Teenager writes his ticket to Carnegie Hall

I write a column for the Los Angeles Times.

Colin Johnson goes to seventh grade.

Next month, one of us will be in Carnegie Hall to receive a national writing award.

I’ll give you one guess.


You may notice I’m employing a rather clipped writing style. That may explain why Colin is the one going to New York. As he told me last week when we met at his home in Laguna Beach, he tilts toward similes and metaphors and evoking the senses with the words he puts on paper.

It must work, because Scholastic, the global publisher of children’s books, has awarded him two gold medals and one silver in its art and writing contest. Private tutor Clarissa Ngo, who has worked with Colin after school in recent years, said Scholastic awarded 350 medals from tens of thousands of entries and is open to students between seventh and 12th grade.

Colin, who is 14 and attends St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, isn’t falsely modest but neither is he full of himself -- although he has some reason to be.

That’s because writing wasn’t his first love. “It was boring and it was hard,” he says. “I just didn’t like it, in general. If I had to write a report, I would put it off and put it off.”


He liked science and, by the time fourth grade rolled around, he figured he’d probably be a geologist.

That’s when his parents, Don and Elizabeth, matched him with Ngo, who tutors from her home. “I didn’t really want to do it,” Colin says. “I was kind of made to. But then I started soaking up a lot from her.”

What soaked in was that writing opens doors and windows. Doors to places he had only imagined and windows into word usage he’d never considered.

He realized, he says, that writing was more than, “The sun is yellow.”

He also discovered it was no bed of roses (oops, a cliche) but says once Ngo introduced him to literary devices, “it clicked pretty fast.”

Those devices, like alliteration and metaphor, joined forces with the fertile imagination he already had and brought his thoughts alive. “Instead of saying, ‘The sea is blue,’ ” he says, “You can say, ‘The liquid sapphire sea sparkled like a thousand stars.’ ”

Once he discovered that writing can be artful, the ideas churning around in his head cried out to be released onto the printed page. Among the results were short stories, “Make the Moon Dance For Me” and “The Tomb Painter.”

They are his gold-medal efforts. His silver is for a poem, “In Gotherean.”


I ask Ngo if Colin is a prodigy, and she fairly bristles. “I think it’s dangerous to label kids prodigies,” she says. “It just has this aura about it that you were born with something, that’s it’s just innate, and that’s really dangerous because a lot of success is created through your own effort and persistence and refusal to give up. This isn’t a story of a prodigy, but of a boy who has imagination who never gave up.”

Whatever, Colin might say. At this stage, he loves to write and is for the most part oblivious to the torture that other writers insist on enduring to get their stuff in print. “I write because I really enjoy it,” he says. “My favorite thing is to write things that really get your senses going, so you can really taste or smell [what the story is about], with lots of similes and metaphors. If you don’t write with literary devices, you can’t use all the good words.”

But this isn’t a kid who hunches over a keyboard all day, straining to craft the perfect sentence. For one thing, school keeps him busy and, for another, he loves to skateboard and surf. He talks about maintaining a “balance” in his life, and his maturity on such matters tempts me to ask to see his birth certificate.

On June 15, the family will bask in the Carnegie Hall glow. “I don’t even know what it looks like,” Colin says. “I’ll probably be nervous in front of that many people, but it’ll be a good experience.”

Part of the experience is that he’ll get to meet with writers at workshops leading up to the awards ceremonies.

The kid’s future is wide open. He originally conceived of “In Gotherean” as a novel, he says, “but that started taking too long.”

He says he might take another crack at it.

Better get going, I say, vaguely remembering how quickly it all gets away from you when you’re 14.


“I know,” he says, “I’ve got to do it fast.”

I couldn’t tell if he was being ironic or not.


Dana Parsons’ column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at An archive of his recent columns: