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The Little Girl Who Could

With a motto of 'Don't give up,' a fourth-grader wrote and tirelessly promoted a book. Educators say she shows what a 'print-rich' home can foster.


Koeun Heo decided last year she wanted to become a famous author. So she threw a penny into a well at the Los Angeles Zoo and wished for it.

Then the Koreatown resident, who is now 10 years old, looked into the well and thought hard.

"I came up with the idea, if a frog would live in the well, it would be lonely and would not know anything about the outside world," explained Koeun. Within three months, she used that premise to write "The Flying Frog," a slim manuscript complete with an illustrated cover, tracing the frog's adventures outside the well and in his new world.

She followed up with an elaborate, self-initiated campaign to get her potential book critiqued, published and publicized. And while her book can hardly be called a success in mainstream terms, her energy has impressed some of Los Angeles' highest-ranking officials.

The fourth-grader's motto throughout the process mirrored the moral that the frog character learns in her book. That, in Koeun's words, is: "Don't give up and try hard."

Koeun's efforts are not unique. But experts say she is a compelling example of how passion for reading, coupled with a supportive, "print-rich" home and school, can inspire some children to write their own books.

Even if the publishing world is not quite ready to embrace many of these young authors, elementary and middle school teachers across the country are requiring more students to write their own books as a learning tool. In Koeun's case, however, she said she did it without prodding or much help from family and teachers.

"It's the tenacity even more than the skill," said Donna Iwagaki, an early childhood program specialist at USC.

Fourth-graders like Koeun tend to do a great deal of writing for school assignments, Iwagaki said, but she added: "It's one thing to be able to write, it's another to be able to have creative ideas and to connect them." Koeun's parents, immigrants from South Korea who speak little English, helped instill in her a can-do philosophy. Yet they insist they never pushed her into this literary pursuit. Ok Heo says he and his wife have only supplied their daughter with a tape recorder, secondhand computer and mounds of books, at her request, making the family's one-bedroom apartment look like a small library.

Koeun said she worked on the book at home on evenings and weekends. In search of feedback, she sent copies to Ruben Zacarias, superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District; Julie Korenstein, a district Board of Education member; and Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan. In their reply letters, they all said they liked the book. Riordan wrote he especially enjoyed the part when "the pigeon said, 'If we help each other, we could do anything.' "

Koeun even got Los Angeles Police Chief Bernard C. Parks to forward her manuscript to film director Steven Spielberg, in the hope of a future movie deal. She figured Parks would be able to locate Spielberg.

Koeun gleaned publishers' names and addresses from the back covers of her children's books and wrote to seven of them around the country. She flooded The Times with dozens of letters soliciting publicity.

In the end, she was not able to attract a traditional publishing house. Instead, the family forked over $299 to a cyberspace distribution company, 1stBooks Library, that accepts most manuscripts, save for hard-core pornography and hate material. Since it became available in January at $3.95 via the Internet, six copies have been purchased, far from enough to earn back her deposit.

Still, Koeun delights in sharing her book in any form.

Industry experts say the traditional, mainstream publishing world is not printing increased numbers of books by children. Meanwhile, many more youngsters are writing books as classroom assignments and then attempting to get those published in various forms, according to Laurie MacGillivray, an assistant professor at USC's Rossier School of Education.

Teachers find that setting publication as a potential goal motivates students to work harder and turn out more polished copy. "Purposeful writing engages children, versus just turning it in to the teacher," MacGillivray said.

That motivation can work even if the manuscripts are printed just from school computers and shared with other students. MacGillivray cited Bell Gardens Intermediate School, where a language arts teacher has her sixth-graders choose their own topics for a book, write drafts and edit each others' work; second-grade students are their audience.

At the foundation of writing, experts say, is time and interest invested in reading. "You don't know to write a book unless you've read books," said MacGillivray. In Koeun's case, "The Flying Frog" shows that "she knows there are animals that can be a main character, that there are adventure stories, that there has to be conflict in a story."

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