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Young adults are reading one of their own

She's getting on in years, but Amelia Atwater-Rhodes shows no decline of energy. She has just published her fifth novel, "Hawksong," and her sixth, "Falcon Dance," is due this month. "It's a lot of work," she says, "but I'll get it done. I always do."

That assurance is common among veteran novelists. It's not so common among 19-year-olds. Delacorte Press/Random House published Atwater-Rhodes's first young-adult novel, "In the Forests of the Night," in 1999, when she was 15. A book has followed each year since then, and "Hawksong" is the first in a four-volume series under contract. Delacorte estimates there are more than 400,000 Atwater-Rhodes books in print. Her young fans are intensely devoted to her books.

"I spend most of my time reading books, especially Amelia's," says Kyleigh Langley, 14, of Cartersville, Ga. "I was at a book fair and picked up one of them. I loved it and wanted to read the rest of them. They're just written so well. Her characters are very deep. They give you something to relate to. Without her books, I wouldn't have started reading as much as I do."

Apart from her extraordinary literary output, Atwater-Rhodes seems to be a normal young person. She lives with her parents, sister, cousin, and a menagerie of pets in a town west of Boston. She has plenty of friends. She drives a Jeep. She was a Girl Scout for a while, sang in the chorus in high school, plays the piano, cooks, paints, and has begun her sophomore year at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, majoring in English. Articulate and low-key, she says she intends to become a high school English teacher.

What makes her unusual is her irresistible itch to tell stories.

"I always loved the written word," she says. "I read, and before I could read I was read to. I loved stories. I was creating stories about my stuffed animals, and as I grew older I tried to write them down. The first story was in second grade. It was awful and never got finished. It wasn't until after my fifth-grade year that I started working with vampires, and that spawned the whole world that I'm writing in now."

All of Atwater-Rhodes's books are about vampires or shape-shifters. Though as a small child she had loved Dr. Seuss, Rudyard Kipling's "Rikki-Tikki-Tavi," and Margaret Wise Brown's "Goodnight Moon," she later was drawn to such writers as Stephen King. While her plots have blood and combat, and are set in a kind of dream world, the characters think and sound like contemporary young Americans. One of the vampires starts out as a teenager in Concord. They are half-hawk, -snake, -lion, or -wolf, yet essentially human. The protagonists are decent, or at least try to be. In "Hawksong," the queen of a human/hawk kingdom and the king of a human/snake kingdom try to end an ancient war between their kinds with a political marriage.

While she was doing normal kid things with her friends and parents, Atwater-Rhodes was also putting hundreds of hours into her writing. She says, "The first four books I published came out of 24 that I had written." In elementary and middle school in Concord (her family moved from that town recently), she found summers tedious and so would invent role-playing games with her friends, creating worlds and inhabiting characters. In May 1997 she had just turned 13, and she began writing what became her first published novel, "In the Forests of the Night."

"I finished it in August," she says. "It was the first book I showed to my friends, and they said, `This is good. You should publish this.' I decided it wouldn't hurt to try, so I did all the research on literary agents. I promised myself I would send it out before the end of the year, and on Dec. 31 I was at the post office with my mother, mailing submissions to agents. All of them were rejected."

Early in 1998, Atwater-Rhodes and her eighth-grade friends were touring Concord-Carlisle Regional High School in preparation for attending in the fall when she met Thomas Hart, chairman of the English department and a part-time literary agent. "I knew her name," Hart says. "She and my son were classmates, and I had taught her sister." One of the visitors told him Atwater-Rhodes had written a novel.

"I wanted to be a nice guy," says Hart, who represents adult literary authors. "I said I'd take a look and give her some gentle professional feedback. I'm not a fan of vampire fantasy novels, but when I read the manuscript, I thought, `This is quite good. It goes down easily.' " He agreed to take it on and that spring sent it to several publishers. "It was the fastest sale I ever made," he says. When Random House offered a contract, Hart called the author to tell her. It was April 6, her 14th birthday, and the family was just sitting down to birthday cake.

Hart, who says he is not seeking other young-adult authors, says the quality of Atwater-Rhodes's writing is only one of her strengths as an author. The other part is her capacity for sustained work and disciplined rewriting. After he sold "In the Forests of the Night," Hart recalls, "I knew she liked to write, and I asked her what else she might have on the way. She said, `Wait here,' went upstairs, and came down with five or six completed manuscripts of novels. She is a consummate pro and has been since she was about 13. I would be happy if some of the adult authors I work with had her ability to keep plugging."

