I’m Pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children at Simmons University

Erica Swallow at Simmons University

I’m embarking on a new chapter this fall: Pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children at Simmons University in Boston. Over the next two years, I will eat, sleep, and breathe children’s literature, focused on developing my craft, so that I may become an agented and widely published author.

It all begins today with my first class!

A Humble Beginning

I can’t say I’ve been reading or studying children’s books all of my life, or even all of my career. I’m not an educator or book reviewer, and I don’t have kids with whom I read nightly. No, I’ve come to this program in perhaps a rather untraditional way: As a self-publisher of a passion project that happened to be a picture book series.

It all began with my colleague and talented designed Li Zeng. She asked one day if I’d be interested in collaborating on a project that combined entrepreneurship and illustration. It’s form factor, she didn’t quite know, but she had some ideas. She suggested a coffee table book, a daily calendar with inspirational quotes, and a whole list of potential products. I wasn’t quite sold until she said “picture book,” and then it just hit me. This was it. I had been trying to figure out the perfect format to introduce young kids (4-10 years old) to the concept of entrepreneurship — it was only then when it all came together.

Six months later, we were launching a Kickstarter campaign that would enable us to pre-sell 1,200 books and crowdfund more than $20,000 in 30 days for our series: Entrepreneur Kid, a four-book series about real kids with real businesses.

Entrepreneur Kid Readers and Protagonists

Readers (and even some protagonists!) of the “Entrepreneur Kid” series.

We went through the entire self-publishing process. We reserved ISBNs, learned how to format files, researched subjects, drafted, revised, conducted research trips to interview our protagonists, found a printer, figured out ebooks and on-demand print options, built our online presence, had the books shipped from China. It was an absolute blast… a ton of work, but an absolute blast.

What I loved most was telling true stories that resonated with young readers. I’ve been uncovering and telling great stories as a journalist for years, but the art of picture books takes it to a new level. And readers are even more vocal!

We heard back kids and parents from all around the country — and world — thanking us for telling the stories of real kid entrepreneurs. They were inspired to see kids like them in books, achieving big things! The magic was flipping to that last page where the illustrations lent way to a real photo of the book’s protagonist. Kids were in awe of what other youngsters like them could do.

I wish I could say it was something more, but that’s what inspired me to study children’s literature… seeing the positive impact I could have on young readers. Deep down, we all want our work to be loved. And that is what I’ve felt.

In Search of My Impact

My debut picture book series taught me that my writing is valued. Li and I have won a number of awards and partnered with influential organizations, such as GoDaddy, Conductor, and Economic Arkansas,to offer the books on a larger scale. And, it is our greatest feat, perhaps, that the series will be translated into Mandarin and traditionally published in China next year.

It dawned on me last year that perhaps writing will be my greatest contribution to the world, and especially if I can up my game. So, here I am, starting classes today at Simmons.

I’ve spent the past two years diving into the field of children’s literature through writing workshops, conferences, retreats, my writing critique group, and inspiration from mentor texts. Some momentous experiences included attending the Highlights Foundation children’s nonfiction master class as a scholarship recipient; the Big Sur Writing Workshop hosted by Andrea Brown Literary Agency; and the SCBWI Winter Conference.

But… I want more. More time, more focus, more intent.

Putting pen to paper — finding the story and bringing characters to life — is my passion. Enrolling at Simmons — with a focused curriculum, industry allies, motivated peers, and time to develop my craft — is going to accelerate my trajectory as an author.

So, friends, I hope to have great news for you in two years… that I’ve graduated from the MFA Program with work worth sharing. For now, I’ve getting to work with my head down. So, don’t be surprised if you don’t here from me for a bit. I’m just getting into my groove.

A cheers to following passions and always growing!

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