How do you determine the difference between a novel, a novella and a long short story? On some levels it makes no difference, but to Kelowna author, Celeste Catena, it may mean her place in the history books as the world’s youngest novelist.

“I’ve always had a love for reading and writing. Once I got into Grade 1, my reading got really avid and I set myself a goal that I wanted to be the youngest, or one of the youngest, published authors. So when I got into Grade 4 I presented that goal to my teachers and they said let’s go for it. I wrote the book at age eight and published it at age nine.”

This puts Celeste’s book Undefeated well in the running. She is neck-and-neck for the honour of youngest author with Daisy Ashford who published the novella The Young Visitors: Or, Mister Salteena’s Plan in 1919 when she was also nine years old.

Undefeated tells the story of Tyneisha Braxton, an 11-year-old dance star who wins the lead spot in her company’s upcoming competition performance only to be sabotaged by her rival Abigail Milton. The story goes on to detail her courageous comeback performance after a serious leg injury.

It took almost nine months of work after school and on weekends to complete the 94-page book. Celeste developed her work method early and even though she has access to a computer, she still prefers to compose in longhand with a pen and paper.

“I get a better flow when I’m writing it longhand. So I wrote chapter one long-hand, then I’d transfer it to the computer and edit it.”

Her mom, Angela, and her teacher helped by reading the book to make sure it made sense. “I gave a chapter to my Grade 4 teacher and I would have her read it. I stopped at a certain time though, because I didn’t want her to read the whole book. I wanted it to be a surprise.”

Celeste did a fair amount of research for Undefeated. Because one of her characters is an Australian she had to find a dictionary of “Strine” the Cockney-like slang Australians love. She also needed accurate information on leg injuries suffered by dancers and how they’re treated. Both exercises honed her computer and Internet skills.

What the young author didn’t need to research was the world of dance. She’s been dancing for eight years (since she was three years old) and after talking with Celeste it becomes apparent that her heroine Tyneisha is patterned after herself.

Celeste is both feisty and determined to get what she wants, but to do some good while she’s accomplishing her goals. It would be easy to say her book is a paean to adolescent girls, but she points out that there are lessons boys can take away from it.

“Boys can completely take lessons from reading this book. There’s a prominent male character (Kieran), there’s also hip hop in it and that’s something more guy-ish they can relate to. It’s the same message to girls and to boys—go after your dreams, don’t let anyone get in your way and stay true to who you really are.”

Getting the book published was a lesson in how to stay true to who you are.

Success came easily at first. While competing in the 2009 Regional Finals of the CanWest CanSpell National Spelling Bee (she finished fifth out of 36 competitors) one of the judges approached Celeste and asked whether she was a writer.

Yasmin John-Thorpe, co-founder of the Penticton Writers and Publishers helped her put the book together and get it printed.

It was in the production stage that things almost chugged to a halt. “When I was proof-working it, putting the finishing touches on the artwork, I had to give my approval and I didn’t like the picture on the cover. But everyone said let’s keep it and I just kept saying no I don’t like it, I’ll get a picture myself.”

“She just had a really clear vision of what she wanted the book to look like,” chimes in her mom.

“Yeah, we were just running around town,” Celeste picks up, “and we had to get it in by a certain time and everyone said no just leave it…. Yeah, I had a clear vision and I wasn’t letting the book be published unless it was my clear vision getting published.”

Seeing her vision in print, however, wasn’t the end of the story. Celeste has also been making waves as a motivational speaker here in the Okanagan, in Manitoba and soon she’s heading to Ontario to deliver her message.

Celeste began speaking to school groups through the Raise A Reader Program, which is part of an ongoing effort to promote literacy by the Penticton Writers and Publishers. She’s delivered her one-hour presentation—40-minute talk and 20-minute Q&A—to youth groups from Cawston to Kamloops since the fall of 2009.

“I want to inspire and empower kids with my talks. I tell them to stay true to their dreams and that they are not too young to achieve whatever they want to do. I want to be a trailblazer for them.”

Being an inspiration has given her a lot of new friends. She receives emails from dozens of the students she has talked to. Celeste has even inspired one girl to write her own book. –Bruce Kemp

Photo by Bruce Kemp