Teen author Noni Carter writes, inspires

Photo by Ben Nelms

If you think inspiring thoughts and words of wisdom are spoken only by people in their senior years, then you haven’t heard – or read – the words of Noni Carter. At just 18 years of age, Noni is already a renowned African-American writer who possesses a remarkable talent for creating fictional stories, a skill she has been honing since she was a young girl.

Earlier this year, her first book, Good Fortune, was published by Simon & Schuster, no small feat by any means, particularly since she is in her first year at Harvard University.

The novel, which takes place in the early 1800s, is about a young African woman who is kidnapped from her village and sent off to a life of slavery in America. Readers learn how the main character faces challenges in her new world, including the struggles she endures on a plantation, her fight to get educated, and the risks she takes to eventually discover true freedom.

While Noni has been putting pen to paper for years, even composing little snippets of thoughts since she was six, the idea for this book started percolating when she was 12.

Motivated by her passion to teach, and driven by her interest in her African-American history, she sat down to write a short story about the slave experience.

Close Up of Noni's Portrait for Good Fortune, 2008 - age 16

Yet this writing project turned personal and real when her great aunt invited Noni and her siblings and cousins to gather at the kitchen table to listen to their ancestors’ stories, those that had been shared in the family for four generations. It was the compelling story of Rose Caldwell—Noni’s great-great-great grandmother—who, at a young age, witnessed her mother being sold across the Mississippi River. This highly emotional true story caused Noni’s creative imagination to kick into high gear, and it wasn’t long before her first novel, with a character inspired by her great-great-great grandmother’s experiences, started to take shape.

“I was already interested in the history of slavery in America,” recalls Noni. “The reason it touched my heart so much is that here was someone who was part of my family, someone that allowed me to take slavery and personalize it.”

What started as a 25 page story grew, over several years, to a 489-page novel.

By the time she was 15, Noni showed the first finished outline of the book to her parents, who saw a work with publishing potential. But Noni wasn’t sure.

“I said ‘no’ at first. I was a little uncomfortable with the whole prospect of allowing the entire world to view my work.”

But in time, Noni’s thoughts started to change. A chance meeting (“divine Providence” as Noni’s father calls it) at a music retreat with poet and writer Kwame Alexander, who conducts writing and publishing workshops around the country, spurred on the process. Kwame took Noni under his wing, opening up opportunities for her to speak about her book at different venues. Noni and her parents began looking into publishing options.

Noni at age 6 and Brother, Desmond, at piano - RPM Music Studio 1997 Recital Portrait

But it was one particular recommendation from Kwame to the Carters in 2008—that Noni attend the Book Expo of America, where she could meet others in the publishing world— that put Noni on the publishing path. She and her father made their way to California with galleys (pre-published copies of the book), quite unsure of what they were stepping into. They met with different publishing companies, including Simon and Schuster, and developed a relationship with the companythat would culminate in a book deal.

“It was very exciting,” Noni recalls. “I feel that from the beginning, in a spiritual sense, things fell into place. It was a wonderful experience.”

Since getting published, the Sandy Creek High School graduate, who finished in the top five percent, is now on a mission to spark an interest in history, pride in identity and self worth, particularly among young African-Americans.

During her last college break, she spoke at bookstores, libraries and six schools, from elementary to the college level, sharing her thoughts on writing the book and inspiring others to find their purpose in life.

What started as a 25 page story grew, over several years, to the novel Good Fortune

In a recent talk at her alma mater, Noni reflected on her book and where life has led her so far, her words reflecting a deep sense of gratitude and wisdom beyond her 18 years.

Noni explains that she fine-tunes her talks to fit the group. “With elementary schools it’s easier to make it a bit more interactive, while with high schoolers, a speech may be more effective. When I talk with adults I explain how my parents raised me and how I got to where I am today. It’s funny because I talk about inspiring youth, but to me it’s always inspiring if they get excited about believing in themselves. It’s a give and take. I give something but I always get something out of it.”

Noni says that encouraging, teaching and sharing with others are her passion. “To me, it almost seems kind of selfish if I don’t share. I see myself as being in a position to speak to those that haven’t been as blessed as I’ve been. I want them to rediscover who they are and help them find their talents. Some of my friends don’t have anyone telling them they can achieve the goals they have. So for some, their goal dies inside of them. I hope that I can be the voice that reaches out to these individuals. I feel like it’s my responsibility having the parents I have and experiences I’ve been afforded.”

Noni’s parents, Clinton and Denise Bell-Carter, both physicians and the parents of three other children, have made it a point to love, encourage and provide as many opportunities as possible.

Family at the RPM 2007 Recital

“Each of our children has their own gift and whenever the least desire was shown for an activity, whether it was music, dance or art, we made sure that they had access to it,” says Denise. “Noni was always a self driven child. She has incredible perseverance. We never had to stay on her when it came to school. She always strived to do her best and always loved playing the teacher when she was little.”