Random House has one other teenage young-adult author -- 19-year-old Christopher Paolini, author of "Eragon Inheritance," a 500-page fantasy novel -- but young-adult authors who are themselves as young as their readers are rare.

Beverly Horowitz, vice president and publisher for Delacorte Press/Random House's young reader's division, sees a strong reader appeal for such authors. "Amelia's style and texture, and the interaction of her characters has grown as she has grown from a younger to an older person. Her fans are twofold: They are growing with her, but there is also a new entry level discovering her."

Horowitz says the young-adult fiction market is not only growing but widening: "The readership is getting younger and older. We have readers as young as 11 and some as old as 17." Horowitz believes the explosion of written communication, in the form of e-mail and instant messaging, is developing writing ability in younger writers. "Amelia is unique," she says, "but in the world of young people today, there is wonderful potential for writing that will benefit long-term literacy." Atwater-Rhodes even connects with her fans in writing, via e-mail, through her website,

Her career has taken off just as young-adult fiction has found new life. While there seem to be no industry-wide figures that break out that category from the $1.8 billion juvenile publishing segment (according to the Association of American Publishers), there's no question that publishers are investing in it. The success of J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and J. K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series has stoked young readers' and publishers' appetites for fiction, especially dreamlike tales about other worlds.

"Fantasy is hugely popular," says Roger Sutton, editor in chief of the Horn Book, the Boston-based children's book review, "particularly this subgenre that deals with darker aspects, like vampires. There are more and more books, and they're getting longer and longer." Atwater-Rhodes's books are on the shorter side; the longest runs 249 pages.

"We see that young-adult novels are selling in hardcover, in bookstores," says Elizabeth Law, associate publisher of Viking Children's Books. "It used to be that they sold exclusively to libraries. Now Barnes & Noble is dedicating space to this area, and publishers are paying attention to the amount of money to be made. They know there is a teenage audience reading in hardcover. Fifteen years ago, I was attending symposiums on whether the young-adult novel was dead."

In 1999, Barnes & Noble bookstores created a new section called "Teen" for new hardcover and paperback fiction. "It has been phenomenally successful," says Joe Monti, a children's book buyer for Barnes & Noble. "We've had double-digit growth in the past three years."

Susan Atwater-Rhodes, the author's mother, is vice principal of Acton-Boxborough Regional High School (Amy's father, William Rhodes, is a public policy consultant). She says she and her husband were always supportive of their children's reading and writing. Rhodes actually suggested the concluding sentence of "Midnight Predator," published in 2002: "Wryly, she mused, In the end, my father was right."

"It's not hard to support a child's passion," says Susan Atwater-Rhodes. "She just wanted to write, from the beginning, and tell stories. Her older sister, Rachel, encouraged her a great deal. She read to her, and they told stories together."

Storytelling fired young Atwater-Rhodes's passion for writing, but it didn't necessarily help with other subjects. She was restless in high school ("She was writing books in class," her mother recalls). Ultimately she, her parents, and the school administration agreed that she would take an intense courseload and graduate a year early, which she did in 2001. She's doing well in college, she says (while paying her own tuition), and her schedule is flexible enough to allow her plenty of writing time.

Though she has left the vampire theme behind after "Midnight Predator" ("Eventually it boiled down to what a vampire is, and you can alter those myths only so long"), Atwater-Rhodes's characters are all still protean, which allows her to ring changes on the theme of divided natures. "Whatever else we may look like," she says, "snakes or birds, we are still human, but can we live together?"

Like her books, Atwater-Rhodes herself has changed significantly since 1997, from child to grown-up, with a college and a professional plan. She studies literature, which raises the question of whether, as a writer, she might eventually leave the fantasy material behind.

"I have written books recently that I would have to publish under an adult label," she answers. "Maybe, eventually, I will want to publish for an adult audience."

It's seems that shape-shift hasn't happened yet, though.

"There is a feeling that adult fiction is more respectable," she says. "But I have had parents say to me, `My daughter never read a book cover-to-cover before she read your work.' If I published adult novels, maybe I could be more famous, maybe I could make more money. But you seldom get a 45-year-old woman writing to you to say, `You taught me to love reading.' "

David Mehegan can be reached at

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