The wall above Noni Carter's childhood bed is plastered with scraps of paper containing handwritten quotes such as "This too shall pass," "Know thyself," and "Just do it."
As if by osmosis from merely laying her head on the pillow each night, the 18-year-old seems to have internalized each one.
Her young life already filled with accomplishments, Carter recently learned what it means to see a dream fulfilled. Early this month, her debut novel "Good Fortune," (Simon & Schuster, $16.99) was published after six years of labor.
Now, the Harvard University freshman is adjusting to having her work read and critiqued by the public, while hoping her message resonates with young readers 12 and up. "It is possible to achieve the dreams you have for yourself, but you have to work to get to that goal. That would definitely be my message," said Carter from her home in Fayetteville during winter break.
"Good Fortune," chronicles the journey of a young slave named Anna from Africa to America and her eventual pursuit of freedom. Following in the tradition of the slave narratives she read voraciously as a girl, Carter was inspired to craft the tale after hearing true stories of her ancestors. When Carter was 12, she sat with her journal scribbling notes as her great aunt told the story of how Carter's great great great grandmother Rose watched her mother being sold across the river. Rose's mother told her that when she no longer saw the red kerchief waving in the wind, she would know her mother was gone forever.
"I remember being in tears at some point," said Carter. "It was really emotionally moving. I was reading stories about people I didn't know and this was a story about somebody that I have a picture of. It made it personal and kick–started my true efforts to actually put the story out there." Carter intended to write a short story, but as she got deeper into the life of Anna, slave history, and the struggle for freedom, her story grew to 300 pages. By the age of 15, she had completed the layout for a book.
Back then, she was writing for herself and the words came easily. On the school bus bound for Sandy Creek High School, Carter would tune out the chaos and mentally transport herself to the 1800s. Writing the book was like an extracurricular activity. When she wasn't writing, she was studying classical piano, taking classes at Clayton State University or reading the work of her favorite writers.
A passionate learner, she left a strong impression on her teachers. "If you were doing a lecture and you threw out the name of a book, she was going to go and read it. She had that kind of passion and fire," said Anthony Pattiz, Carter's 10th grade World History teacher. Pattiz, who Carter cites as one of her inspirations, was just as inspired by his student. "Her love of learning is extraordinary for one her age as is her ability to express her ideas on paper so clearly and cogently," Pattiz said.
"You look at someone like this and you realize the sky is the limit. These are the young people that you get up in the morning and you are really excited to teach."
By the time she was a junior, Carter was editing her novel. Her friends would ask, "Noni, where is the book? You said I could have a copy!"
"I'm NOT finished," she would growl.
When she and her father first discussed getting the book published, Carter wasn't sure anyone would listen to what a 16-year-old had to say. But like her novel's main character, she soon learned not to be guided by fear or be afraid of success. At the invitation of a writing mentor, she began doing speaking engagements at book festivals. In 2008 at BookExpo America, her book was picked up by Simon & Schuster.
Working under professional deadlines was tough, as was learning to stand up for her work. Characters had to be removed, subplots had to change, multiple opinions had to be balanced. In the end, Carter believes she held on to the things that were most important to her.
"There definitely were intense discussions and things she felt strongly about," said Alexandra Cooper, senior editor at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. "I wouldn't want any writer to roll over and say, "Great!" because then you have to wonder how strongly they feel about their own work."
Carter is one of the few, perhaps the only, young writer published by Simon & Schuster this year, Cooper said, but other than accommodating a high school schedule, working with her was not much different than working with any other first time writer.
"She is a wonderful storyteller and a natural storyteller," Cooper said. "When I met her, I was incredibly impressed with how poised she was...and her ability to handle all of these things."
Carter is again practicing her balancing act at Harvard where she is considering majoring in social anthropology or history and literature. She plans to spend the summer teaching or traveling to Latin America where she hopes to begin researching her next work of historical fiction, something that might combine the styles of authors such as Alice Walker, Dan Brown and Anthony Browder.
But first she had to get through her first media interview for "Good Fortune" on NPR's "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook. She was caught off guard when a few callers suggested the past was best left in the past.
"To some degree, I understand where they are coming from. I would love to see that day when we move beyond the past, but we can't do that until we understand it and reawaken that beauty in ourselves," Carter said. "I can only make my comments and understand that "Good Fortune" is going to touch the people that it is supposed to touch."
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