified as taking the form of early writing talent, unlike demonstrations by very young children of mature musical ability, mathematical aptitude or chess acumen, which are more commonly expected and accepted. Such children receive adult attention as well as significant and timely nurturing.
Yet there are young children who are truly prolific writers, able to pen poignant poetry and powerful prose at or near an adult level with little support at the elementary school level, where teachers strive to encourage those who struggle to churn out three-paragraph essays. Young gifted writers need early encouragement too, along with appropriate instruction, opportunity to practice and refine their craft, as well as public recognition in order to appreciate and exercise their exceptional writing ability.
I would like to present in some detail the development of one such gifted young writer, my daughter, Sandra, a 10-year-old, who has won local and national recognition for her writing ability, in the hope that some of my experiences may provide useful information for other parents of young children who seem to have come into the world with a predilection for writing.
Over the course of the past 10 years, I have found the following to be foundation features in the development of Sandra's writing talent:
Appreciation of language and literature:
I didn't set out to create a writer. When my daughter was born, my hope was to be able to raise a happy, healthy, well-adjusted child. I also realized that I wanted to help Sandra learn to communicate effectively so that she would be able to achieve whatever career and personal goals she set for herself. It was obvious that reading and writing, in addition to speaking, were key communication skills we could work on together, even before she started formal schooling. And I certainly wanted to share with her my own love of literature and language. So I surrounded Sandra with words from her first day home and talked softly to her about everything we saw in an adult conversational tone. I read to her daily from children's books, magazines and adult books -- sometimes for hours if we found something we particularly liked, such as The Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. I tracked the words that I was reading with my finger so that she could see what I was doing and learn to make a connection between the letters and words on a the page and the sounds I made.
The first book that my daughter was exposed to, beginning at 5 days old, was The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien, minus the spooky parts. My husband and I took turns reading it aloud to her at night over the course of many months, while I nursed her. We figured that since he and I enjoy Tolkien's trilogy tremendously, we would convey our enthusiasm for literature, and that, more than appreciation of the actual story itself, was important for us to convey to our daughter at such a young age.
I still read to her nearly every night, even though she is reading adult-level material on her own, because it's something she and I look forward to at the end of the day. In fact, my daughter, my husband, and I feel that reading is a very important and pleasurable activity and we spend far more time reading for information or enjoyment than we do watching television or videos. When Sandra isn't reading, she often will have a book on tape that she listens to, particularly on long car drives or when she is cleaning up her room. We also share books Sandra and I find exciting, such as J.K. Rowling's, Harry Potter series, with her father, and then we have lively discussions at the dinner table about our current favorite book and other books, authors and genres.
We enjoy not just reading books by wonderful authors, but reading about writers and the publishing industry as well. When Sandra was 3 ½ years old, she started to write her first words and soon created her first book -- a "pop-up" book with post-it notes for flaps. I decided she should get a library card so that we could not only pick up lots of books to peruse, but specifically those that would tell us how professional authors and publishers actually produced books. We checked out many volumes that first day in the public library, and began a tradition of visiting the library each month, sometimes every week, to get more books.
Another activity that we pursue is finding out about the lives of authors our daughter admires and encouraging her to make personal contact with them, whenever possible. She wrote to Joanne Rowling shortly after the first Harry Potter book came out, and received a letter in reply some months later. We also met Joanne in person when she came to town to sign the newest Harry Potter book at our local bookstore, Adventures for Kids. My daughter was thrilled to correspond with and meet Joanne Rowling and has since met and corresponded with another fantasy fiction author, Sherwood Smith, who currently acts as a mentor to Sandra. In addition, when we travel, we try to find out if there are any local authors, past or present, of interest to her who live in the area and then visit their homes or exhibits, if possible.
