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South Jersey teen is the youngest girl to create a New York Times crossword puzzle

“I was really excited. It was surreal,” said Soleil Saint-Cyr, 17, a senior at the prestigious Lawrenceville School near Princeton.

Soleil Saint-Cyr, 17, is the youngest woman to publish a crossword puzzle in the New York Times.
Soleil Saint-Cyr, 17, is the youngest woman to publish a crossword puzzle in the New York Times.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

Her name could be a clue one day: Who is the youngest female crossword puzzle constructor published in the New York Times?

Soleil Saint-Cyr, 17, a South Jersey high school student, made history this month when her puzzle was selected for Black History Month. Her work began a week of six puzzles that were created by Black constructors.

Although she has been solving puzzles for years, she began learning how to make them only last summer, partly to fill idle time due to the pandemic. She was stunned when her work caught the eye of a Times editor and eventually was published Feb. 1.

“I was really excited. It was surreal,” said Saint-Cyr, a senior at the prestigious Lawrenceville School near Princeton. “I thought it could be a possibility. You can only hope that the New York Times would like it.”

Her puzzle was selected in part because it was fresh and hip, said Wyna Liu, an associate puzzle editor at the Times. Saint-Cyr included current events, pop culture, and clues like rapper Wiz Khalifa that appealed to a wider and more diverse audience, she said.

“It is an excellent puzzle by any standard, but it is all the more amazing that someone so young made it,” said Liu. " She really made a beautiful puzzle.”

Saint-Cyr, who turns 18 on Saturday, became the youngest female puzzle constructor published in the Times, according to Liu. The youngest was Daniel Larsen, 13, whose work was published in February 2017. At least 50 puzzle-makers are known to have published in the Times in their teens.

She joins a relatively small but growing number of Black constructors changing the lingo in the puzzle-making world traditionally dominated by older white males, said Ross Trudeau, a crossword puzzle blogger based in Cambridge, Mass. He frequently publishes his work in the Times and other outlets.

Trudeau, a writer, and digital media producer at Fishtank Learning, helped Saint-Cyr develop a theme for her crossword — phrases that incorporate different types of “bees” and the “revealer” HIVE MIND.

A voracious reader, Saint-Cyr took the theme and ran with it, putting her personality on the crossword, Trudeau said. She easily developed the grid and the clues, he said.

“It’s hard not to be excited for a young woman like Soleil,” Trudeau said. “She has her finger on the pulse of the culture and language. I’m super proud of her.”

Saint-Cyr said she used clues that were relevant and a part of her lexicon. Like the entry GEORGIANS, a reference to the newly elected senators — Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.

A more tricky clue: The civil rights activist Malcolm X once said, “Early in life, I had learned that if you want something, you had better MAKE some noise.”

Saint-Cyr said her intent was not to stump puzzle solvers but rather enlighten them. She gave a nod to the pandemic with the answer to a clue with ESSENTIALWORKERS.

“I like making people feel like they’re smart, not like they don’t know anything,” said Saint-Cyr. She received $500 for her work and hopes to create another puzzle soon.

Saint-Cyr said she began working on crossword puzzles as a stress-reliever. Creating her own became a pastime last summer when most activities were halted by the pandemic, she said.

Her debut drew some rave reviews from puzzle solvers. “Excellent debut and I’m sure this hive of solvers look forward to future puzzles from you,“ wrote one.

Saint-Cyr began solving People magazine crossword puzzles with her mother at age 13. In high school, she moved on to tackling crosswords in the Times, to the amazement of her mother.

“I just never had to motivate her to do anything,” Stephanie Saint-Cyr, a lawyer, said of her oldest daughter. “She’s very methodical, diligent, and very structured in everything she does.”

She brings the same attitude to life at Lawrenceville, said Emilie Kosoff, associate dean of students. An honors student, Saint-Cyr plays lacrosse and is school president.

“She’s a true team player,” said Kosoff, Saint-Cyr’s adviser.