The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The education of a best-selling teenage author

In 2008, author Christopher Paolini posed with his book “Brisingr,” the third  in his four-novel “Inheritance Cycle” series. He is standing at his home in Paradise Valley, Montana. (AP Photo/David Grubbs)

When Christopher Paolini was 15 years old, he started writing a novel that eventually was titled “Eragon,” the first in a four-book series that became known as the “Inheritance Cycle.” He spent two years writing and then rewriting the story and a third year traveling around the country promoting the self-published book before an established author, Carl Hiaasen, read it and had it published by Alfred A. Knopf.  How did he manage to do all this and get an education too? In the following post, his mother, Talita Paolini, explains. Talita Paolini trained and worked as a Montessori preschool teacher. She and her husband, Kenneth, homeschooled their two children. Many parents asked Talita for advice, so she recorded the Paolini Method in a series of articles and books. You can read about it here. She currently resides with her husband and children in Paradise Valley, Montana. On her website, the 30-year-old Christopher Paaolini is quoted as saying:

“People often ask how I was able to write Eragon at the age of fifteen. Well, the credit has to go to my parents, and specifically my mom, who is a trained teacher. She started to educate my sister and me when we were very young, first with games and other fun projects and later with more formal lessons. Without her system of instruction, none of our professional success would have been possible. I was incredibly fortunate to have been educated with these methods, and I firmly believe that children everywhere can benefit from them.”

By Talita Paolini

When my son, Christopher, was born, I wondered who he was and who he would become. I had no inkling that he would someday be listed in the Guinness World Records as the youngest author of a bestselling book series. At that time, I just marveled at this little human who had joined our family and felt a sense of responsibility at the task before me: to introduce him to the world.

My husband, Kenneth, and I talked to Christopher, read books to him, and sang to him. We carried him in a backpack, so he could watch what we were doing. He expressed great interest in watching me make dinner, peering over my shoulder as I worked, and he loved observing the world on hikes, while perched high on Kenneth’s back. And when he could walk and talk, wow! He explored the world using all his senses and filled our ears with endless questions and commentary. Our daughter Angela was born not quite two years later, and she developed along the same path. She would become a writer as well.

I had been trained as a Montessori preschool teacher. Dr. Montessori’s philosophy emphasizes the cultivation of children’s innate desire to learn using specially prepared materials and freedom of movement, so it was natural for me to offer my children hands-on activities. Not having the resources to buy expensive classroom materials, I looked for ways to teach them using common household items. In addition, I observed my children closely and then found ways to help them learn through art, games, music, and activities of daily life. In town, we counted cars and trees. We talked about the seasons and where we lived on planet Earth. My children enjoyed doing art projects and playing games with the letters of the alphabet, tracing the letters in preparation for writing, and then pointed out those letters around the house and in town. Each week we visited the library and returned with an armful of books.

Christopher and Angela were very young when they began to read. It was not long after—when Christopher was laboriously sounding out words and reading little books that I had written for him or brought home from the library—that he announced, “I hate to read!” He explained that it was hard work and that he saw no reason why he should learn to read, since it wasn’t going to be of any use. I listened to his concerns and—hoping that his dislike would pass quickly—encouraged him to keep trying, that it would indeed be worth his while. He was unconvinced.

Fortunately, a trip to the library changed his mind forever. He found a series of children’s books about a detective, with something about ketchup being mistaken for blood. Although now he doesn’t remember the titles of the books, he remembers how they sparked his imagination and how he could see the action vividly in his mind. It was the beginning of his love for reading and stories.

When the time came for Christopher to enroll in first grade, we were living in Anchorage, Alaska. Kenneth and I discussed the situation and realized that although our son was only six, he was doing third grade work. Emotionally and physically, he would be out of place in a classroom of eight year olds, but academically he was working far beyond a first grade curriculum. The state of Alaska provided distance learning programs for students who lived in isolated areas, so we thought perhaps we could access those materials. But when we spoke with school officials, we were informed that our son would be required to take a battery of psychological tests before they would exempt him from the regular public school system. We strongly felt that submitting Christopher to those tests would not benefit him in any way, so we declined.

We recalled our own public and private school year, how dreadful some of those experiences were and how sometimes “good kids” got sucked into the system and ended up in the “troubled” category. Our children were active and quick learners. They wouldn’t be happy sitting for hours at a desk, especially reviewing things they already knew; they wanted to do and learn new things. Beyond that, we loved spending time together as a family and watching the unique ways that our children were developing. They were able to express themselves naturally—without peer pressure to conform to certain ways of speaking, thinking, and acting—had no fear of adults, and conversed freely with people of all ages. While we had no innate aversion to group schooling, we didn’t have access to a school that would allow our children to thrive. So we continued to homeschool.

A year later, we moved to Montana and our homeschooling adventure continued. We lived a half hour from a small town, so our children were often their own playmates. The rural setting gave them the opportunity to climb trees, paint themselves with mud, observe geese and eagles perched on cottonwood trees by the Yellowstone River, and invent imaginary worlds of their own. Little did I know that when Christopher was daydreaming out the window—and not finishing his math problems—he was dreaming of battling evil sorcerers and flying on dragons, dreams that would form the basis of his first book, Eragon.

Sometimes our children balked at lessons and we had a clash of wills. At those crucial points, Kenneth and I gave our children a choice: we told them that by law they had to attend school, but it was their decision where they would do this. They could do the assigned homeschool lessons or Dad would drive them to the local school, where they would do the work those teachers assigned. Ultimately, they always chose to homeschool, but not without a grumble here and there.

My teaching philosophy was a combination of learning through life and assignments to give Christopher and Angela daily practice in reading, writing, and math. Angela loved cats, so I gave her a book of stickers depicting cats dressed in Victorian costume. Each day she chose a sticker, placed it at the top of a paper, named the cat, and then wrote a few sentences about it below. After numerous pages were completed, I punched holes at the top of the pages and bound them with yarn to make a booklet. I also created study units on subjects that interested them, assigning a piece of the project each day for a week. When the unit was finished, I bound their writing and art into booklets.

Our local library was a splendid resource for science, geography, and history. My children were exposed to many more subjects, events, and historical figures than they would have been in a grade specific textbook. Their minds ranged widely, and they continued to ask and find the answers to their many questions.

We continued to homeschool through middle school, using workbooks and lessons we invented. In 9th grade, the children enrolled in the distance learning program, American School. This century-old institution sent textbooks and lessons that the children completed at home and then mailed back to be graded. Working at an accelerated pace, by choice, Christopher received an accredited diploma shortly after his fifteenth birthday. Angela—not to be outdone—received hers shortly before her fifteenth.

Today, Christopher and Angela remain curious about the world and are fonts of information on numerous topics. In regard to homeschooling, Christopher says:

“Homeschooling gave me the freedom to explore subjects that caught my interest, whether it was dinosaurs, Icelandic sagas, or Egyptian pyramids. It allowed me to work at my own pace and graduate from high school early, so I had a couple of years free to write before I had to make a decision about college. Being homeschooled gave me time to think, to daydream about adventures, to create the world of Alagaësia.”

The decision to homeschool our children was unusual, especially in the 1980s when fewer support groups and resources were available. Despite the raised eyebrows and skeptical comments, our family persevered. Today, the four of us are close friends and our children credit their upbringing with giving them an insatiable curiosity and a love of learning. Kenneth and I can only imagine what path they might have taken had we sent them to public school, but we have no doubt that homeschooling was the right choice for our family.


Talita’s Twitter: