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College students Naomi Shavin, Joe Pinsker and Michael Levenstein (left to right) display the books they published before coming to Penn, whose topics range from philosophy to high-school survival tips. Credit: , ,

When College freshman Naomi Shavin was four years old, her dad taught her the alphabet. At seven, her words were sold in bookstores all over the country.

Shavin is one of several University undergraduates who has already asserted her voice in the literary world — even as far as Singapore — through publishing a book.

“When I was five, I asked my dad, ‘Why does Coca-Cola put Santa Claus on Coke cans and nothing Jewish?’” Shavin recalled of the very first step that later evolved into her book. Her father, a journalist who quite frankly didn’t have the answer to his daughter’s question, thought it would be a good writing exercise to send the company a letter asking them directly.

When Coca-Cola responded with answers, T-shirts and stickers, Shavin decided that writing letters with all her five-year-old curiosities was a good way to uncover the answers to the world’s mysteries. She sent nearly 200 notes to people ranging from the tooth fairy and God to Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Mother Teresa — most of whom responded candidly.

Naomi Wants to Know: Letters from a Little Girl to the Big Big World is a 160-page compilation of this young Atlanta native’s discoveries. It was published in 1998 — when Shavin was seven years old — by Fairview Press. Three years later, the book was republished in Singapore in honor of Children’s Day. Now kids from all over the world know how to plant an orange tree that grows seedless oranges and what everyday life is like for Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

After her book was released in the United States, Shavin traveled around the country to participate in radio, newspaper and television interviews.

“I remember thinking it was a rite of passage — that every kid goes around the country and does a book tour with her dad,” she reminisced. “At a very young age, it gave me this confidence in my own voice and a sense of confidence in my ability to talk to adults.”

Before graduating elementary school, Shavin knew she could express herself through writing and “people would actually listen,” she said.

College sophomore and 34th Street music editor Joe Pinsker got involved in the publishing industry as a high-school junior, and the writing quickly followed.

Orange Avenue Publishing, the site of his internship near his home in the Bay Area of northern California, was looking for a group of teens to write a survival guide for freshmen in high school.

“It was a lot of adults writing for a group of people a lot younger,” Pinsker said. “They ended up liking the way [three other interns and I] wrote, and it was a good angle to have us write entries for the book in the form of tips and stuff.”

Advice in the book — titled Been There, Survived That: Getting Through Freshman Year of High School — ranges from how to cover up not doing your homework to how to be more confident about yourself.

Pinsker’s favorite aspect of the book?

“It allows me to refer to myself as an award-winning author,” he quipped, alluding to the National Parenting Publications Award the book won. In seriousness, “it was one of the first times in my life that I fused something that I loved with something that was truly constructive,” he said.

For College sophomore and former Undergraduate Assembly representative Michael Levenstein, “not being able to stand still” explains both his early graduation this May, as well as his collection of eight self-published books at the age of 20.

When he was 12, Levenstein remarked to his father that an Artemis Fowl book had been particularly interesting to him.

“My dad said, ‘Michael, if you really like this, why don’t you try writing a book, giving it a shot?’” Levenstein recalled. Months later, he began writing an action-adventure novel — “partly autobiographical” — about a teenager who saves the world. He finished the book four years later and was interviewed on NBC.

By then, Levenstein had developed a love for writing but a different set of interests. His next six books were philosophical, including rational arguments for the existence of God, dissections of self-interest theory in response to Ayn Rand and a 1,000-page treatise on epistemology. During his freshman year at Penn, Levenstein churned out another book about what it means to be reasonable.

“For me, writing is a passion, it’s an art form, it’s a very jealous mistress,” Levenstein mused. “I’m very fortunate because I never get writer’s block, but it gets frustrating when you’re in the middle of dinner, playing squash, out on a sailboat when you realize you have to jot an idea down of pivotal importance of your work before it leaves your memory.”

Teaching Levenstein for a semester, political science professor John DiIulio thought the book he read of Levenstein’s titled The Triumph of Reason was “an extraordinarily thoughtful piece of work.”

DiIulio regrets meeting Levenstein so late in his Penn career. “He’s destined for more great things,” DiIulio predicted.

“He’s obviously a person with unique intellectual talents, but he’s also just a nice, very regarding and considerate young man,” he added, noting that he’s only met one other student similar to Levenstein in his 30 years of teaching.

The fact that his books are all self-published does not discourage Levenstein, who intends to write books for the rest of his life — “hopefully finally going back to the novel, that actually sells and might make a living for me,” he said.

According to Levenstein, it’s a regrettable trend in academia that academic work cannot be considered without a doctorate or ample teaching experience.

“It’s important to remember that many writers started this way,” he said. “Perhaps most notably in the field that I’m interested in is Friedrich Nietzsche.”

All three student authors agreed that writing at an early age shaped their interests in college. Shavin and Pinsker, both creative writing majors, see futures for themselves in the authoring or publishing industries. Levenstein, a political science major who has taken a number of philosophy courses at Penn, hopes to go to law school and continue to write.

For students at Penn who are interested in writing and eventually publishing books, the Kelly Writers House is eager to help.

It’s rare for students to publish books while simultaneously handling Penn’s course load, according to Jamie-Lee Josselyn, assistant to the director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing.

However, students who express interest can go to the Writers House and be paired up with recent graduates or professors who will serve as mentors in the process.

Though most students don’t reach this point in college, many publish something less extensive.

“A lot of people aren’t quite ready to shop a book manuscript around,” Josselyn said. But she encouraged students to start smaller. “People might have one essay, one short story or a handful of poems that are ready for publication. Students should submit their work.”

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