Course Offers Help for Would-Be E.B. Whites, Judy Blooms

Patricia McCormick will help instruct the Children’s Literature Fellows Program at the Southampton campus of SUNY-Stony Brook.
Patricia McCormick will help instruct the Children’s Literature Fellows Program at the Southampton campus of SUNY-Stony Brook.
Patricia McCormick will help instruct the Children’s Literature Fellows Program at the Southampton campus of SUNY-Stony Brook.

By Peter Boody

So you’ve always longed for a writing career and your dream path to literary immortality is kids’ literature.

Good for you! May you write the next “Charlotte’s Web” —and even though it is even more unlikely, may somebody big in the business take notice and publish it.

Thousands of people share your dreams, so how do you separate yourself from the crowd? Talent, skill, and energy are all prerequisites. Dedication, otherworldly persistence, and a vast capacity for work in spite of rejections by the truckload are also required.

Luck is possibly the most crucial ingredient. As they say, you have to make your own. You boost your share of it by cultivating contacts in the business — real, live, successful writers, editors and agents. Without their support, submitting work over the transom, in the blind, is like counting on the lottery to keep you fed and comfy in old age.

The Stony Brook Southampton Campus of the State University of New York offers a way to develop that professional support system without having to spend the time and money earning a graduate degree.

If you’re good enough to win admission to its Children’s Literature Fellows Program, which accepts only 12 applicants a year, you will find yourself working with pros, polishing your work according to their guidance, and cultivating contacts that could help you throughout your career.

“It can be a shock to find yourself sitting next to the author you’ve long admired, an author who knows your name and treats you as the serious writer that you are. Get used to it.”

That’s how the program’s page on the SUNY website puts it.

The year-long course is now accepting on-line applications for the class of 2017, which starts in the spring and awards a certificate worth 16 credits under the auspices of the SUNY Master of Fine Arts graduate program.

Students apply from all over the world because the program is largely conducted over the internet. Once accepted, fellows work one-on-one with a faculty mentor who is an “award-winning, best-selling” author of children’s literature, according to a Stony Brook Southampton press release. Every month, students electronically submit work to their mentors, who provide detailed feedback and analysis.

The faculty includes Emma Walton Hamilton, director of the Children’s Literature Fellows Program and author of “Dumpy the Dump Truck” and many other titles, with her mother Julie Andrews Edwards; and Patricia McCormick, author of “Never Fall Down” and other realistic YA novels. She is a two-time finalist for the National Book Award.

Mentors have include a whole swath of successful kids’ lit authors: Chris Barton, Samantha Berger, Libba Bray, Cindy (Trumbore) Kane, Rachel Cohn, Donna Freitas, Peter Lerangis, Grace Lin, Megan McCafferty, Tricia Rayburn, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Tor Seidler, Amy Sklansky, Ann Whitford Paul, Maryrose Wood, and Dan Yaccarino.

Fellows visit the campus twice during the program, first in July, during the annual five-day Southampton Children’s Lit Conference, then in January, to attend a three-day Publishing and Editing Conference, at which they will meet with editors, agents, and other publishing pros.

During the year, each student must complete either a “publishable YA or middle grade manuscript, or, for chapter and picture book writers, three to four separate manuscripts,” according to SUNY press release.

If you don’t know those terms, you’re not up to speed in the world of kids’ lit.

“YA,” of course, means “young adult,” which is fiction aimed at teenagers.

“Middle grade” refers to fiction for pre-teens down to age 8.

A “chapter book” is the next step up (in terms of targeted age group) from a “picture book,” which is for beginning readers. A chapter book uses prose more than pictures to tell its story but, still, there are plenty of illustrations.

The kids’ lit fellow program grew out of Ms. Walton’s and Ms. McCormick’s graduate teaching and conference work at Stony Brook Southampton. “It was becoming increasingly apparent,” Ms. Walton Hamilton wrote in an email interview last week, “that there were students interested in focusing on writing for children or young adults” whose “personal lives precluded them from participating in a full three-year MFA program.”

Many weren’t “easily able to attend workshops during the school year,” she said. “We were also hearing that most of the children’s lit programs on offer elsewhere focused solely on craft and lacked the training or connections to prepare writers for the business of writing and publishing.”

She said the goal of the program is to provide “over-arching types of support” for aspiring kids’ lit authors, including “professional feedback;” learning “accountability” in terms of deadlines and goals; “community,” by providing a connection with other writers; and “preparation for the professional world,” including introductions to agents and editors and learning how to pitch a manuscript.

The cost is about $9,500 for New Yorkers and $17,000 for out-of-staters. With applicants from all over the world for just 12 spots, Ms. Walton described the applicant selection standards as “very high.”

She wrote that those who are selected “typically demonstrate a high level of writing talent, originality of voice, and a serious interest in writing for children as a vocation — as opposed to being just a ‘one-book wonder.’ They also present themselves as receptive to feedback and willing to work hard in pursuit of their goals.”

Applicants must submit samples of their writing and references. If they don’t have a kids’ lit project in the works, they should have one in mind, Ms. Walton Hamilton wrote.

Among successful program graduates, Erika Lewis, class of 2015, will see her YA novel, “Games of Shadows,” published in February 2017 by Tor Books, an imprint of McMillan. Lauren Long, another 2015 fellow, recently won a Work-in-Progress Award from the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

Julie Gribble, a 2013 fellow, founded the award-winning organization Kidlit TV, which produces TV programming designed to reinforce children’s appreciation of reading.

“Being a Children’s Lit Fellow,” Ms. Gribble said, “is like having a guided tour of the city you’d always wanted to explore. You learn so much more than you could traveling about on your own.”