When Sandra was 3 ½, we took her to England for the first time and we spent a day in the Lake District where she and I took a tour through a delightful Beatrix Potter exhibit that featured larger-than-life scenes from the author's Peter Rabbit books. When she turned 8, we toured through the childhood home and learned much of the early life of Louisa May Alcott when we vacationed in the Boston area, and bought a copy of Little Women in a shop near there. More recently, we heard stories about Oxford authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll, when we took a guided tour of the Oxford University colleges this past summer during a brief trip to England.
Locally, Sandra, her dad and I have visited the annual spring UCLA Festival of Books several times, and taken in a range of presentations, from children's book writers like Lemony Snicket, of A Series of Unfortunate Events fame, to a panel discussion that included polymath scientist Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs and Steel, along with popular science writer K.C. Cole. We've purchased books at the Festival and had them signed by the author and picked up posters displaying book cover art for Sandra's bedroom. And, we've also stopped in at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History to hear a talk given by noted author and conservationist David Quammen, who wrote The Song of the Dodo.
In terms of observing writers close at hand, my daughter has seen both my husband and I involved in writing projects from the time she was very young. Although we are not professional writers, we enjoy writing and write when required for our various occupations, avocations (archaeology/paleontology) and community service activities (animal conservation and environment protection). Sandra has watched us craft everything from scientific papers, popular scientific publications, and public lectures to press releases, poster text, and fund raising documents. In addition, Sandra has learned how writers review, edit and rewrite their work by observing my husband and I assisting each other refine a piece of writing. And she has also seen her uncle and her grandfather publish their first books, both non-fiction works on health, nutrition and human physiology.
One of the great tools I have found to help facilitate my daughter's growing appreciation of language and literature have been the undergraduate lecture series offered as audio and video products by The Teaching Company. We have found these offerings by some of the country's top college professors to be an extremely convenient way to expose Sandra to outstanding lecturers in literature, literary analysis, and linguistics, among others of interest to her. As a family, we really look forward to having these lecture tapes to listen to during long car trips, when we all learn new material and discuss what we have heard. To date, Sandra has listened to such series as The History of the English Language; Shakespeare: Histories, Comedies and Tragedies; Science Fiction: The Literature of the Technological Imagination; The Iliad of Homer; Classical Mythology; The Life and Writings of C.S. Lewis; and many others. Of course, given that the material is written for a college-level audience, we have taken to previewing parts of the lectures that may touch on topics that are inappropriate for young children. These are few and far between, however, and with judicious use of the fast-forward button on the tape deck, can be skipped.
We have also explored our love of literature by visiting our favorite museums and libraries when they have literature-theme exhibits. The outstanding Huntington Library in San Marino, has had a number of superb exhibits that we have recently viewed - from the history of popular books in Great Britain, to the manuscripts and correspondence of Charles Darwin, and the documents of the early American West. The Getty Museum, another favorite, has also offered a literature-theme exhibit that we viewed twice: beautiful illuminated manuscripts from Europe during the Middle Ages. I followed up this visit by having Sandra create her own brightly colored, illuminated initial capital letter bookmark and read about the time period in which illuminated manuscripts were created, with Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman. We also read another fictional work, Marguerite Makes a Book, by Bruce Robertson, a story about a girl who helps her father finish the details in a book he was commissioned to illuminate.
Moving from appreciation of literature in the form of sublime, small scale exhibits to literature translated into wide-screen popular films, we've made a number of family outings to the movie theaters recently to take in the film version of the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and also The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring. We've found it very fulfilling as a family to view fine films made from books that we all admire. And of course, we analyze the films and discuss what the directors and film writers have done to translate the books into popular movies and how we might have done things differently.
Ever since Sandra was old enough to hold a crayon in her hand, she has been drawing and writing and creating stories. I made sure that she had plenty of age-appropriate drawing tools and material very early on. Sandra loved creating artwork as a small child and now she produces art that reflects scenes from her fantasy fiction novels-in-progress. I believe that
her ability to create pictures and tell stories from those pictures helped her to develop her story writing ability. A talented preschool teacher started Sandra on this process by having Sandra draw scenes from a story in crayon on paper. The teacher would then listen to the story represented by the picture and write the details on the back of the illustration, which was later bound as a book.
