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Grinnell teen gets early start on lifelong literary dream

Grinnell High School keeps many copies of Taylor Vander Leest’s ‘A Clash of Sea and Storms’ in the library, celebrating the student’s success. Contributed photo.

What do you want to be when you grow up? Kids have all kinds of answers to this question: a singer, an actor, an astronaut, a pro athlete or even an author. Many people manage to fulfill those dreams, but few do so before leaving high school. Grinnell High School junior Taylor Vander Leest did just that by self-publishing her first novel at the age of 17. 

 The book is called “A Crash of Sea and Storm,” which Vander Leest describes as a young adult fantasy and romance.  

 When Vander Leest was nine years old, her friend’s older sister, also a Grinnell High School student at the time, published a book. As a kid, Vander Leest looked up to this young author and made it her goal to one day become an author herself. Vander Leest says she dreamed about one day making “myself, my friends or my brothers to do a book report on something I wrote.” 

The idea came to her late one night in November 2020. Though she had extra time with shortened classes due to the pandemic, Vander Leest says she wasn’t sure she would be able to write in a large capacity with her extracurricular commitments.  

“But then I just fell in love with it and started writing it and all the ideas just kind of [came] out of nowhere,” she says.  

Vander Leest’s idea soon became “a frenzy of writing all the time.” In fact, she finished her first draft in just 38 days. “Literally the only things I did was eat, sleep and write,” she said.   

After completing her first draft, Vander Leest asked her favorite English teacher, Alison Blankenfeld, to look it over. “The first time that I talked to her about it I was so excited about it … and then she actually had questions about it like characters and places and story.” This was transformative for Vander Leest, because she says she had never thought that her writing project could turn into something bigger.  

“For 13 months it was just this idea that I didn’t know was going to go anywhere,” she said. “I was trying to make my work on par with something you would see in an actual published book, which are usually done by adults and older people.” 

By November 2021, Vander Leest’s book went through about 13 revisions. And by the end of December, Vander Leest had formatted the book and sent it off to be published. 

Using her savings from three years of work at the Grinnell Mutual Family Aquatic Center, Vander Leest bought a proof copy of her book with an ISBN number and a barcode. When she opened the long-awaited-for package with her printed novel, Vander Leest says she “pulled it out and immediately started bawling.” 

“I was so excited because that had been my dream since nine years old,” Vander Leest says. “It was incredible.” 

Though her family has been incredibly supportive, Vander Leest says that she has not allowed her parents to read her book, as she is slightly shy about the dark themes and romantic content. “I want them to read it, but I don’t want them to read it.” 

Vander Leest cites her father as being an especially big supporter throughout the writing and publishing process, “even when it seemed like just a stupid idea that wasn’t going to go anywhere.” She says that “he always joked about me starting his retirement fund.” 

Because she self-published the book, Vander Leest said she learned to advocate for herself and promote her work. She was especially excited when one of her TikTok videos about “A Crash of Sea and Storm” got over 300,000 views. After that, Vander Leest sold around 150 copies of the book. “I was screaming. I was freaking out,” she says.  

Then the positive reviews came rolling in. “It’s one thing to get people to buy it, but it’s another thing for them to actually read it and like it,” Taylor says. She still refreshes the book’s Amazon page every night before bed.  

Since fulfilling her dream of “searching my name up and have ‘author’ pop up beside it,” Vander Leest has not stopped writing. Currently, she is working on the sequel to “A Crash of Sea and Storm.” She has the lofty goal of publishing this one before her 18th birthday in November.  

Despite her school, basketball, volleyball and track & field commitments, Vander Leest said she tries to find time to write a few thousand words each day.  

Though Vander Leest has plans to major in mathematics in college, she says one thing is for sure: she will never stop writing.  

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About the Contributor
Allison Moore
Allison Moore, Staff Writer
Allison is a fourth-year gender, women's, and sexuality studies major from Granville, Ohio. In her spare time, she can be found crafting, cooking, and cuddling with her kitten, Koda. If you think her mini crossword is too hard, then too bad.
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