Teachers and students in the Telling Room’s Young Emerging Authors program work on a writing exercise. From left: lead teacher Jude Marx, teaching artist Kathryn Williams, executive director Kristina M.J. Powell, Atticus Prinn, Calla Ruff and Nazik Adam. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Leela Marie Hidier never thought she’d be able to call herself a published author at her age.

But the 17-year-old recently published a book of stories she had written about characters impacted by the climate crisis, called “Changes in the Weather.” She even attended a book launch event for it in August at Space Gallery, a music and arts venue in downtown Portland.

“It’s so surreal to me, I still feel like I haven’t fully processed it,” said Hidier, a senior at Yarmouth High School. “The process of writing (the book) has helped me find a place in the social justice conversation. It has shown me how my words can help change the world. How I can use art as activism. How I can be part of the solution.”

Hidier wrote her book as part of the Young Emerging Authors program at The Telling Room, a nonprofit writing and literary arts center in Portland. Each year, four young people, usually in eighth grade through high school, are selected to participate in the free, year-long, after-school writing and publishing program. Working with teachers, mentors and the other students, they brainstorm ideas, write and market their books.

During the past 10 years, the program has helped about 34 young people write and publish their own books, which get distributed to bookstores and libraries. Proceeds from sales of the books help fund the Telling Room’s programs. Each group has a book launch event, to read and talk about their work, and some have done book events on their own, too.

Leela Marie Hidier wrote “Changes in the Weather,” published earlier this year as part of the Young Emerging Authors program at The Telling Room in Portland. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

ACCOMPLISHING GOALS, GAINING CONFIDENCE

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Hidier and other recent authors in the program did a book event at Merrill Memorial Library in Yarmouth, and she will be part of a virtual reading with other program participants on Dec. 16, organized by Portland Public Library. She hopes to focus on environmental studies, writing and education in college.

Some of the young authors in the program have gone on to study writing in college or work as writers, or writing teachers. The confidence and sense of accomplishment they gain is valuable no matter what career they choose.

“Untranslatable Honeyed Bruises” is one of the books to come out of the Young Emerging Authors program. Photo courtesy of The Telling Room

Cameron Jury of Scarborough, 22, is now a senior at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where she has a double major in women’s gender and sexuality studies and international global studies, with a minor in peace and justice studies. She participated in the program when she was in eighth grade, writing a book called “Because, Why Not Write?: A Guide to Conquering Writer’s Block.”

“I think the biggest thing was that I felt, after that, I would be more able to accomplish my goals,” said Jury. “Being that young and being able to write a book, kids don’t do that, I thought. It really changed my view on things, that your age or other factors don’t have to stop you.”

Amanda Dettmann, 24, wrote a book of poetry called “Untranslatable Honeyed Bruises” during her year in the program, when she was a senior at Yarmouth High School. The poems were influenced by struggles she was going through, including with eating disorders.

“Finally I found the place where I could deal with this disease without shame or embarrassment,” said Dettmann, of her experience writing her book. “The program gave me the opportunity to trust my own story.”

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Dettman got to work with Maine poet and writer Megan Grumbling (editor of the Press Herald’s Deep Water poetry column), as a mentor in the program. The process, which included a lot of collaboration among the students, teachers and mentors, convinced her she wanted to teach too. After graduating from Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, as an English major, she enrolled in a master’s program in writing at New York University and is now a teaching artist at nonprofit creative writing organizations in New York City. She’s also still writing poems every day.

Teaching artist Kathryn Williams, left, and executive director Kristina M.J. Powell, work on a writing exercise during a session at the Telling Room’s Young Emerging Authors program. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The Telling Room was founded in 2004 by three local writers, Sara Corbett, Mike Paterniti and Susan Conley and is housed in a building on Commercial Street. It offers six, free after-school programs – including Young Emerging Authors – plus field trips, in-school workshops/residencies, and vacation camps. The nonprofit organization has served more than 35,000 students over the years and published some 192 books. Besides the YEA books, most of the other published books have been anthologies and chapbooks, small pamphlets or booklets.

A COLLABORATIVE PROCESS

Each year the young authors program selects four students to be “fellows” for the coming year, meeting two hours once a week from October through August, said Kathryn Williams, the program’s c0-lead. Williams knows what it’s like to go through the writing and publishing process. She’s published four young adult novels and several bestselling novelizations of Disney stories, and also worked for years as a book packager in both fiction and nonfiction.

To apply for the young authors program, students send in a book proposal, or pitch, plus samples of their writing and a query letter. The number of applicants varies, but is often in the range of a couple dozen. Participants can be from anywhere in Maine, as the sessions have been offered remotely in the last couple of years as well as in person. But most participants have been from Greater Portland, Williams said. Participants are expected to work and write on their own at home as well, but much of the work is done in the sessions with teachers and mentors, who are often people who have worked in publishing, including writers and agents.

After students work with mentors and others on writing and editing, their manuscripts are revised and copyedited, and then the authors work with others on book design and layout.

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“About the Bones,” a mystery by Olivia Peelen. Photo courtesy of The Telling Room

Olivia Peelen, 23, went through the program as a senior at Falmouth High School and found working with her fellow writers, plus teachers and mentors, to be “messier” than writing a school assignment, but a lot more fun. She wrote a mystery novel called “About the Bones,” and the process allowed her some room to consider plot twists and turns. She said the program gave her “lot of confidence” as she went on to college, at Concordia University in Montreal, where she focused on English and writing.

“I liked the fact that the first draft was a place where I could dump stuff and then (others) would say that this is working well, or I didn’t need this character,” said Peelen, who splits her time between Falmouth and Montreal, working as a writer on an upcoming project. “We shared work with the other fellows, we had a second reader for a fresh set of eyes. It was really a collaborative process.”

This year’s participants are in the early stages of the program. Calla Ruff, 17 and a senior at Waynflete School in Portland, has always written and long been interested in how publishing works. Ruff, who uses they/them pronouns, has been writing a lot of poetry that explores the past year or so in their life, including spending time at a secluded mountain school to deal with being “in a tough spot, mentally.”

“I’m excited to produce a strong body of work I can be proud of,” Ruff said. “I’m really excited to put the work in and then in the end have this tangible thing I can hold in my hands.”

Calla Ruff, a student within the Telling Room’s Young Emerging Authors program, works on a writing exercise in November. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Another current participant, Muhammad Drammeh of Bangor, is working on a “dystopian, paranormal” story for his book. In June, Drammeh won the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance’s annual CrimeFlash Fiction contest, the first time a teenager had won. But up to now, all his writing, including his prize-winning story, have been done alone. He said he’s looking forward to getting feedback and editing from other writers and writing teachers. He’s also excited about creating something that others can read and enjoy.

“If I’m having a problem with something, I can text a fellow writer. Creatively, I think that’s very helpful,” said Drammeh, 17, a senior at Bangor High School. “For me, creating the story is only part of the enjoyment, so I’m really looking forward to getting my story out in front of people. I’ve just always wanted to tell stories to other people, so it can affect them in some way.”

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