- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 1, 2007

I just discovered a book written by a then-15-year-old home-schooler, Christopher Paolini, from Paradise Valley, Mont. The book, “Eragon,” is about a 15-year-old young man who discovers a mysterious and beautiful object that turns out to be a dragon egg. The hatching of this dragon sears the hero, Eragon, with the mark of a dragon rider, someone destined for greatness and the capability to change history.

The story is an exciting read, filled with interesting minutiae about dragon anatomy and life cycle and replete with humans, elves, dwarves and even a new type of creature, an Urgal — not a pleasant type, but a bit less malicious than the spirit-possessed Shade.

Mr. Paolini, 23, set himself a high goal, developing several new languages for the cast of characters, based on some existing ancient languages and is own imagination. After completing his first draft of the book, he showed it to his parents, who are publishers and saw the potential of the novel.

Having editors come in and rework the text, Mr. Paolini writes, was like “someone ruthlessly tearing apart your work with a big smile, all the while telling you that it will make the book so much better. And it did, though it felt like splinters of hot bamboo being driven into my tender eyeballs.”

He drew upon his family for more than logistical help. One of the book’s key characters was based on his younger sister, Angela, and his father designed and formatted the book, using desktop publishing software. The young writer drew the cover and flyleaf art himself.

His mom worked on the promotional materials, and for four months, they promoted the book at book signings and other events, selling about 10,000 copies before a young buyer showed it to his stepfather, Carl Hiaasen, who passed the book on to an editor at the Alfred A. Knopf publishing firm.

Recognizing this as a good thing, Knopf republished “Eragon” and then the sequel, “Eldest,” which should be joined soon by a third book in the trilogy. “Eragon” was high on the New York Times best-seller list, and the movie rights were purchased by Fox 2000, a division of 20th Century Fox. The movie, released in December, came to video last month. “Eldest” won the 2006 Quill Book Award.

It is interesting to note how home-schooling prepares a young person in a unique way to be able to accomplish things that seem impossible from a traditional standpoint. Rather than spending three extra years in high school, Mr. Paolini graduated at 15. Rather than jump through the hoops of college applications and requirements, he consulted his own passions — adventure, fantasy and language — and invested in learning the craft of writing through self-initiated study of books such as Robert McKee’s “Story” and Orson Scott Card’s “Characters and Viewpoint.”

However, this was not a painless process. After writing his first draft and reading it through, Mr. Paolini, says, “I was dismayed by how amateurish it seemed. The story was fine, but it was mired in atrocious language and grammar. I was like a musician who has composed his first aria, only to discover that he can’t perform it because he has not yet learned to sing. I set out to rewrite ‘Eragon’ with the goal of raising the language to a professional level.”

This is rather typical of home-schoolers. They try something, they confront their limitations, and they seek out the expertise they need to bring it up to a higher standard. This contrasts with the step-by-step method of education: A student is prodded and measured as he completes a series of objectives meant to prepare him or her for a distant future competency.

Mr. Paolini and his family are engrossed in a busy life of literature, art, moviemaking and travel. His sister has been bitten by the writing bug as well and is working on her own novel. At the time when most families would be groaning under the burden of college tuition costs, the Paolini family is receiving income for the book and movie rights.

Some would say home-schoolers are lucky, or precocious, or some type of elite group of superachievers. I think all people can do these things when they have the freedom to pursue their interests, the support of their families and the training to work hard.

For more information on Mr. Paolini and his works, check out www.alagaesia.com.

Kate Tsubata, a home-schooling mother of three, is a free-lance writer living in Maryland.

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