Tracy Grant didn't have big plans for how her 15-year-old son Andrew would spend his summer break last year. And that wasn't by accident. While many parents opt for a heavily scheduled summer regimen for their offspring, the Silver Spring mother of twin teens believes that there's a real great benefit to allowing kids unstructured free time.
"I'm a big advocate that summer should be a time for kids to get bored, so that they learn to explore other things, not have every minute planned," says Grant.
Last summer's plan for unstructured time for Andrew worked for awhile, but after a couple of weeks, the novelty of long, unstructured days seemed to wear off pretty quickly. He had something else in mind.
Although he was just 15, Andrew was already an old hand at storytelling. Beginning at age four, he'd always made up lots of stories. He'd spend countless hours in his room, stretched out on his bed, tossing a red ball in the air, as he put stories together.
His parents quickly realized that the usual rules about sending a misbehaving kid to his room couldn't apply to Andrew.
"My husband and I used to joke that sending Andrew to his room was never a viable punishment option, because he thrived," laughs Tracy Grant. "He loved being sent to his room!"
Andrew's efforts at storytelling last summer yielded what he considered to be a particularly winning tale. And it inspired him to do something he'd never done before: write his first novel. At age 15. His mother was thrilled.
"He came to me one day and he said, 'You know Mom, you know how I still make up those stories,'" explains Grant. "'I've got a really good one, and I've decided that I'm going to spend the summer writing it.'"
As pleased as she was that he would decide to take on the project, Grant concedes that she didn't really expect a lot. She figured that Andrew would write for a couple of weeks, but then get bored and lose enthusiasm for the project. After all, he was just 15 years old. But that was okay because, Grant adds, "for as long as it occupied him, it would keep him out of trouble, and it was a fine project for the summer."
But two unexpected things happened. First, Andrew didn't lose steam with the project. Instead, he wrote everyday, except for weekends. And long after his summer break was over and he returned to high school, he continued writing. In December, roughly six months after he started, he'd completed a 327-page novel called The Black Hammer.
The novel takes place in the mythical country of Alderia. In it, the hero joins forces with resistance fighters to overthrow a tyrannical government.
To readers of the book, it's pretty clear that Andrew's a big fan of epics. He readily admits he enjoys both classics like The Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as more contemporary tales, like Eragon by Christopher Paolini, Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books.
A second unexpected thing that resulted from the project was that Andrew allowed his mother to read what he wrote every night. As the mother of a teenage boy, Grant knew that being able to read his work offered mother and son a wonderful opportunity for greater family bonding.
But there was just one catch. Grant could read his work, but she wasn't allowed to change a word of his story. As the KidsPost editor for The Washington Post, sitting on her hands without editing was tough, but she readily agreed.
And what did she think of Andrew's novel?
"I read, and I confess, I was stunned," says Grant. "I was stunned at how good it was. I was stunned that every night when I read, I wanted to know what happened next. And you know a reader can ask nothing more of a writer, than you can't put it down."
Grant also recognized that she was reading Andrew's work from the perspective of a proud parent. She didn't know how much of her positive reaction was based on maternal pride and how much was based on bona fide talent. So, realizing that she couldn't really be objective about Andrew's work, she asked a colleague to weigh in.
"There was this one section," adds Grant. "I just thought it was among the nicest things that I have ever read. And so I actually asked the Washington Post book review editor, 'Just read this two and a half pages. Tell me what you think.' And his response was that he had never read anything like that from someone who was... 15."
The book project has brought some other unexpected perks for the family, including help with navigating the teen years.
"The teenage years can be tricky, and you can either grow very close, or you can become estranged and have lots of difficulties," says Grant. "[The book project] has given us this touch point to discuss so many things. My husband, the boys' dad, died five years ago. It's very difficult. In the book, the main character loses his parents. It's been a launching point for having safe conversations about loss, about faith. I think it's been this opportunity for Andrew to know that I have his back, that I am in his corner. It's been a great parenting moment."
And a great grandparenting moment, too.
Andrew's grandparents live in Chicago, and he talks with them on a weekly basis. As he was writing The Black Hammer, discussing the book's progress became a wonderful thing to share with them, who are in their 80s. In November, just before he had completed the book, Andrew shared his hope for the holiday season: to give the book to his grandparents as a Christmas present.
Touched by her son's desire to present the book to his grandparents, Grant quickly explored self-publishing options. She'd read about a new service available from Politics and Prose, the independent bookstore on Connecticut Avenue. The store has a self-publishing machine called Opus that can make a book from scratch, usually in about five minutes. After meeting with the staff, she made arrangements to have the book printed.
Priceless is the word Grant uses to describe Andrew's reaction when she "came home and gave him a copy of his book." And Andrew wrapped his book and gave it to his grandparents for Christmas, they were speechless.
Now the Grants are hoping to bring Andrew's stories to a broader audience, so the manuscript is out to literary agents and publishers.
In the meantime, Andrew is currently at work on the third book in a trilogy that began with The Black Hammer.
The advice he offers other aspiring teen writers? Go for it!
Here's an excerpt from The Black Hammer, by Andrew Grant:
Blake sat wordlessly, on the back of the bike as it zipped along the narrow dirt path that ran through the forest. He looked around, gazing through the trees at the bright green--a tiny amount of sunlight filtering down from the canopy and sparkling on their branches. It was very different than Blake had thought it would be. It had been 18 years since he had seen these trees and countryside. He had assumed, given the occupation and general mood of all Alderia, that the countryside would be a bleak, blackened mass of land littered with bodies of dead Alderians.
Instead, it was a bright, lush countryside and forest, teeming with life, impervious to the epic struggle for control of the country. "Clearing the forest now. Be prepared." Blake turned as he heard the muffled voice of his driver, crouched over the controls, face hidden by a helmet. Blake turned to face the front, and sure enough, the forest was coming to a very rapid end. Blake didn't say anything, but he wished they didn't have to leave the forest, and all its hope so soon. He reached down and gripped two small metal handle bars near the front of his seat as the bike accelerated and jettisoned itself over the small ridge, out of the forest and onto another small dusty path, that led deeper into the sea of tall plains grass.
[Music: "I Could Write a Book" by Miles Davis from Relaxin']
Photos: High School Novelist