"I love to watch Tae write because it reminds me that writing is supposed to be fun..."

Nora Okja Keller
Novelist and mother of poet Tae Keller, 11

Tae Keller is an accomplished writer at 11 years old.

Living in
the word

Both nature and nurture
play a role in the success
of a young Hawaii poet

TAE KELLER is an award-winning, published writer. At just 11 years old, she's been recognized for her poetry on such subjects as peace, cultural sensitivity and ecology.

Her most recent coup was being published in New Moon magazine, but she's been published other children's magazines such as Stone Soup, and her poem on Sept. 11, 2001, was published in a textbook.

In this era of educational desperation and apathy for the written word, Tae is a success beyond the wildest dreams of most teachers and parents. But her story is one of success beyond her public achievements. In Tae's journey, writing feeds and shapes her, and her story embodies reasons why creative expression is vital to growth.

Tae's quiet presence could be mistaken for meekness, if not for the calm assurance she conveys when talking about her love of the written word.

"I like reading more than being active," the Punahou School sixth-grader says. "When I start reading, I can see everything that's happening in the book, and I don't notice anything else around me. I like unusual stories, and I imagine myself in those positions."

Tae's inner life is fed largely by realistic fiction, science fiction and fantasy books, and the stories she reads also influence her work. Keller also finds inspiration in her experiences at home and at school, and from the need to share what she's thinking and feeling.

"Writing is a way to say how you feel without actually saying it when you're talking. It's yours, so you can say your emotions," she says. "It's easier to use words on paper than saying something."

Interestingly, one of Tae's favorite classes requires "saying something" in quite an upfront manner. It is musical theater, a course in which she and her classmates sing Broadway tunes.

"I like it because I'm usually shy but I get to be louder."

Tae's writing also offers a venue to the stage, when she occasionally reads her works to audiences. That's when the reserved personality steps aside, and a bolder presence reveals itself.

"She has such eloquence and timing -- it's a performance for her, not a reading," says author Lois-Ann Yamanaka, who also owns and runs Na'au, the writing school Tae attends.

Author Nora Okja Keller reads to her daughters Tae and Sunhi, 5, who are both blossoming poets.

WHAT COMES first, the chicken or the egg? Some would say Tae's success with the written word is no surprise, given that her mother is a critically acclaimed author. Nora Okja Keller won the American Book Award for her first novel, "Comfort Woman," in 1998; her second novel, "Fox Girl," was published in 2002.

Keller has said that writing was something she had done since childhood. Tae, too, displayed an affinity for words at an early age. When she was a toddler, books were her beloved companions. She'd carry them with her everywhere, even cuddle them in bed at night as any child would hold a beloved doll or Teddy bear.

Writing has been something Tae and her sister, Sunhi, 5, have been exposed to all their lives.

"They've been coming to my readings since they were little, and they've been around other writers and artists. They see writing as a possibility, as a norm," Keller said.

"The jabong doesn't fall far from the tree," Yamanaka added.

Yet Yamanaka and Keller both say that attributing Tae's achievements to nurturing and nature is only part of the story.

"You can say it's genetics or what she was raised with, but it's also what comes from her," Keller says. "I'm not a poet, so I'm blown away by the imagery and metaphors Tae uses in her writing. She has a unique perspective on things."

"Tae has incredible depth," Yamanaka says. "She's always had something to say."

UPON ENTERING Na'au, a visitor can't help but stop before stepping into the doorway. The glass storefront to the school is covered with poems written by Na'au students, and tiny pictures of the young writers. Several of the poems are winners of one writing award or another, noted in big, bold blue writing on the sheets of the winning poems. In their success, Na'au students are no different from Tae.

The secret?

"We approach writing as an art form," Yamanaka says. "This is exactly what I needed when I was a child. The students are not judged. They are mentored."

In most schools, writing is taught as a skill. Grammar and construction are indeed the building blocks to good writing. But technical skills are only half the knowledge. Without the spark of creativity, works can be mechanical and lifeless.

In contrast, the poems on Na'au walls are engaging and rich in imagery. An excerpt from Tae's poem " Friday Night At Miss Farida's Piano Lesson" is a vivid illustration:

Miss Farida takes my stack
of weary books
that whimper as she turns to "Stepping Stones."
My delicate hands
look like tiny mice skittering
across the keys.
I play to a beat from the metronome
fast as a hummingbird's heartbeat,
slow as a whale's.

"Creative writing is a safe outlet for children who would not otherwise express their feelings," Yamanaka says. "I believe these feelings will manifest somehow. If the imagery is dark, it comes out of that. But writing is safe because children learn about persona. They're free not to be themselves, they're free to take on the voice of somebody else."

"Creative writing is a safe outlet for children who would not otherwise express their feelings," Yamanaka continues. "I believe these feelings will manifest somehow. If the imagery is dark, it comes out of that. But writing is safe because children learn about persona. They're free not to be themselves; they're free to take on the voice of somebody else.

"We tell the children they don't have to show anyone what they write. So sometimes a child will write something and throw it away. But at least they're not holding in the anger or pain or resentment. It's in print, not in the body."

"All children have something to say," Keller adds. "We must listen to them and help them find ways to say what they're thinking and feeling. That's why the arts are so important."

KELLER HAS read to her daughters since they were infants. After bedtime stories the family always talks about their day, not only to strengthen their bond, but to nurture her daughters' inner voices.

"Stories help us understand the world, ourselves and our place in the world," she says. "When we share our day, we are composing stories about our lives. We are placing the events that happened in a context and giving them meaning."

For all this wisdom Keller passes on, some is sent back her way.

"I love to watch Tae write because it reminds me that writing is supposed to be fun," Keller says. "Sometimes I think of writing as a chore, and there is some pain to it but primarily I get joy out of it, too."

"I write when I'm inspired," Tae says. "It's not hard. As I'm writing, the story unfolds, and I don't know what the end will be until I finish. I like writing fantastic stories. I like making up my own world. When I don't like what's happening in this life, I step into this other world."

Halmoni, I Wish You a Pendant

A poem for my grandmother

I love the way
you make the best musubi.
I can hear it crackling
in the pan,
smell it fresh,
Spam and seaweed.
See you press Spam
onto rice.
It tastes like love.

I love the way
we turn the lights
cuddle up at night,
tell stories of Korea,
your voice painting
of ghosts and tigers
in my mind.

I love the way
you play school with me.
I get to be the teacher.
You are my student
who gets almost
everything right.
I love the way
you never forget my birthday
because it is your birthday too,
both of us Taes.

When we go to Kyotaru restaurant,
I always order butterfish.
I love the way
you pick out the bones
for me.
You even try to feed me,
but I say,
"I'm not a baby."

I love the way
you make me feel safe
and warm
in your hugs
that smell like flowers and rubies.
I wish you a faithful chain
of echoing love,
my love,
your diamond pendant.


Come with me to a world of books
where treasure maps lead to hidden nooks
and secret freedoms
in the kingdom of my mind.
Come with me through secret passages
filled with excitement, adventure, hope and mystery
where I can leave my own land
and visit the planet of my third eye
where nothing is banned.
Come with me, fall
into a ball of colors,
an open wall of colors
that collide in the imagining
of words.

"Halmoni" appears in the March/April 2005 issue of "New Moon, the Magazine for Girls and Their Dreams."

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