Published author is a seventh-grader
WRITTEN BY Julie Drake
Twelve-year-old Mmeli Ugochukwu wants to be a pharmacist some day.
That will come after she swims in the Olympics, or maybe runs track in the Olympics, but not before she’s a published author.
Mmeli wants to write books. She got a head start about two years ago when she wrote “Jane’s First Day in School: Eating Bugs.”
The book, which came out late last year, is about Jane, a middle schooler who moves from Florida to California with her parents and brother and sister in the middle of Jane’s eighth-grade year.
Jane encounters three girls as she walks up to her new school. She greets them with a friendly “Hi,” but the girls harass Jane and push her into a puddle of mud. Jane finally makes a friend, Star, a classmate who eats bugs.
“I was writing about a girl who just moved, and I thought that was an interesting thing because some of my friends have done that,” Mmeli said.
Mmeli’s first draft was more imaginary and admittedly silly, with things likes witches. Then she tried to make the story relatable to more people.
“I was telling my parents about it, and they said if I really wanted to do it, they would help me. So I wrote it, and my parents kept telling me about how I shouldn’t give up, even if it takes a long time, which it did. That’s why I kept going on about it,”’ Mmeli said.
The 42-page book, which has illustrations by family friend Cameron Scorza, took about three months to write. Mmeli had school and said she got writer’s block, too. “I find it really cool, but it’s a weird feeling,” Mmeli said.
The daughter of Dr. Chio and Ekene Ugochukwu, Mmeli (pronounced “MEL-lay”) was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States with her parents when she about 15 months old. Mmeli, along with her parents, are now U.S. citizens by naturalization. Her three sisters and brother were all born in the United States.
Mmeli’s mother, Ekene, a special education teacher at Antelope Valley High School, cited a Bible verse from the book of James when asked about her daughter: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
She added, “Mmeli is the most precious gift ever: intelligent, imaginative, happy, beautiful, kind-hearted, well-mannered, wise, sweet, funny, fearless, inquisitive, strong-willed, and blessed.”
Mmeli, a pretty young girl with glasses who wears her long braids down, has visited Nigeria a few times since the family immigrated to the United States.
“I don’t remember a lot from when I was little because I was really young,” she said.
Mmeli, which in Nigerian means “victory,” wrote her first story when she was in kindergarten — about a girl who ate cheese.
“I just wrote about her and this mouse who stole her cheese. My mom told me it was great, and now that I read it, I’m just like, ‘Why would you tell me that?’” Mmeli said with a laugh.
Ekene said she wanted to encourage her daughter.
“She always likes to read and write,” Ekene said.
Mmeli’s parents always read to her when she was little, so she grew up liking reading and writing.
“It’s fun for me,” she said.
Mmeli is thinking about Jane’s next adventure, writing down ideas when they come to her. She anticipates that Jane will still be in school, doing something else.
Mmeli hopes her writing inspires others.
“I hope that I inspire people because I think it’s nice to have someone you look up to when you’re growing up. Even though I’m not done growing up I feel there’s a lot of people that helped me to be the person that I am, and I think you should have a lot more people who are like that,” Mmeli said.
Mmeli, a seventh-grader at Sacred Heart School in Lancaster, had made the Principal’s Honor Roll for academics and citizenship.
As a fifth-grader Mmeli was one of eight winners in the 12th annual William J. “Pete” Knight Youth Exploring Astronomy essay contest.
A year later, she was one of five winners in the Antelope Valley chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution 2013 annual youth essay contest.
Mmeli has also won individual and team awards as a member of Sacred Heart’s academic decathlon team.
Tammy Becker, Mmeli’s math and science teacher, who also serves as head decathlon coach, described Mmeli as “sweet, kind, considerate, and incredibly smart.”
“She keeps it all quiet, and then all of a sudden she starts having this conversation with you, you realize there’s so much there it’s unbelievable.”