In addition, we began to explore other media with which to create art with text. Sandra produced story art with the graphics options in a computer program called Storybook Weaver. She was able to navigate comfortably with this program, and at age 4, she was creating pictures that told stories which she dictated to me to type. At this point, Sandra was learning how to type and would do the title and byline. She enjoyed the type font selection and variety of border types, and she still relishes using fonts, digital photos, and graphic images, working with Microsoft Word, Picture It! Publishing, and PrintShop on our home computer.
After Sandra began to print fairly comfortably with pencil at age 5, she started to draft her first non-fiction book, a 17 page written and illustrated book about whales. She woke up one morning and told me that she wanted to produce a series of non-fiction books on animals, starting with whales, so I set about helping her to accomplish her goal of creating one book a year for the next several years. First, we did our research on whales -- bought books, checked books out of the library, watched whale videos, participated in whale festivals in Ventura and Los Angeles, and went on a whale watch cruise out of Santa Barbara. Once she had absorbed the information, Sandra dictated the text to me and I modeled the words for her to write so that she could write them on a separate piece of paper. I also kept her material organized in a ring binder so that she could see the "book" taking shape. Sandra was in 1st grade when working on the whale book, and I began to see how very mature her writing and her thought processes were in comparison to others her age.
Instruction in her public school on the use of the computer keyboard to type really freed Sandra from the hand-cramping tedium of writing her stories long hand. However, that transition didn't take place until she was about 9 years old. Prior to that time, I typed Sandra's contest submissions (more about those in the section on Recognition) as she dictated them to me. Now, at 10 years old, Sandra is able to type page after page of text for the several novels she is working on simultaneously. This does not mean that they are free of typos or other minor errors, but at least it allows me to assist her with editing and refining her
work, rather than typing the bulk of the prose from dictation. And with one novel currently at 62 pages and only about a fifth of the way through the story, that is really a blessing!
Sandra had little opportunity to stretch her writing ability in the regular classroom, where the hard-working teachers in her magnet school strive to support those students who need the most help. When Sandra demonstrated to me and told me that she was seriously interested in writing, I tried to find additional writing instructors for her along with contest challenges so that she could work at her instructional level and gain experience from appropriate
competition. For the first few years, however, between the ages of 5 – 8, I assisted Sandra with her writing by providing writing and drawing materials, helping her with spelling, typing her work when it was required for contest submissions, and assembling written material and art into ring binders that we displayed as finished books in our home library.
By the time Sandra was 9 years old, she had completed several non-fiction books, a fiction book, a readers theater script, and poetry, showing increasing detail and sophistication as time passed. I decided, after searching local and online options for fiction writing instruction, to enroll Sandra in a one-day workshop through UCLA Extension on writing and publishing children's books. I accompanied her that day and it was an invaluable experience, with the instructor covering much of the process of submitting a manuscript for publication, along with discussing rewriting techniques. Sandra was very comfortable in a class of adults and shared the introduction to her novel-in-progress. Afterward, I approached the instructor, children's book author Alexis O'Neill, to ask about other writing instruction opportunities for Sandra. She gave me the name of two other children's book writers who live in our area and who she thought might be available to work with Sandra.
I contacted authors Judy Enderle and Stephanie Gordon and they said that they would consider working with Sandra in a group setting, so I put together a Young Writers Club at a local bookstore, and invited about 10 students in Sandra's school who I knew were sincerely interested in writing. The group, which met once a month for two hours from fall through spring, worked on various assignments and shared their writing. While these instructors have been very supportive of Sandra and her writing development, they are unable to continue working with the group this fall. They are looking for another author to take their place, so that the students can gain from exposure to different writers.
In the meantime, I have enrolled Sandra twice in the Fantasy Writers course through the Virtual School for the Gifted that operates out of Australia. Sandra has enjoyed participating in online discussions with the other students and instructor and has received insightful comments from the instructor on her newest novel-in-progress. These courses are 9 weeks in length and can be tailored to meet the needs and interests of the individual student.
