High school student hits it big at 17 with first children's book Sara's Gift


You know the story by heart: A writer spends years finishing a book. But agents don't return her phone calls, and publishers ignore her queries. Except for the occasional rejection letter, she hears nothing.

And then there's 17-year-old Sara Yamaka.

Three years ago, the Park School student whipped out a children's story in a few hours. She bypassed agents and sent it directly to a publishing house -- a route that normally condemns even a beautifully written book to oblivion. Not this time.

Sara's story, "The Gift of Driscoll Lipscomb," was picked up by Simon & Schuster this year and hit the bookstores about a month ago. And the author isn't even old enough to vote yet.

"It's still surprising," says Sara, who is finishing the 11th grade.

The book has been called "inventive . . . clearly from the heart" and a "lyrical parable" in reviews.

"The narrative, in which a sequence of colors overlaps with a sequence of ages, is nicely conceived; it amounts to an extended metaphor; coming of age as the unfolding of a rainbow," says Kirkus Reviews.

Sara was just 14 when she wrote the story in the summer of 1992.

"I would write things all of the time and show them around," says Sara, who lives with her parents in western Baltimore County. She discovered her love of writing as a second-grader at Park School, where students write stories that are put into book form for classmates to enjoy.

"We really felt like we were getting published," says Sara, a petite only child with shoulder-length brown hair and luminous brown eyes.

She wrote this particular story on notebook paper, typed it up and then shared it with family members. "They liked it," she says.

The story revolves around a young girl, Molly, who discovers the magic of painting with the help of her older artist friend, Driscoll Lipscomb. Molly is given a different color to paint with on each birthday until she turns 9 and discovers Driscoll Lipscomb has given her all the colors of the rainbow:

So I went to the hillsides and stream banks at dawn and dusk and noon to paint. At dawn the red was russet and the yellow burning hot, and the violet lay delicate and wistful. At dusk a misty gray seeped into the blue and the orange deepened into pumpkin color. At noon the brilliance of the blue and the cleanness of the green were lighted by a clear, strong, orange-yellow. And I took my paints, my gift, and I worked.

Figuring she didn't have anything to lose, Sara made a trip to the local library and checked out a "how to" book on getting published.

"I went to the back of the book and chose one publisher that sounded good," Sara says. It was Macmillan, which was later purchased by Simon & Schuster. She sent the manuscript off about a month after she wrote it.

Sending the book out was all her daughter's idea, says JoAnne Yamaka, Sara's mother.

"I certainly encouraged her," says Mrs. Yamaka, who teaches kindergarten at Park School. "But we had her set up for the fall. We told her that lots of first-time authors with good stories get rejected."

Nine months went by without a response.

"At first I was expecting a nice, little rejection letter that I could put on the wall. Then I forgot about it," says Sara, who was busy doing school work, taking ballet and modern dance lessons at the Peabody Institute and studying Spanish.

Then, when Sara was 15, she got The Letter.

"Sara was at school, and I was at home getting ready to go to school when The Letter came," Mrs. Yamaka says. "I can't explain it. I just knew it was something . . . that it wasn't a rejection letter."

Mrs. Yamaka took The Letter to school and handed it to Sara, who was outside talking to a friend.

'I screamed'

"I wasn't looking over her shoulder. I was watching her face," Mrs. Yamaka says. "She went from this plain blank expression to this huge grin. And I knew then it was not a rejection letter."

Sara remembers being somewhat more vocal. "I screamed," she says.

The Letter was from Simon & Schuster, one of the country's top publishing houses. Editors there wanted to know if the manuscript was still available. "Oh yeah!" Sara says with a grin. "It was still very much available."

"The Gift of Driscoll Lipscomb" had languished for nine months in something called a slush pile, a kind of purgatory for unsolicited manuscripts.

At any given time, there are about 500 to 1,000 children's stories in the slush pile at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, the division that picked up Sara's book, says Andrea Schneeman, who edited "The Gift of Driscoll Lipscomb."

Most never make it out. Of the 130 children's books published by Simon & Schuster this year, only one or two will come from the slush pile, Ms. Schneeman says.

Sara's book was among the lucky few. An editorial assistant read the story, liked it and called it to the attention of an editor.

Ms. Schneeman says Sara's book is notable for its simplicity, precise language and intergenerational theme.

"She writes with a clarity and wisdom that equal even the most experienced writer," her editor says.

Quiet about her age

Initially, Sara was hesitant about telling anyone at Simon & Schuster, including Ms. Schneeman, that she was only 15.

"I just didn't want them to think of this as something from a child," Sara says. "So I didn't mention anything about my age." She filled out a questionnaire they had enclosed but left the age and occupation spaces blank.

When the publisher sent Sara a contract, it took the Yamakas a while to get it back to them, says Christy Smith, publicity and marketing manager for the New York publishing house.

It turns out the Yamaka family was consulting an attorney about Sara's underage status. The attorney advised her parents to sign the contract.

Until that point, the people at Simon & Schuster hadn't a clue they were dealing with a teen-ager, Ms. Smith says.

"I had talked to her many times over the telephone, but I still didn't know her true age," Ms. Schneeman says.

"Even when she sent the contract back with a note explaining that her mother signed it because she was not yet 21, I assumed she was a 20-year-old college student majoring in literature somewhere," the editor says. "She was always quiet about her age."

But finally, Sara came clean and found that it made no difference to her editor.

No special treatment

"She expects no special treatment because of her age," Ms. Schneeman says. "And we treat her like an adult."

It took two years to get the book illustrated and published after the contract was signed. But the editing took no time at all, Ms. Schneeman says.

"Her manuscript remained practically untouched compared to other manuscripts that are published," the editor says. "We tweaked a few words here or there."

When Sara finally received a copy of the finished product in April, she was thrilled and apprehensive. Her words are accompanied by vividly colored, impressionistic illustrations by Joung Un Kim, a recent college graduate who was working on her first book.

"I love her work," Sara says. "But I can't quite imagine strangers, people who don't actually know me, buying the book."

Sara and her parents don't expect to make a fortune from "The Gift of Driscoll Lipscomb," Mrs. Yamaka says. Sara's payment will depend on the number of books sold, and Simon & Schuster refuses to divulge the number of books printed.

Sara hasn't told a lot of her classmates about her success, although the book is now in the Park School library. Ask her about the reaction from schoolmates and she starts talking about their accomplishments.

Howard Berkowitz, Sara's English teacher and her adviser at Park School, says she is as humble as she is talented.

"She is an incredibly thoughtful and rich individual, and that comes out best in her writing," he says. "And her academic writing and analytical skills are just as good."

More books planned

When Sara does go to college, she doesn't plan to major in literature. She is thinking about a career in international affairs and conflict resolution. But she wants to continue writing children's stories, and Simon & Schuster is very interested in keeping in touch with her.

"I know she is busy and that her education is important. That comes first," Ms. Schneeman says. "But I can't wait to work on another book with Sara."

Right now, Sara is still savoring her new status as a published author. "Sometimes I look it up in the card catalog" at the school library, she says. "It's an amazing thing!"

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