THOMASTON—Sixteen-year-old Alexa Barstow is about to see her first book of short stories published later this month — an enviable accomplishment for someone so young.
A soon-to-be-senior at Oceanside High School, she has been able to see her dream come true through Portland’s nonprofit writing center for young people, The Telling Room.
The Telling Room is a writing program and youth publisher, focusing on writers ages 6 to 18. It is an emerging niche of the publishing industry, as it teaches kids and teens writing and publishing skills alongside professional editors and designers.
Her forthcoming book, Truth Be Cold, contains 16 short stories around the concept of home and family and about discovering truths within ourselves.
Her book description reads: “We all have ghosts, specters of our past we’re too afraid to confront. The young characters in these sixteen stories, which blur the lines between the supernatural and the real, face their phantoms. Haunting but hopeful, ‘Truth Be Cold’ is a debut collection about fear in its many forms and the liberating truth to be found within it.”
“The earliest story I remember writing was in third grade, a Nutcracker retelling, which was about 20 pages,” she said.
Writing since then, Alexa got involved with The Telling Room in ninth grade, when she learned they were hosting a four-day February camp in Damariscotta.
“I persuaded my mom to drive me down there all during February vacation,” she said. “It was an amazing experience and I met a lot of young writers there who influenced me.”
One of the exercises at this camp was called Paint Chip Poetry.
“They give you a paint chip and ask you to create a story or poem from that color,” she said.
The camp’s objective was to complete a story by the end of that week. Alexa wrote a story from that four-day immersion, titled, “Greased Lightning,” which subsequently won the Maine Literary Awards for Youth Fiction in 2019.
“I’ve gone back to the camp every year,” she said.
With momentum behind her, she decided she wanted to continue her commitment to The Telling Room.
Last year, Alexa applied for The Telling Room’s Young Emerging Authors program, a year-long writing and publishing fellowship that offers successful applicants the chance to plan, write, edit, design, and publish their own books in a single year. Out of applicants from all over the state, Alexa was chosen as one of the four teenagers selected for the fellowship.
That meant Alexa would now have to produce a book in a year’s time.
“It was a lot on my plate as Portland is 90 minutes away, but my dad would drive me down every Tuesday,” she said. “I‘d miss class every Tuesday afternoon, but I’d write in the car, I’d write at night, I’d write on the weekends. Any free time I had, I was writing.”
With a program leader and a writing coach she laid down the first draft, then polished it with input from professionals in the writing and publishing industries, including authors, editors, agents, designers, and publishers. From there, she learned how to re-arrange the structure of her writing, how to copyedit, how to give select a cover design, and even how to market her book once it was launched.
“I felt nervous about making big changes to the manuscript at first from what I originally planned, but then going back and looking at it now, I see that I made the right decisions,” she said. “It’s partly letting your own walls down a bit and trusting that people in this business know what they’re doing.”
Where some teen writers are shy, Alexa is self-assured and it’s easy to see that her entire experience with The Telling Room has laid the groundwork for a future writing career. She now knows what it takes some adults in an MFA program or a writing & publishing college degree years to learn.
While she said the soon-to-be-launched book is thrilling, the pandemic has put somewhat of a damper on the physical in-person launch itself—as many authors releasing a book in 2020 have been disappointed to experience.
“I do think this is the saddest thing about the pandemic for me, personally,” she said. “Okay, missing out on my junior year is fine, but missing out on the book launch is disappointing. But, The Telling Room is always there for us and making the best of the situation.”
Kay Stephens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org