YOUNG WRITERS | On Youth and “Foreign Language”



Teenagers are a demographic—they’re the “younger set” or the awkward space between the ages of 13 and 18. They’re “young adults” and “adolescents.” There’s no question about the insularity of their interests or the depth of their understanding. The publishing industry’s got them figured out. Take a look at the lion’s share of “teen” literature that’s rolling out these days, and you’ll get an eyeful of clichéd romances, cliquey chick lit, and the like.

Because teens aren’t anything more than that. Right?

Apologies for the vitriol. I’ll avoid generalization and say that the above doesn’t apply to all teen literature. It does, unfortunately, apply to a great deal of the material that’s on my public library’s “teen literature” shelves. In an earlier column, I wrote about teenagers as the real avant-garde of literature; here, I’ll elaborate some more, with some examples from Vademecum’s pages to boot.

I believe that teen literature—poetry, prose, and everything in between—deserves a platform of its own. If it sounds horribly ironic to shout down teen lit in one paragraph, then hold it up to the light in the next, well—it is. But that’s only because the definition of teen literature, as it currently stands, is in sore need of an update.

Teen writers need a platform of their own. Just as the New Yorker (every writer’s wet dream, really) is a haven for literary luminaries, teen lit should highlight the creative output of a group—a group with experiences shared and varied. And this nebulous title shouldn’t become synonymous with bad writing when teen writing can be as good as (indeed, sometimes better than) the output of “professional” adult writers.

The editors of Vademecum Magazine receive stellar submissions of poetry, prose, and photography on a daily basis. And, while we unfortunately can’t publish every piece that lands in our inbox, we do pride ourselves on communicating with submitters to polish and present each piece for publication. That being said, the raw talent we’re privileged enough to work with is alternately outrageous/beautifully strange/innovative/suggestive of other worlds and other planes of existence.

Take, for instance, this short piece from volume 1, no. 3 by contributor DeMauray McKiever:

Foreign Language


“When I spell grey with an e,

it makes me think of the smooth round rocks

you can only find on cold, foggy beaches

in the early morning.

In an early morning dense with

sand and a wet breeze.

An early morning when only

one bird sings, and then sleeps.

An early morning when

the tide and the people are low.”


Post-read, my first thought was that there was something tremendously organic about the talent behind “Foreign Language.” Something utterly unfeigned, unassuming (“An early morning when / the tide and the people are low”—swoon-worthy). There’s a difference between childish and innocent, and this piece was the latter—breathtakingly so.

But I also attempted to fiddle with a few of the poem’s opening lines, only to find that my edits worked to the detriment of tone and form. I read the second line (“it makes me think…”) and worried about the grammatical accuracy of the sentence’s beginning. I’d recognized the opening—that particular opening, “it makes me think…”—in the speech of young children. Here, it could fit, I thought. After some back-and-forth, however, I still wasn’t sure. I suggested an edit to “I think of the smooth round rocks…”

Thank god for the word of Vademecum’s genius poetry editors, Ameerah Arjanee and Greta Unger. Ameerah and Greta suggested that we retain the poem in its original form—a rare recommendation from the magazine, where most accepted pieces are in some way edited before hitting the presses.

In retrospect, I wouldn’t have had “Foreign Language” any other way. Where the original line connoted a kind of wide-eyed wonder, my edit drained this from the line and made it stuffy. The curious observer of the world was sadly transformed into something infinitely less interesting: a whole lot of hand waving philosophizing (“I think of etc, etc, etc”) in place of original, lucid observation.

So my thanks to DeMauray, Ameerah, and Greta for a crisply beautiful short poem and a lesson in editorial savvy.

It’s this kind of realization that speaks to my earlier tirade regarding the divide between teen literature and the adult publishing world. In the context of teen literature, at least, teen writers receive an objective overview of their own work. The divide wouldn’t be necessary, perhaps, if teen writers were provided with the same kind of objectivity afforded to established writers by established publications.

I could argue that younger writers bring a young person’s perspective to their pieces; they’re also capable of writing like any number of professional poets. They’re originators of style and content, initiators of entire movements, and wellsprings for new ideas. But, until they’re lent the degree of artistic credo that older writers enjoy by dint of age, they also deserve their own space. 


Madelyne Xiao is a senior at Urbana High School in Frederick, Maryland. She’s been published in Polyphony HS, the Blue Pencil Online, Stone Soup Magazine, and Cicada Magazine. She loves words. Vademecum is her baby.


YOUNG WRITERS | Fresh Writing and Vademecum Magazine

Evan Warren, Fear (Part V of V)800
“Fear (Part V or V)” Evan Warren

I submitted my first poem to Polyphony HS as a sophomore in high school. It was May—allergies, spring warmth, AP tests—and I read and reread my submission in between sneezing fits. Line breaks, diction, etc. The piece, I thought, was perfect.

