In my experience, children learn very young that it can be more fun to give than to receive, even around Christmas time. Children love to make projects and present them to adults, buoyed with pride at their artistic accomplishments as well as the excitement of surprising a parent or grandparent with something special.
Even knowing that, I admit that what we did this holiday season was a little bit extreme. After Holly spent several weeks this fall dictating a chapter book of her own invention to me, I was faced with the decision about what to do with the final, 11,000-word, 72-page, 19-chapter opus. I decided to self-publish it on Lulu.com. Giving copies of her newly published – and absolutely professional-looking – novel to librarians, teachers, friends and family this month was surely a thrilling experience for Holly, and I admit that I looked on with plenty of pride of my own. But I also have to admit that in some ways, I feel like this makes me the biggest helicopter parent ever. Holly made up some stories, like lots of kids do. But I paid money to have her stories cooked into a professionally produced book, and in all honesty it does feel a little weird.
Primarily, I wonder if it gives her the wrong idea about what it means to write a book. I’ve been writing stories since I was her age and have been a professional journalist and copywriter for nearly twenty years – and I still don’t have a published book to my credit, though I’m working hard at it and so’s my agent. But in a way, that’s why it feels all the more duplicitous. I spent two years writing and revising a book, signed with a terrific literary agent, and am still seeking a publisher – whereas Holly wrote a book and two weeks after finishing it had a box of ten beautifully styled copies arrive in the mail. We cheated, I sometimes feel like telling her. It’s not really that easy.
And I can’t help but wonder if some of the other kids who have seen her book – or their parents – wonder at our ethics. In an informal discussion recently about the popular second-grade trend of eraser trading, her teacher referred to the “haves and the have-nots,” and I have to admit those words are echoing in my head as Holly proudly wraps and distributes copies of her new book. The cost really wasn’t much – with shipping, it comes out to about $8 per copy – but the fact remains that this was something we were able to pay for; we paid for the opportunity to have our child feel like a published author, where other parents possibly couldn’t spend money on that particular luxury.
In the end, my defense is that I’m rewarding not Holly’s talent but her effort and her commitment to this project. Lots of kids write stories – in my experience, just about all kids her age like to write stories – but not many are able to stick with one (albeit loosely formed) plot and one set of (albeit highly derivate) characters for two months as the nineteen chapters unfolded. And true, not every seven-year-old has a mom willing to sit at her desk night after night taking dictation, but the whole process was so delightful for me – I have a glass desk, and Holly lay on her back under it, staring up at me and letting the narrative bubble forth so that I had to type my fastest to keep up with her dialogue and plot turns – that I know I’ll remember those evenings for a long, long time.
Yes, it’s a charming but not brilliantly crafted book. As my twelve-year-old niece, a budding book critic in her own right, pointed out, the main character wishes she had a dog on the first page, doesn’t say a word about dogs for the next 71 pages, and then gets a dog on the last page. And those familiar with children’s literature will probably be able to guess with a significant degree of accuracy what three books Holly read most recently before she started writing “Louise and Mindy” (Did I already say ‘highly derivative’?).
But I think in the end, it’s okay. Holly has started her next book, but not with the same passion; we work on it a couple of times a week, not every night, and I doubt we’ll turn it into a published masterpiece when we’re done. In fact, we might never self-publish another work of hers. But this time it was worth it. For one thing, I’ve been casually investigating the idea of writing a commemorative volume for a corporate client, and it was useful for me to learn how to work with Lulu.com. Holly has a keepsake to remind her of fall of the year she was seven, and so do ten of her closest relatives, friends, teachers and librarians. Self-publishing is controversial in the literary world for these very reasons: in some respects it bestows professional status on a work that hasn’t earned that status, although in many contexts it certainly has an appropriate role. But for Holly, I’d like to think it’s a taste of things to come. Someday maybe she’ll get published for real, and if that happens, my hope is that she’ll look back and see this as at least part of her motivation for reaching that milestone.