Notebooks and dragons

By Mary L. Grady

Aspiring and professional authors on Mercer Island are not rare. But few if any, start writing a book when they are fifth-graders and finish it.

Mercer Island High School freshman Sara Stern has a self-published book out this month called ``Dragon's Song.'' The 280-page book, about a girl in a mystical kingdom who finds her calling as a special companion of magical dragons, was selected by her publisher, iUniverse, an on-line book publishing company, as an ``Editor's Choice'' book. The company Web site describe such books as: ``Only those titles that have the essential qualities of a professionally published book.''

Stern will sign her book at 7 p.m. June 10 at Island Books.

The teen with the serious brown eyes, who appears most comfortable with bare feet, jeans and an Islander lacrosse T-shirt, is low-key about her accomplishment.

Writing the nearly 300 page book was no lark. She sometimes worked two hours a day on her writing. It morphed from a hobby into an obsession sometimes, she said.

The story sprang from three notebooks she began writing as a fifth-grader. Each page in the three books, both front and back, is filled with neat printing. She said she essentially wrote the book from beginning to end. Writing in longhand is part of the craft, Stern said.

Popular horror author Stephen King has written about the value of writing out stories in longhand. He said that he felt more connected to a story when he wrote it out, Stern explained.

``I definitely feel connected to this one,'' she said.

The teen already has a second book well underway, but it is mostly on her mother's laptop computer.

In the forward to her book, Stern thanks her family and credits them with each adding something to the effort. Her sister Kaylee is thanked for reading over her shoulder and proofreading, and brother Brian for graciously giving up his computer time to her.

While the ideas, characters and words came from Stern, other help came from friends and community members to transform those thoughts into a finished book.

It has truly been a community effort, her mother, Denise Stern, said.

When Stern and her family felt that her story was ready for publishing, Stern and her mother picked the brain of Island Books proprietor Roger Page to find out what to do next. They made a cold-call one afternoon at his shop.

Long accustomed to dealing with such walk-ins and author wannabes, Page asked the teen to describe the book in one sentence.

She did. Page was suitably impressed, he said later. After his daughter read the book, he put in the first order for 100 copies of ``Dragon's Song.''

The Sterns paid publisher iUniverse $800 for 40 printed copies of the book and an editorial review.

Sara Stern also credits her Mercer Island grade school and middle school teachers with guiding her along the way.

Ellis Reyes, her fifth grade teacher at West Mercer, encouraged her. Arlene Naganawa, her eighth-grade creative writing teacher, inspired her.

``Ms. Naganawa always made each person in the class feel like they were a writer,'' Stern said. ``Every one had something unique, something good about their work.''

Stern often read pieces of her book in class. Friends and classmates critiqued her work.

The cover, a watercolor of a determined wind-tossed red-haired sylph with a sharp sword and a tiny dragon clutching her forearm, was done by the mother of Stern's best friend, Lauren Gibson. Gibson's mother, Ann, a professional artist, borrowed several pictures of Stern playing soccer and lacrosse and used those as the model for Selah, the main character. The artist did not charge for her work.

Along the way, Stern has been getting savvy about her venture into book publishing. Terms such as genre and marketing creep into her speech. It seems she has done her homework there as well.

There is a long list of activities that would distract most teens or adults away from the solitary and deliberate craft of writing a novel. They are diverse and perhaps somewhat at odds with writing a book. Stern plays clarinet and saxophone in the high school band and also is a member of one of the school jazz bands that practices early in the morning before school.

As a freshman, she is a member of the MIHS varsity lacrosse team. She watches little TV, she said, but has an addiction to ``Law and Order.'' She only IMs (instant message) with her grandmother, Denise Stern said. But she has lots of friends.

Is the story about her?

The author is not specific. But her mother knows.

``The story is about a girl, going through the trials of growing up, breaking out, being on her own. But this girl is special,'' Denise Stern said of the character Selah, looking across the room at her daughter. ``She is a gift.''

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