Development & Aid, Education, Headlines, North America

The Novelist at Sixteen

Hannah Rubenstein

NEW YORK, Aug 9 2010 (IPS) - At first glance, Sara Samarasinghe’s website could be any teenager’s: cheerful pink text scrawled against a black background, blog entries about summer clothing sales, and lists of favourites: music (Kelly Clarkson), movies (10 Things I Hate About You), and quotes (Jennifer Aniston, J. K. Rowling).

Sara Samarasinghe Credit:

Sara Samarasinghe Credit:

But Sara’s website isn’t like any other teen’s. Alongside the quotes and blog posts, there are a collection of links – to books she has written, a literary biography, and a compilation of interview appearances on major television networks like NBC, ABC, and CBS.

In the past four years, Sara has published five novels, in addition to collections of poetry, short stories, and essays. She is 16 years old.

Sara, who began her writing career at age five with a re- imagining of Cinderella, lives in Holmdel, New Jersey, with her parents, both engineers from Sri Lanka. This year, she will apply to college, attend prom, and graduate from high school. She will also speak to a circuit of elementary and junior high schools about the importance of literacy, hold book-signing events at local coffee shops, and publish two more novels.

Sara’s novels, which she and her father design, create, and publish, span genres while relying on hallmarks of young adult fiction: malicious cliques, the temptation of substance abuse, summer romances. But Sara believes that her perspective as a teenager enables her to tell stories in a way that her adult contemporaries can’t.

“I think when adults write about teenagers,” Sara says, “they think about how life was when they were a teenager. The presence of social networking and cell phones have changed a lot of the ways that kids communicate. Being able to include that in my novels makes it seem more realistic to kids—if they can relate more, they will take it more seriously.”

For Sara, having readers relate to the characters in her novels is of paramount importance. Beyond mere entertainment value, Sara wants her writing to educate and inform her readers about serious issues that they must confront as teenagers.

“So many kids get caught up with technology, like video games and Facebook,” she says, “but I want them to focus on reading and writing and stay away from detrimental influences like substance abuse, which is so prevalent as kids transition into high school.”

“A lot of kids – kids that I’ve known – have gotten into so much trouble due to substance abuse,” she adds. “Their lives are completely ruined. I don’t want that to happen to younger kids.”

Sara’s desire to educate young children on the positive effects of reading and writing has led her to speak to auditoriums of schoolchildren about the importance of literacy. In addition to being a deterrent to negative influences, Sara says, reading fiction is in itself beneficial.

“When you read fiction, you get a different perspective on how the author thinks about the world and their imagination,” she explains. “Some kids might just be interested in fantasy, but if they read a novel about kids their age in high school, they can get a different perspective and can learn about somebody else – like someone who lives in New York, while they might live in the suburbs. It gives them a way to exercise their imagination and still have entertainment,” she adds.

Although Sara treasures her position as a role model to younger children – she refers to the invitations to speak as “an honour” – she admits that her young age has presented challenges to her authorial aspirations.

Citing her decision to self-publish the novels she has written, Sara’s tone is subdued. “The publishing industry is reluctant to take teen authors seriously,” she says. “It’s more difficult for me to break through.”

On the other hand, though, she says that her age has provided an opportunity for exposure that may not have been possible otherwise. “My age does bar me from some things, but it also helps me,” she explains. “If people want to talk to me because I’m an author at age 16, it helps me get my message out – I can promote reading and writing for kids, and that’s what matters.”

Sara’s father, who perches close to her, never out of earshot, beams proudly when asked about his daughter’s accomplishments. “I think she’s exceptional,” he says, smiling widely. “I never thought she’d be this great so young.”

Sara casts her eyes downward- a teenager embarrassed by her father’s affection. Brushing the compliment aside, she shrugs. “People my age just don’t read as much as they should,” she says simply.

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