We have also been fortunate to find a mentor for Sandra, Sherwood Smith, who is a fantasy fiction author as well as a creative writing instructor. Although she does not live close enough for the two to get together often, they do exchange files and e-mail, and this seems sufficient at present to maintain the connection and give and receive feedback on works in progress.
I have encouraged Sandra to investigate all her significant interests, but have found it easiest to support her enthusiasm for science, art and writing, since these are areas where I have some experience. Sandra has certainly received recognition within the family for her writing, especially since she has worked many long hours on her own to create both fiction and non-fiction books, essays, a play, poems and lighter products such as cartoons and mini-books. I believe in praising sincere effort, unique insights, original designs and finished projects as well as recognizing outstanding talent.
In terms of tangible reinforcement and recognition of Sandra's development as a writer, I had great fun putting together a poster for her, when she was about 6 years old, with the theme, "Writers in the Family." I included a photo of her holding her award-winning whales book, as well as photos of other family members who are also writers with their published works, such as books, screen plays and poems.
And I am particularly supportive of Sandra's strong conservation streak and her desire to help protect animals and the environment. As a family, we have been engaged in many community service projects because of our past involvement and Sandra's expressed concern about certain issues, like the problems facing the endangered Island fox. Through these programs, she has gained experience in writing persuasive pieces such as sponsorship forms, educational coloring books and grant proposals.
Sandra has received encouragement from her public school teachers who have allowed her to share her writing projects, such as her books on whales, cats and dogs, by reading them to her classmates. With my encouragement, they gave her the title, "Resident Expert," for each of the animals she studied, and her first grade teacher presented her with a certificate stating her expert status. This type of early encouragement really made Sandra realize that she had a valued talent.
Practice is something that Sandra struggled with at first. Along with time management and organization skills, these are areas that I've had the least success helping Sandra to adopt on her own. She at first resisted even working on one page a day on her whales book when she
was 5 years old. But with consistent work, even if it was only one sentence a day, Sandra saw the project come to a conclusion, and with accolades in class and contest ribbons, came the realization that persistence and hard work really can contribute to a happy outcome.
Now when Sandra sits down to work on writing of her choosing, she will type for very long stretches, all without my saying a word to her. If, however, there is a contest submission deadline or other outside writing assignment, I am the one who has to suggest that we need to break the assignment down into manageable units and work on them well in advance of the deadline.
Although unintentional, I have succeeded in providing opportunities for Sandra to practice her writing skills through helping her pursue other extracurricular projects. These projects, including four unassigned science fair displays and many conservation-oriented programs, eventually led her to gain experience writing in a number of different formats, such as research papers, poster display text, sponsorship forms, public presentations, grant proposals and educational coloring book text.
Sandra is learning about exceptional writing by reading the work of many outstanding authors from different genres, everything from the masterful essays on biology and evolution by Stephen Jay Gould, to the quintessential American novels of Mark Twain, classical mythology by Homer, and plays by William Shakespeare. She is also exposed to literary analysis of many different authors and genres through The Teaching Company college-level lecture series tapes.
My efforts to help her learn to refine her writing, and those of her instructors, have primarily been limited to correction of spelling errors, with some suggestions to help her avoid repeating words or using cliche images. Her current mentor, Sherwood Smith, has wisely given broad-based recommendations for areas to study or expressions to examine rather than any fine-tuned, editorial advice. As Sherwood has suggested and I believe to be true, at age 10, Sandra should feel free to experiment with language, style, genre and format. Hypercritical evaluation of her writing at this time might serve to derail her enthusiasm and creativity.
It has been very beneficial for Sandra to have her written work submitted to various contests and publications. The local county fair has proved to be an ideal place for her to turn in her books on animals, as well as poetry, and a novel-in-progress. Her three non-fiction books and her novel excerpt have all won first place awards over the past four years as well as Best
of Division, Best of Class, and Judge's Special Awards ribbons. A number of poems have also won first place awards.
