When Zainab Almatwari joined a writing program at The Telling Room when she was 14 years old, she was reluctant to write about emigrating from Iraq to the United States. “A lot of people around me were writing about that,” says Zainab, now 17, “and I just felt like my journey would be compared to theirs.”

But after a few months at the Portland, Maine program, she realized she had never read anything that captured her specific experience: the feeling of no longer understanding who she was, of knowing that the adults she’d once depended on were helpless. 

The result was The Transform Plate Between LA and Sacramento, a moving, complex poem published in The Telling Room’s 2017 anthology Sparks. 

Zainab’s story strikes a chord — children’s literature, like the whole publishing industry, has a representation problem that can make it difficult for school-age children to see their own potential as storytellers. Grassroots youth publishers like The Telling Room, Shout Mouse Press in Washington, D.C., and 826, which has nine chapters across the U.S., are working to fix that by building a new and diverse generation of published young authors. By mentoring young writers and publishing their work, they’re cultivating a genre of literature marginalized young readers can relate to and connect with. 

Getting to print

Many nonprofits teach creative writing to students, seeking to fill a notable gap in public education (which, under No Child Left Behind, favors skills that can be easily measured and tested). Only a few of these organizations, however, actually publish the students’ work, but for those that do, that finished book is a crucial part of the process. 

“Right away from the start, publishing was at the core of what we did,” says Molly McGrath, publications director at The Telling Room. “Initially it was because we wanted a place to hold the stories together and a way to give them some longevity. These stories should outlast their tellers; they should be told time and time again.”

Founded in 2004 by writers Sara Corbett, Mike Paterniti and Susan Conley, The Telling Room nurtures the work of writers ages 6 to 18, tapping into the economic and cultural diversity of Portland, which has a population that is 13 percent foreign-born. Not only do these students receive a writing education that they’re not getting in school, but like Zainab, they learn that their thoughts, voices and experiences deserve to be shared.

“At first, they’re just excited about being heard, and having permission to write whatever they want,” says McGrath. “The mandatory thing [in our program] is, you need to be sure that what you’re writing about matters to you, that you have some investment in it.” 

Who tells your story?

Authenticity is a frequent topic at The Telling Room. It echoes a bigger conversation in publishing, one that recently put the book American Dirta Mexican immigration novel written by a white American author — under a microscope. The question becomes: what do we lose when so little teen literature is written by actual teenagers?

In 2017, Shout Mouse published a young adult novel called The Day Tajon Got Shot, conceived and written collaboratively by ten African-American girls between the ages of 12 and 15 from Washington, D.C. The book tells the story of an unarmed black teenager shot by a white police officer, through the perspectives of victim Tajon, the shooter, and eight other characters (each written by a different young author) whose lives are profoundly changed by the incident. 

Called “smart and courageous” by School Library Journal, The Day Tajon Got Shot became one of Shout Mouse’s most-requested titles. Moreover, the teenage authors have become in-demand speakers in the D.C. area, giving public talks about police violence and criminal justice at George Washington University, the AWP Conference and the Kennedy Center. 

“We’re trying to develop our young writers as ambassadors, to arm them with public speaking skills to engage with the public about their work,” says Lana Wong, community impact and partnerships director at Shout Mouse. “The authors [of The Day Tajon Got Shot] have grown and blossomed into these very outspoken young women. They’ve just gathered steam.”

Another popular YA title at Shout Mouse is Voces Sin Fronteras: Our Voices, Our Truth, a graphic novel-memoir of immigration stories written by teens from the Latin American Youth Center. The book, each copy of which is in Spanish and English, has made its way into schools nationwide and detention centers on the border. Royalties from Shout Mouse books go back into the program or toward scholarship funds — the fund for Voces Sin Fronteras has raised over $50,000 for immigrant youth denied access to other scholarship opportunities. 

“If you ask all of the authors [of Voces Sin Fronteras], what’s the most important thing about contributing and being a part of this book, this kind of recurring mantra comes up: we just want to reassure young people like us that they’re not alone,” says Wong. 

Books that look like the world

“Part of the importance of publishing books is not just the student being able to have the experience of publishing it, but for other young people to see reflections of themselves in the story,” says Laura Brief, CEO of 826 National. “And so it’s important that we have really wildly different books out there.”

Founded in San Francisco by writer Dave Eggers in 2002, 826 is the largest network of youth writing organizations in the country. Between its nine chapters and digital platform, it serves over 80,000 students, typically from under-resourced communities. Their young writers produced over a thousand publications in 2019 alone, books that “typically are carried in independent bookstores in the cities that we’re located in, and often in libraries in those cities,” says Brief. 

In order to reach underrepresented readers, Shout Mouse also prioritizes distributing low-cost books to Title One schools around the country. Wong frequently hears stories like one from Hardy Middle School librarian Donna Eisen, who, just one hour after she displayed the Shout Mouse book How to Grow up Like Me, noticed an 8th grade student who had never before shown an interest in books pick it up.

“To my knowledge, [he] had only checked out one other book while in middle school,” she says. “This student ran to show the book to his reading teacher and, according to her, he is absolutely captivated… This is life-changing.”

It needs to be said: These student-written books are good. One Telling Room publication, 2014’s The Story I Want To Tell, is an anthology of student writing paired with pieces written in response by famous authors, including Dave Eggers, Elizabeth Gilbert, Jonathan Lethem and George Saunders. “If you take the names off, you can’t tell who’s the big-name writer [and who’s the student],” says McGrath. 

“It’s a very euphoric experience,” says Zainab. “It just seems unbelievable every single time… to know that there’s someone, somewhere who will listen to what you’re saying, whether it’s talking about mental health or Islamophobia, or just talking about your favorite fish that died ten years ago. It’s really just knowing that your work is being heard and appreciated.”