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Archive for Friday, May 12, 2006

Teen author recalled as great student

Those who knew her shocked by plagiarism accusations

May 12, 2006

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— Well before she became famous as the Harvard student caught lifting material from other authors, Kaavya Viswanathan was the kind of person others noticed.

Because she was so smart.

The Harvard University sophomore with the six-figure book deal honed her love of writing at the Bergen County Academies, a rigorous New Jersey magnet high school where even top students can be intimidated.

Viswanathan became even better known in recent weeks amid a cascade of plagiarism allegations against her novel, "How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life." Publisher Little, Brown and Co. last week canceled the reported $500,000 deal with the teen.

For the Indian-born Viswanathan, 19, the downfall is an abrupt reversal in a young life marked by accomplishments that still earn her admiration from former teachers at a school where only one in four applicants is admitted.


Kaavya Viswanathan, a sophomore at Harvard University, is pictured in April at the university in Cambridge, Mass. She was caught lifting material from other authors, causing a publishing world scandal. The young author honed her love of writing at the Bergen County Academies, a rigorous New Jersey magnet high school, where she was remembered as the kind of person others noticed.

Kaavya Viswanathan, a sophomore at Harvard University, is pictured in April at the university in Cambridge, Mass. She was caught lifting material from other authors, causing a publishing world scandal. The young author honed her love of writing at the Bergen County Academies, a rigorous New Jersey magnet high school, where she was remembered as the kind of person others noticed.

At the Bergen County Academies, Viswanathan attended the school's premier Academy for the Advancement of Science & Technology.

She edited the school's online magazine and earned numerous writing awards. After showing a story to a counselor at a private college-prep firm, a meeting with a publisher was arranged and the strikingly pretty young woman emerged with a two-book contract. Sporting a 4.16 grade-point average and 1,560 on the SAT, the high school valedictorian headed to Harvard, where she is completing her sophomore year.

The novel about a driven, high-achieving Indian-American teen trying to get into Harvard was published in March. Within a month, student newspaper The Harvard Crimson pointed out similarities between dozens of passages of Viswanathan's novel and two works by Megan McCafferty, "Sloppy Firsts" and "Second Helpings."

Viswanathan apologized for what she said was an unconscious imitation of books she read and admired years earlier, and Little, Brown planned to revise future editions. But within days readers pointed out similarities between "Opal Mehta" and the works of several other writers, including Meg Cabot's "The Princess Diaries," prompting the publisher to cancel the contract and withdraw the book from sale.

Neither Viswanathan nor her parents returned several phone calls seeking comment. But those who knew her as a high school student say plagiarism is at odds with the girl they remember.

"I saw an extremely bright and extraordinarily gifted 16-year-old with a talent for writing," said Katherine Cohen, for two years Viswanathan's counselor at Manhattan-based IvyWise, where college prep sessions cost parents tens of thousands of dollars. Author of "Rock Hard Apps: How to Write the Killer College Application," it was Cohen who introduced the student to a book agent.

"I don't believe the Kaavya I know would ever wantonly or willingly copy someone else's work with the deliberate intent to deceive others," Cohen said.

Born in Madras, India, Viswanathan and her family immigrated to Scotland when she was 3. They moved to New Jersey when she was 12.

Classmate Katelyn Purpuro, just completing her sophomore year at Cornell University, said she only knew Viswanathan in passing from a statistics class, but was aware of the girl's ambition to go to Harvard, and that she was taking extra Advanced Placement classes to prepare.

"Kaavya was an overachiever, but she was doing well at it," Purpuro said. "She was not carefree, but calm. She was always on top of things."

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