A half month later, I’d published my first poem with Polyphony HS. I thought I’d hit a high, and I ran with it. In the following months, I submitted with greater frequency and intensity—more poems, more short stories. Multiple submissions in a single sitting. I wrote with an eye to submitting. I fanned out, found a handful of other journals that published teen writers exclusively. I collected rejection slips and acceptance emails in equal quantities. They were trophies, in my eyes. A testament to occasional originality and unwavering stubbornness. 

The final irony: I ran out of submissions outlets before I exhausted a limited cache of ideas. All told, I’d published in half a dozen small journals, online and print publications run by students and adults alike. Less than a year into a beginner’s euphoric writing spree, I turned abruptly to professional/adult/”grown-up” journals. I was met with flat refusal at every zine, review, and journal I’d submitted to. Form rejections, all. The spree began to peter out. There were no other publications I could turn to. Form rejections, all. The spree began to peter out.

Around this time, I contacted a group of literary friends (we’d attended a writers’ conference together at Hood College)—a playwright, a poet, a photographer, a designer—and massaged my publications frustrations with them into something resembling a plan of action. We wanted to provide younger writers with a platform for expression. We wanted young writers to receive the same kind of kudos for their work as does, say, a heavyweight of New Yorker esteem. A lack of publication outlets was a problem we could solve. Through young writers’ lit mags such as Polyphony HS, and the rough-and-tumble competition of the adult literary world, Vademecum Magazine was born.

It’s difficult to perfect an art—a poem, a prelude, a painting. Mastery is thrown about quite a bit. But what, really, does the word mean? Technical skill? Emotional finesse? A synthesis of the two? Even as age and experience help with attainment of both, it’s hardly fair to expect teenaged writers to compete with seasoned authors. Most youth literary publications are tied to secondary schools. Proof: the editors of Vademecum Magazine are frequently asked if the lit mag is the house publication of a high school. The question that usually follows: “You guys run the magazine?” But the words can’t be taken at face value: As in, all by yourselves?”

There’s a galaxy of young writers who thrive beyond the immediate bounds of Advanced Placement English Literature, beyond dry writing prompts and overwrought analyses of The Scarlet Letter. Young writers matter. They’re intrepid, uninhibited. You’re granted a certain freedom when you haven’t had styles and movements crammed into your head, when youth is a cocoon and reputation is a non-entity. I believe the best works come from either extreme focus or reckless abandon. Or, perhaps, a synthesis of the two: a focused recklessness of thought.

So it’s a shame (a real shame) that there aren’t more opportunities available to young writers. There’s an elitist aspect to every art after a point, and contemporary literature’s no different. Younger writers, I think, have the capacity to not take themselves too seriously—enough to produce strikingly fresh work, but not nearly enough to say, “I’ve got a terrible lot to lose if I do/don’t publish this poem/flash fic/short story in such-and-such zine/review/journal.”

Luckily, there are forums and publications dedicated to these younger writers, no matter how small in number. Polyphony HS supports young writers wonderfully—the magazine’s editorial board, which is composed of hundreds of high school students, provides detailed critique on every submitted piece. Vademecum Magazine and other high school magazines have sought to emulate this model, to an extent. The Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, hosted annually, draw the top 1% of writers and visual artists in the world to Carnegie Hall in a celebration of youth arts. The Foyle Young Poets Award recognizes 15 outstanding teen poets annually. The prize is truly international—hosted by the British Poetry Society, with submissions from every corner of the world.

In the context of these admirable venues, Vademecum Magazine is a relatively young publication, but our purpose and efforts show that we know this sphere of teen writing well. From the start we’ve sought to afford young writers all the rites of publication that adult writers receive, including a real printing and placement in bookstores. To this end, Vademecum Magazine also recently launched its chapbook contest, which will publish a young poet who’s compiled a collection of 20-30 original pieces. The winning collection will hit bookstores where Vademecum Magazine is also carried.

It can take years of experience for a writer to be taken seriously for her work. But similar to how being a young writer doesn’t mean you’re an immature writer, the young Vademecum Magazine is a lit mag to be taken seriously. We know what young writers need—support, opportunities, venues. We provide these things for teen writers so their strikingly fresh work can be recognized.  


Madelyne Xiao is a senior at Urbana High School in Frederick, Maryland. She’s been published in Polyphony HS, the Blue Pencil Online, Stone Soup Magazine, and Cicada Magazine. She loves words. Vademecum is her baby.


SPOTLIGHT | Vademecum Magazine

VM cover 2 284Vademecum Magazine publishes poetry, prose, creative nonfiction, one-act plays, and black and white photography authored by teenagers. The editors at The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review are jazzed about this even though we are no longer teenagers. Due to our undying admiration of Vademecum, we were tickled when we had the chance to interview the founding editor, Madelyne Xiao, to learn how the magazine started, as well as to discuss how vital it is to have a thriving literary scene for young adults.


The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review: We’d love to learn more about your literary background. 

