Hilarity and insight -- sometimes unintended -- show up in the early writings of great authors.

Published May 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"What do you want to do when you grow up?" the cheek-pinchers ask their long-suffering victims, offering such suggestions as "doctor," "lawyer," "firefighter," "ballerina," "president." What about before they grow up? Traditionally, the list of vocations for juveniles is shorter. Now and then a young Mozart comes along to prove that music is a perfectly viable profession for a preteen genius. But there are no prodigies among poets and novelists -- too much wisdom required, which must be wrested with tears from bitter experience. Or so claim the old and the wise.

Oh, yeah? Amelia Atwater-Rhodes is the latest counterexample. She finished her first novel, "In the Forests of the Night," last year when she was only 13. An atmospheric revenge tale about a teen vampire, it's as suspenseful and well-constructed as many novels by authors several times her age. "As a teen, I bring a different perspective to writing," Atwater-Rhodes told Teen People. "I can offer immediate emotions, experiences and insight that adult writers often have to reach back and find in order to write about them."

The claim does not quite ring true. Why should the emotions and experiences of the undead be more accessible to a 13-year-old than to an adult? Atwater-Rhodes, who acknowledges her debt to vampire queen Anne Rice, clearly writes not from experience but from a prodigy's traditional sources of information: literature and imagination.

Her high-flown, melancholic romance follows in the tradition of English literature's most distinguished family of youthful writers, the Brontks. Beginning in 1826, when she was 10, Charlotte Brontk and her younger siblings -- her brother, Branwell, and the future novelists Emily and Anne -- wrote obsessive tales and poems about a pair of imaginary countries, Angria and Gondal. Diminutive Charlotte copied hers, which were inspired by Byron, Walter Scott, and the Arabian Nights, into tiny, hand-sewn volumes in microscopic handwriting. Deciphered and transcribed by bleary-eyed scholars, they remain hard to read because of their looping plots and melodrama. However, much of Emily's poetry, which many readers consider on a par with "Wuthering Heights," was written during the Angria years.

The other great English novelist famous for her juvenilia, of course, is Jane Austen. Unlike the Brontks' youthful drivel, every word of hers is worth reading. She devoured the sentimental novelists of her time -- Samuel Richardson, Fanny Burney -- then burlesqued them perfectly, developing a voice that deepened, when she grew up, into satire ballasted with sincerity. In "Love and Freindship" [sic], a novel in letters written when Austen was 15, the heroines seem to spend most of their time fainting. One chapter ends, "[T]hey flew into each other's arms. It was too pathetic for the feelings of Sophia and myself. We fainted alternately on a sofa." The next ends, "To complete such unparalleled barbarity we were informed that an execution [i.e., bankruptcy auction] in the house would shortly take place. Ah! what could we do but what we did! We sighed and fainted on the sofa." Too much fainting undermines their health; one complains to the other with her dying breath, "One fatal swoon has cost me my life ... Beware of swoons ... Run mad as often as you choose; but do not faint." Austen's equally delightful "History of England," written the next year "by a partial, predjudiced, and ignorant Historian," is available in facsimile, complete with illustrations by her sister Cassandra. ("N.B. There will be very few Dates in this History.")

Jane Austen -- maybe even her juvenilia -- was surely the inspiration for another hilarious satire by a teenager, "The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-1765." First published in 1925, reprinted in 1967 and 1984, and now, alas, out of print again, this supposed journal of Cleone Knox, a boy-crazy Irish heiress, was actually the brainchild of 19-year-old Magdalen King-Hall, who was bored one summer at a "select seaside resort." Always on the brink of eloping, Cleone gets dragged around Britain and Europe by her father, who is bent on marrying her to a dull, wealthy suitor. Her descriptions of clothing are priceless. Oddly, the reading public took it for genuine when it was first published; now it seems obviously crafted and doubly quaint, a 1920s vision of the 18th century.