Clinton remarks that Noni and her siblings have been raised with certain “must-haves.” “We tried to raise them with a certain spiritual base and personal base of knowing who they are and being competent in what they are doing. Noni has always been the child that is out in front and had no fear of being out in front.”

When the children were younger certain family rituals, like getting together at suppertime, were essential to the Carters.

“One of the things very important to us was having dinner together every night when our kids were younger,” says Denise. “It was the time to talk about what happened in school. Sometimes we played games after dinner like Scrabble and Sorry.”

Noni goes for her Wild side! Picture for her Sweet 16 Party to raise money for Ghana

Denise adds that Noni was a typical teen in some ways, but not in others. “She was never into shopping, but instead preferred writing, listening to music, going to movies or playing tennis.”

But she did have responsibilities.

“She had to clean up after dinner every night with her siblings and was in charge of keeping her room clean. We just didn’t argue about typical teenage issues. She was just always trying to do the right thing.”

But most important to Noni’s mother is who her daughter is: “She is very humble, very respectful, honest and she knows there is a higher power that drives her and her life. As she is getting older she is really focusing on her spiritual growth.”

Noni’s father has his own take on his oldest daughter.

“She could be with anybody in any income bracket, any ethnicity and feel comfortable. Noni is a lot like me, so when our minds are made up we stick to it and we can butt heads. But after a while we listen to each other. In years past I would help her with math and we would have it out. I was teaching her one way and she’d say ‘this is what the teacher says.’ But the thing about Noni is that she always listened. She may have had an I-want-to-do-it-myself attitude, but all along she was formulating the best way to get the job done.”

Noni with her mother, Denise, and sisters on the beach at sunset - age 15

While Noni and her siblings were involved in many activities as youngsters, the Carter parents had their rules–one in particular.

“We were never allowed to quit,” Noni remembers. “My dad emphasized never quitting any task. If months or years later, I said ‘I don’t want to do it,’ he’d say ‘you need to do it.’ That was the case when I was studying classical piano. I remember being seven and sitting at the piano in tears. My dad was sitting nearby saying ‘you’re not going to quit and you’ll understand when you get older.’ Well, I’m 18 now and I totally get it.”

Besides her parents, Noni acknowledges that the very first school she attended as a pre-schooler, Fayette Montessori, also deserves credit for helping foster her love of writing.

“It was one of the best experiences of my life,” Noni said. “It was one of the first places, besides home, that really catered to your learning style. They encouraged me to be the best I can be and work hard toward your goals.”

It was also the place where Noni was introduced to the idea of journaling. She jotted down her earliest thoughts at the age of six. By the time she turned 12, journaling became a daily ritual.

Noni with Margaret Sissons, Teacher and Owner of Fayette Montessori, at Noni's graduation from the school in 1996

“I have about 10 journals that I’ve written in over the years. At this point in my life, journaling helps me understand who I am. It’s humbling, and eye opening. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t love writing. I love taking pieces of history or a story I heard and trying to word it in a way that would be interesting to my audience and teach a lesson at the same time.”

Even though some 12 years have passed since Noni was enrolled at Fayette Montessori, the Director, Margaret Sisson, still remembers her brilliant young student and her abilities.

“She was super inquisitive and very gracious and caring of other children in the class. Not like a mother figure, just that innate caring for others. As she got older, she was always giving lessons to the younger kids. And as soon as she could write, probably more than any other child, she took off in her writing and displayed a capacity for writing that most children at that age don’t. I’d always ask her ‘what do you want to write about?’ and she’d always have an answer.”

Following her three years at Fayette Montessori, Noni attended several elementary schools before arriving at Woodward, which she attended for four years.

Middle school years were spent at Flat Rock Middle and high school took her to Sandy Creek where she did a joint enrollment at Clayton State University for the last two years of high school.

Listening to the story of Rose Caldwell served as an inspiration for Noni

These days, life at Harvard is full, but Noni’s love of writing and sharing with others continues. She has several other projects she is working on and, while school takes precedence over everything. there is another area of her life she is working on – one of faith.

“Being on a spiritual journey is at the forefront of my mind. I feel that when my spiritual journey is intact, everything else will fall into place.”

At the moment, Noni doesn’t have to declare a major, but when that time comes in her junior year, she plans on a being either a social anthropology major or history in literature major with a minor in music.

“I love seeing what’s around the next bend. I’ve worked hard to write this book but I want people to look in the mirror and ask how they can bring out their own gifts and share them with others.”

And if you ask this brilliant and introspective young woman what the future holds, she’s quite clear.

“I will continue to speak about the idea of being inspired, achieving dreams, and encouraging others to believe in themselves. In terms of a career, I will definitely be writing. I hope to travel and study cultures and write about them. I am really on a lifelong journey to learn. That’s what I’m here for.”

Noni at book signing at Hillside Chapel and Truth Center in Atlanta

April 7, 2010