Madelyne Xiao: I began sending my work to litmags in my sophomore year of high school. Before that, writing was, for the most part, an isolated process–most of my poems and short stories began and ended their lives in some remote corner of my mind/desk drawer. Then, some of my pieces were accepted by Crashtest, The Blue Penciland Polyphony H.S. I think I hit my stride with this first series of publications, and I’ve been running on this high ever since. 

Also, reading. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and I cite Rimbaud’s Une Saison En Enfer, anything by Zadie Smith, and Nabokov’s Lolita as influences. I love language – mixing language, especially – and would like to be tetra-lingual someday (French, English, Chinese, and…Esperanto!). 

DTJE: What inspired you to start this magazine?

MX: After a point, I realized that I’d submitted to a great deal of the litmags that were geared towards high school/college audiences, and I was struggling to find other magazines with this kind of niche focus. Naturally, I’d tried submitting to adult litmags, but I soon realized that I’d have to fight seasoned writers and editors for a few inches of ink. I wanted to provide younger writers with a polished, elegant publication that’d do justice to their work, that wouldn’t punish them for lack of experience or the kind of bio that only comes with age. 

DTJE: How did you arrive at Vademecum as the title? Was it due to the poem?

MX: The poem by Billy Collins, yes! I’d been reading some of his poems at the time, and I loved the simplicity of this particular piece: “I want the scissors to be sharp/and the table perfectly level/when you cut me out of my life/and paste me in that book you always carry.” Vademecum’s supposed to be the quintessential, the absolute. In a sense, Vademecum litmag promises to present a few fragments of its submitters’ lives to its readers; we hope we do these fragmentary beauties poetic justice. 

DTJE: How do high school students hear about your magazine to submit their pieces?

MX: We started out with flyers on street corners and mass emails to arts schools. It seems as though our influence has grown – we’ve received submissions from all corners of the world. Vademecum is also being carried by three independent bookstores (in Baltimore, NYC, and Chicago), so there’s that, too. Otherwise, we try our best through word of mouth and social media (Twitter, facebook, tumblr, etc). 

VM cover 1
Enter Vademecum’s Chapbook Contest

DTJE: Do the authors have to be enrolled in high school to submit? Or do they just have to be within a certain age range?

MX: School situations tend to vary – we’ve received submissions from gap-year students – so we stick to a loose age range of about 13-18. Oftentimes, there are exceptions, which we’re only too happy to make for the sake of an excellent submission. 

DTJE: What angle or voice are you hoping to capture?

MX: We shy away from the kind of maudlin sentiment that’s so often (and, very unfortunately) associated with teen writing. We shy away from centered poems, contrived rhyme, and cliché subject matter. 

We embrace the sharp, the fresh, the recklessly creative. Many of the poems we accept are experimental in style, execution, and content. While we say that we look for the “transcendent in the mundane,” the phrase endeavors to turn thought inward, downward – look for depth in the simple, rather than sweeping, florid philosophizing. Surprise us. We (the editors) are here to learn. 

DTJE: How often do you publish your magazine?

MX: We aim to publish quarterly, though this first year of our life has been a bit erratic (two issues, instead of our target four). We’re looking to make up for this loss in our second year. 

DTJE: You’re selling your issues and subscriptions. What made you opt for this method instead of one where all submissions are free to read by the public?

MX: We promised ourselves and our submitters from the outset that a real, tangible paper publication would be our reward. And we’ve kept that promise, thus far. There’s something about an ink-and-paper litmag that an online mag just can’t match. 

Unfortunately, the tradeoff is that we’ve got to charge for our subscriptions and issues. In order to break even, or something remotely close to that, we use funds from subscriptions to cover costs of printing, mailing, distribution, etc. Ideally, we’d distribute Vademecum to the wide, wide world in truckloads, and free of charge. But the editors are a motley assortment of teenagers in various states of pennilessness, so we’ve turned to paid subscriptions.

DTJE: What is on the horizon for Vademecum? 

MX: We’ve got issues 3 and 4 coming out (this month and this spring, respectively). Also, there’s the chapbook contest, which closes in March. It’s an unprecedented opportunity for writers in this age group. Publication of an independent collection, and placement in bookstores! 

Additionally, we’d like to open our door to editor applications, particularly poetry and prose readers. We’re always seeking to expand our staff, and interested students may find more information about applications at our website:!edit/c21o1


Vademecum Magazine Staff

Madelyne Xiao
Michelle Orozco Photo Editor
Michelle Orozco
Photo Editor
Dan Roeder Fiction Editor
Dan Roeder
Fiction Editor
Margarethe Unger Poetry Editor
Margarethe Unger
Poetry Editor
Haley Pierce Design Editor
Haley Pierce
Design Editor
Ameerah Arjanee Poetry Reader
Ameerah Arjanee
Poetry Reader


Madelyne Xiao is a senior at Urbana High School in Frederick, Maryland. She’s been published in Polyphony HS, the Blue Pencil Online, Stone Soup Magazine, and Cicada Magazine. She loves words. Vademecum is her baby.