“Four Best Nine-and-Unders,” by Patricia McCowan

Feb 23rd, 2011 | By | Category: Fake Nonfiction, Prose

Recently, The New Yorker magazine published its list of young writers to watch, the much-blogged about 20 Under 40. As if in reply, the National Book Foundation announced their own, marginally younger, ranking: 5 Under 35. And Granta has been publishing British and American young writer lists like this since the 80s, but made a change this past year when it brought out its “Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue. The youngest writer in that group is twenty-nine years old.

What’s the message of these lists? Younger is better—of course! But are these writers really young? The internet entertains us with teens who sail solo around the world, pre-teen fashion designers, tween bloggers with thousands of Twitter followers, and nine-year-old Willow Smith busily working that YouTube hit song/stylist career thang. Forty is not the new thirty, it’s, like, the new sixty. If literature wants to compete for our digitally distracted attention, it really needs to young things up a bit. Word!

In the interest of addressing this literary prodigy shortage, Precocious Press (“Supporting Your Child’s On-Demand Print needs since 2010”) has declared their inaugural list of the Four Best Nine-and-Unders. Here they are, in no particular order.* 

Hannah Proctor-Schwartz’s stellar debut on Ms Wei’s Room 7 Senior Kindergarten bulletin board, the flash fiction piece, I am a Horse, already showed hallmarks of the Proctor-Schwartz style: a flair for intensely-observed first-person narrative coupled with trenchant humour. “Ugh. This mommy on my back has a big bum!” But it was Proctor-Schwartz’s sophomore effort, the haunting What Happens When You Mix Red and Yellow?, that revealed her true lyric power. “Orange happens. Like orange oranges. Round oranges. Smelling oranges is better than eating oranges.” This chant-like quality of repetition pretty much guaranteed the happy face sticker it garnered from Ms Wei, a notorious “hard marker.” 

Proving the enduring appeal of regionalism in an increasingly globalized world, nine-year-old Brody Mahone’s creative non-fiction piece, My Grandpa’s Boat, was a stand-out this year. Its opening line, “Grandpa likes fishing alone more than playing Nintendo with me,” carries echoes of Moby Dick and obsessions of the sea, while Mahone’s handling of setting speaks to an observational prowess that can only grow with time:  “The boat dock is down that road by that gross house where all the smelly dogs bark all the time. There’s a ton of weeds by the dock. I saw a golf ball in the water there once.” Watch for great strides in the latter half of Grade Four. 

Pundits declaring the 21st Century as the century of urban living will find themselves embracing and being braced by the writings of Ti-Ler (pronounced Tyler) Purcell. From his daycare poems, The Bus, Carz, and Green Meenz Gooooooo!!!!, to his recent graphic novella, 2 Menny Peepl in R Bilding 4 the Elivater (illustrated by older brother, Jaxson), Purcell’s drive to parse the meaning behind the rhythms of city life runs hard and true through-out his work. As he told his mom last week when she asked him why he couldn’t just be quiet for five minutes, “Mommy! I’m a delivery truck. Vrooom! Don’t you know delivery trucks aren’t quiet?” Keep on telling us, Ti-Ler. 

No list is without controversy, and Willa Virginia Hughes’ oeuvre has sparked heated debate in lit circles. When her application form to the Bambini Intellegente Montessori Private School included the two-and-a-half page essay, Why Learning Makes Me Happy the Way Chlorophyll Makes a Daisy Grow, questions were raised about parental influence in Hughes’ work. But her delightful follow-up piece dispelled any lingering doubts. In re-imagining the tired “What I Did on my Summer Vacation” assignment form, Hughes’ personal essay, I Went to Euro-Disney! Again! showcases her gift for clearheaded playfulness. When she writes, in pink and green marker, in cursive (emphasis, Hughes), “I knew the Cinderella who stood beside me and Nanny Carmelita so Daddy could take our picture wasn’t the real Cinderella because CARTOONS DON’T SWEAT,” readers can feel, almost viscerally, a strong, new voice that demands our attention. Indeed, her forthcoming contribution to the Bambini Intellegente Stories About Us collection, This is ALL About ME – WILLA VIRGINIA HUGHES, is practically a manifesto on how we’ll be forced to pay attention for years to come. 

* “Well, actually, there was a fight about who got to go first, and one author had to go stand on the ‘Think About What You’ve Said’ mat for a while, so we had to print the authors’ names on pieces of paper to be put into a box and randomly drawn out by an objective third party. But there were Healing Hugs after, so that was okay! Authors get cranky when they’re tired.” – editors, Precocious Press 


Patricia McCowan’s writing has appeared in Maisonneuve Magazine, online in Broken City Magazine and The Best of Short Story Library 2009, as well as in The Globe and Mail. Short stories have appeared in the Toronto Small Press Group’s Fevered Spring Anthology, and the Young Adult anthologies, Dark Times (Ronsdale Press) and Cleavage: Breakaway Fiction for Real Girls (Sumach Press). She lives in Toronto.

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