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Writer weaves a Web of young fans for her novel
By David Mehegan, Globe Staff | August 20, 2005

The World Wide Web has influenced writing and publishing in many ways, but seldom if ever has a writer used it to storm into print in quite the way Boston's Libby Koponen has. Her children's novel, ''Blow Out the Moon," has a publisher (Little, Brown) and has won a coveted award. But in the way that it happened, the readers actually came before the book.

Koponen, 54, is an irrepressible, kid-loving bundle of energy who lives in a small, book-filled apartment in the Back Bay. Her working nook is a bay window with a view of three streets, including a children's playground, and the walls have bits of children's art, including some that appear in her novel about an American girl sent to an English boarding school in the late 1950s.

The girl's name is Libby, and it soon becomes clear that in this case, ''novel" means that some of the writer's real-life experiences have been omitted, and some narrative and dialogue added. What makes it a novel, said Koponen, ''is that it has a beginning, a middle, and an end." The Libby of the story is an 8-year-old girl Koponen describes as ''a hell-raising, hoyden-ish tomboy who goes to this very prim and proper boarding school and learns how to be considerate of other people."

Except for a year and a half in England, where her father, an advertising executive, was transferred, Koponen grew up near New York and has lived in many places since. She went to Wheaton College and Brown University for a master's degree in creative writing, and for a while taught writing and English as a second language at Rhode Island School of Design. She calls herself ''a late bloomer" who several times has been drawn back to Boston, the last time in 1993, and recently has made her living as a freelance writer.

''I have wanted to be a writer since I can remember," Koponen said. ''I had always written fiction, but never tried to get it published." ''Blow Out the Moon," in a much longer form, had been written in the 1990s. ''This book demanded to be written," she said. ''When I started writing, it was as if my 8-year-old self shoved me out of the way, took over my keyboard, and started typing. It wrote itself."

During the infancy of the Internet, Koponen got a job with a large Boston-based financial services company and wrote for its website. As she learned more about the Web, she became fascinated with its potential, and it gave her an idea about her novel.

''When I was about to turn 50 -- 50 is huge -- I thought, what are you waiting for? Your next life? So I made a vow to myself that I would try to get it published. I thought, what I can do to increase my chances is to put the whole thing on the Web and then collect e-mail responses from kids. I knew they would love the book. When I had enough letters from kids, I'd approach publishers."

She started in 1999, and as she wrote the story into the site (, she included old photographs of herself and the school, as well as a letter she wrote to her American friends from the ship that took her family to England. In the text, she also inserted links to activities. Where the children in the story play cat's cradle or use Morse code, Koponen inserted links to fuller explanations. She also included songs and her favorite fairy tales, including ''Rumpelstiltskin," and ''East of the Sun and West of the Moon."

''It took a long time to put the whole book on," Koponen said, ''and at times I would think, 'Are you crazy? No one's going to read this.' I have instructions and pictures for every move in cat's cradle. I stopped in the middle and added a note saying, 'If anyone is reading this, please send me an e-mail and I will put up the rest of the instructions.' I got a ton of e-mail from kids saying, 'Please put up the rest.' The software allowed me to track how many kids were coming every day, and at the beginning I had maybe six a day. Now I have between 600 and 800."

In a lucky break, was put on a recommended list by Yahooligans, a Web guide for kids. ''Then Google came along," she said, ''and it just grew and grew. Kids started writing to me, telling their friends about the site." Then she got a letter from the Manatee County school district, near Bradenton, Fla., seeking permission to download her whole site on the school computer.

In 2000 she decided the time had come to publish. She had no agent, so that summer she wrote a cover letter, attached copies of printed-out e-mails from kids along with copies of the Florida request, went to the downtown post office, and mailed packets to 30 publishers.

''I made a vow to myself that I would forget about the whole thing, because I didn't want to be obsessing about it," she said. Afterward, she walked halfway across the Congress Street bridge and tossed a handful of peony petals into the Fort Point Channel. ''I said, 'I've done everything I can do, it's out of my hands.' Then a guy walked past and said, 'Good luck,' which I thought was a good omen."

That November she got ane-mail from Little, Brown, a division of Time Warner, wanting to see a paper copy of the manuscript. The publisher had tried to write to her, but the letter had come back. It turned out that somehow she had made an error on her street address on all the packages, but one publisher was interested enough to persist bye-mail.

Little, Brown accepted the book. After several rewrites, moving it closer to fiction and away from memoir, and after considerable shortening, the manuscript was published in June 2004, and recently was named an honor book in the competition for the Massachusetts Book Award, given annually by the Massachusetts Center for the Book, with an awards ceremony Nov. 17.

Megan Tingley, Little, Brown's editor in chief for young readers, said that while it's not uncommon today for an author to have a website, Koponen's was a pioneering approach. ''We were impressed that she had already built an audience for her work," Tingley said. ''We liked the fact that she had this direct communication with her readers." From a marketing point of view, Tingley added that with all the intense interest in the Harry Potter series, there is an appetite among kids for a true-life story of a girl in an English boarding school. The book has done well enough to be scheduled for a paperback edition in 2006.

The first six chapters of ''Blow Out the Moon" are still on Koponen's site (Little, Brown balked at keeping the whole book up), along with links to chapters that were deleted. She calls the site ''a lifelong hobby," and promises on the site to answer every e-mail that she gets from kids.

After ''Blow Out the Moon" was published, a new phase of her career started, with invitations from schools. Now she does school visits locally, and as far away as New York. Along with her writing and her efforts to build up her website, the visits have become a labor of love. Her site has a page for schools to inquire about visits.

''When I did my first visit, the children had loved the book," she said. ''I was sitting in a roomful of children, in a circle on the floor. I thought, this is great, I'm really happy right now, it's a dream come true." She talks to the kids about herself, the book, why she put in some things and left out others, and what they should do to become writers. ''I tell them the first thing is to stay curious. If you stay curious and interested in a lot of things, you'll always have something to write about," she said.

Koponen has a new book, about a young Thomas Edison, under consideration by publishers. As for her writing plans, she said, ''I only want to write for children. There are many people who have things to say to adults, but I'm just one of those people who connect with children. It's what I love doing."

David Mehegan can be reached at

© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

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