I started to investigate additional contest options for writers in a very useful volume, The Ultimate Guide to Student Contests, by Scott Pendleton. I knew that Sandra responded well to competition and wanted to find appropriate ways to challenge her while she remained in the public school system. The next contest she decided to enter was the national Written & Illustrated Contest, which required her to put together a book up to 24-pages with typed text and illustration. It was a wonderful challenge, and she produced her first fiction work, Tiger Island: The Mystery of the Missing Water. While the volume did not win in her age category, we were informed that it was among the top 100 entries, which was promising news because the contest had attracted thousands of entries.
The Fulcrum Publishing Company's national "Twisted Tales" contest, which encouraged students to come up with a variation of a fairy tale and write it in a reader's theater script format, was the next competition that Sandra entered. She drafted a dramatic script that was a variant of "Cinderella." Called, "Finderella," the play featured dolphins and a rather feisty female lead character. The piece won the contest in her age category, 6 - 9 years old, and was published last year in an anthology of twisted tales.
Sandra has gained tremendously from these competitions and other talent assessments, for they have represented writing challenges that have forced her to stretch her range and enabled her to put together a well-rounded portfolio, showcasing many different aspects of her writing talent.
Writing as a way of life...
I have no doubt that Sandra will continue to develop her writing ability and eventually incorporate writing into a life of many careers. The thought that my daughter truly loved writing came to me after dinner one night, two years ago, when Sandra was 8 years old. She had just finished taking a shower and called me into the bathroom. I popped my head through the door, and she was standing outside the shower stall, wrapped in a thick, peach towel, with water dripping from her long, dark brown hair onto the floor.
Sandra looked excited. She said to me, "Mom, I've just come up with a poem for a book I'm starting to write. Do you want to hear it?"
"Sure!" I replied. Then she recited the following:
Where snakes can fly and cats can swim,
Where dragons dwell and sorcerers grim,
Come in, come in, and share my tale,
Of bright green hill and secret dale.
For where the liquid river flows,
The path that leads to adventure goes.
An archway wrought of silver lies,
Hidden from thy mortal eyes.
Come in, come in and share my tale,
Of seven kittens that found it and did not fail.
This poem became the opening for Sandra's first fiction novel, a story about winged cats in an alternate world. She is now on page 62 of the book and says she is about a fifth of the way through the story. Sandra is concurrently working on another fiction novel as well, about an orphan girl who lives in the ancient Near East. And just as passionate as she is about fiction writing, Sandra is equally committed to writing about the importance of biodiversity and working on behalf of endangered animals.
If there is any lesson that I have learned from the continuing adventure of living with my daughter, it's that I need to respect her interests and help her follow through with her goals so that she is able to make significant contributions with her time and her many talents, writing among them.
I hope that some of the talent development experiences detailed here, while very individual, have opened a window onto options to consider for those parents who want to support their child’s love of writing. In learning about giftedness and talent development, I have found that you not only have to be aware of the many opportunities that may benefit your child, but also be willing to create your own alternatives, like our Young Writers Club, if the circumstances allow.
Feldman, D.H., with Lynn Goldsmith. (1986) Nature's Gambit: Child prodigies and the development of human potential. New York: Basic.
Piirto, J. (1998) Understanding Those Who Create. Scottsdale, AZ: Gifted Psychology Press, Inc.
Permission to reprint this article was granted by the author, Susan Morris.
This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit dedicated to supporting profoundly gifted young people 18 and under. To learn more about the Davidson Institute’s programs, please visit www.DavidsonGifted.org.
The appearance of any information in the Davidson Institute's Database does not imply an endorsement by, or any affiliation with, the Davidson Institute. All information presented is for informational purposes only and is solely the opinion of and the responsibility of the author. Although reasonable effort is made to present accurate information, the Davidson Institute makes no guarantees of any kind, including as to accuracy or completeness. Use of such information is at the sole risk of the reader.