Written earlier by a younger writer and still in print, "The Young Visiters, or Mr Salteena's Plan" carries on the tradition of the parlor novel seen through innocent eyes. It was published in 1919, almost 30 years after it was written. Daisy Ashford, the 9-year-old authoress, was (probably) young enough not to understand her own double entendres. It begins:

Mr Salteena was an elderly man of 42 and was fond of asking peaple to stay with him. He had quite a young girl staying with him of 17 named Ethel Monticue. Mr Salteena had short dark hair and mustache and wiskers which were very black and twisty ... He had a pale brown suit but on Sundays he had a black one and he had a topper every day as he thorght it more becoming. [sic, sic, sic!]

Ethel and Mr Salteena engage in plenty of witty repartee:

I shall put some red ruuge on my face said Ethel because I am very pale owing to the drains in this house.

You will look very silly said Mr Salteena with a dry laugh.

Well so will you said Ethel in a snappy tone and she ran out of the room with a very superier run throwing out her legs behind and her arms swinging in rithum.

While Austen and King-Hall had perfect control of their humor, Ashford probably didn't mean her book to be quite as funny as it is. "The Janitor's Boy and Other Poems," by Nathalia Crane, falls somewhere in the middle. The bard from Brooklyn was 10 or younger when she wrote the poems in this collection, first published in 1924, now hopelessly out of print. Some of them seem appropriately childish, with a sharply sexual edge like Ashford's:

Oh I'm in love with the janitor's boy,

And the janitor's boy loves me;

He's going to hunt for a desert isle

In our geography...

Oh I'm in love with the janitor's boy

He's as busy as he can be;

And down in the cellar he's making a raft

Out of an old settee.

He'll carry me off, I know that he will,

For his hair is exceedingly red;

And the only thing that occurs to me

Is to dutifully shiver in bed.

Other poems seem weirdly sophisticated (though not exactly better):

Cloud-made mountains towered, Beckoning to me; Visionary triremes Talked about the sea...

Prodigy though she clearly was, Crane didn't grow up to be a famous poet. Perhaps the authors of "Quiet Storm: Voices of Young Black Poets" will take their voices further than Crane did. Selected by Lydia Omolola Okutoro, a recent college graduate and a poet herself, the pieces in this collection seem for the most part sincere rather than brilliant, but they map out some of the concerns of young people struggling with race and identity. My favorite, "My First Love," by 18-year-old Jennifer McLune, is a paean to hair:

Hair burstin hematite and obsidian aglow ...

Hair that drifts and grows shamelessly in touch with the deep-grown roots of the fertile land called scalp

Hair she be my first love.

With its vivid metaphors and poetic cadences, "My First Love" stands out in a pond of vague generalizations and bits of prose arbitrarily chopped into lines. Still, young readers will find plenty to identify with here.

"I can be a doctor, a lawyer, an athlete, an astronaut, a writer, a musician, a businesswoman, a scientist, an army general, or a leader of my people," writes 16-year-old Akilah N. Evering. It's a nice, long list of choices for the cheek-pinchers.


"In the Forest of the Night"

By Amelia Atwater-Rhodes

Delacorte Press

147 pages

"The Juvenilia of Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontk"

Edited by Frances Beer

Penguin Classics

389 pages

"The History of England from the Reign of Henry the 4th to the Death of Charles the 1st"
By Jane Austen; introduction by A.S. Byatt

Algonquin Books

34 pages

"The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion in the Year 1764-1765"

By Cleone Knox (Magdalen King-Hall)

Chatto & Windus (out of print)

245 pages

"The Young Visiters"

By Daisy Ashford; illustrated by Posy Simmonds

Chatto & Windus

79 pages

"The Janitor's Boy and Other Poems"

Nathalia Crane

Thomas Seltzer (out of print)

82 pages

"Quiet Storm: Voices of Young Black Poets"

Selected by Lydia Omoloa Okutoro

Hyperion Books for Children

102 pages

By Polly Shulman

Polly Shulman edits news articles for the journal Science.

MORE FROM Polly Shulman

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Jane Austen