Last fall, I enrolled as a graduate student at Simmons University, pursuing an MFA in Writing for Children. I came in with a passion for children’s literature and a hunger to learn the craft. After two rewarding semesters, I can proudly say that I made it through the first year! I am officially halfway through the MFA program, and my first year was an absolute treasure.
For those interested in the highlights and the life of an MFA in Writing for Children, allow me to reminisce about my time at Simmons. These were the top 12 unforgettable moments of the program this year.
1. Sloshing through Slush
I thought the slush pile was only for publishers, but in my first semester at Simmons, I got to slosh through slush submissions with my fellow classmates. In publishing, the “slush pile” is the dreaded pile of manuscript submissions that no author wants to be in. This is the pile of unsolicited submissions, which editors make their ways through when they have a spare moment… which is never. Otherwise, they’re reviewing submissions from agented authors, which tend to be of higher quality.
Associate Editor Karen Boss of Charlesbridge Publishing, a publisher focused on children’s books, led a submission primer workshop, going over the dos and don’ts of manuscript submission. Afterwards, we dove into Charlesbridge’s slush pile, making our way through some 700+ submissions. It was eye-opening to see the volume of submissions, the common mistakes across them, and the few shining stars we found out of that massive mound.
2. Judging the Caldecotts… and the CaldeNotts
I participated in three mock Caldecott Medal deliberations—one for class and two for fun. The Caldecott Medal is awarded by the Association for Library Services to Children, a division of the American Library Association, for “the artist of the most distinguished American picture book for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.”
At Simmons, we take children’s book medals very seriously! In the course “The Picturebook,” students participate in a mock Caldecott Medal nomination. We also had the opportunity to participate in a mock process called the “CaldeNott Award,” hosted by librarian Thom Barthelmess, to recognize the “most distinguished picture book of the year ineligible for the Caldecott Medal, generally because the illustrator is not a U.S. Citizen or resident.” Beyond those two official judging opportunities, I also conducted a mock CaldeNott with my partner at home.
What I learned from these three experiences is that although these big awards have criteria, art is subjective. So, nomination and deliberation really depend on the people involved. The resulting winners were different every time. It is critical, then, that committees continue to stress diversity and inclusion—it matters who is at the table!
3. Visiting Lee & Low Books
Students in the Department of Children’s Literature had the opportunity to visit multicultural children’s book publisher Lee & Low Books at their headquarters in New York City.
Publisher and co-owner Jason Low addressed the group, sharing the company’s history, mission, and vision for the future.
“One book, one television show, one movie cannot represent the experience of an entire community,” Low said of the lack of multicultural content available in the world. “We publish books about everyone for everyone.”
We spent half a day at Lee & Low, speaking with teammates from every department, including editorial, sales and literacy, and marketing and publishing. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t starstruck to hear from Editorial Director Cheryl Klein, who happens to also be the author of one of our beloved course books, The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults.
Seeing inside the publishing machine was extremely educational, as I had never visited a children-focused publishing house prior.
4. Attending the Horn Book Awards
Founded in 1924, The Horn Book Magazine is a literary journal that publishes “essential reading on children’s and young adult books.” It is one of the foremost publications about children’s literature. Along with The Boston Globe, it hosts The Boston Globe–Horn Book Awards annually to honor excellence in children’s and young adult literature.
Attending the 2018 awards, I was honored to see acceptance speeches from the winners and honorees. Yet again, Simmons gave me access to a stage I wouldn’t have sat before otherwise.
5. Discovering the Simmons Archives
As part of our studies, MFAs and MAs in the Department of Children’s Literature study the works of formative artists and authors in children’s literature. In one unit, we visited the University Archives at Simmons, diving into The Knapp Collection of Early Children’s Books.
During a class visit to the Archives, we read first edition picture books from authors include Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane, and Kate Greenaway, known as the British triumvirate of children’s illustration. This experience sparked my now-near-obsession for first-edition hunting. You can find me on eBay and AbeBooks getting way too into the classics!
6. Geeking Out with my Classmates
I knew I had found my people during the first week of classes, but when Halloween rolled around and a group of classmates put together a Halloween Heist party, my heart exploded with joy. We all dressed up as a different character in the roleplaying game, working together to solve the great art heist. Apropos, the heist was set at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the beautiful establishment located just across the street from Simmons.
We all got into it, and at the end of the night, we submitted our ballots… who did we think did it? It turns out, it was Isabella Stewart Gardner’s ghost, possessing the body of The Tourist! GASP! I happened to be the closest guess, so I won a cool giftbag. And, boy, do I love free stuff.
7. Indulging in Free Books
Speaking of free stuff, can I just say, Simmons has a lot of free books! The Horn Book is located on the Simmons campus, and they keep a “book cart” outside of their door, filled with Advanced Reader Copies of nearly every children’s book that comes their way. Plus, at the end of each school year, the Book Nook—the beloved hangout of all Children’s Literature students—gives away the majority of its books to students! There is a lottery system, and we each get to choose five books at a time. Sometimes we make it to a second round, too!
This year, between the Horn Book cart and the Book Nook, I was lucky to get a few books on my wish list. Amazing, right?
8. Creating Picture Book Dummies
I came to Simmons with a passion for children’s book, specifically picture books. I had self-published my own nonfiction series Little Launchers, about real kids with real businesses, and I enrolled in the MFA program to learn how to improve my picture book writing.
That’s why I was so excited when I was assigned to create not one, but two, picture book dummies during my first year at Simmons. Beyond that, I also started four novels and have written seven picture book manuscripts, with multiple revisions on half of those! This program has a lot of critical theory and academia infused for the betterment of its students, but it also gives writers ample time to write. It has been incredible for showing me the diversity of my own range of writing. Excitingly, it has helped me reach some of my pre-program goals, all in the first year.
9. Celebrating an Alumna’s Debut Picture Book
Debut picture book author and Simmons alumna Breanna J. McDaniel, author of HANDS UP!, celebrated her book launch at the Simmons Book Nook, sharing her entire experience with students, staffers, and community members. Her editor, Dana Chidiac, also a Simmons graduate, joined her in the fireside chat, sharing her side of the story as well.
Seeing a fellow Simmons writer succeeding—and being a part of that celebration—was such a powerful moment.
10. Receiving a Student Travel Award
I am excited to announce that I was granted a Simmons Student Travel Award to attend the Big Sur Children’s Writing Workshop in Cape Cod this weekend. I will present some of my picture book manuscripts in critique groups led by agents, editors, and published authors. It will be an opportunity to get feedback on my work from outside of the Simmons community.
As part of my extracurricular work as a children’s book writer, I have kept myself busy during the year with writing retreats and conferences. This school year, I attended the Writing Novels for Young People Retreat at VCFA and the New England SCBWI Spring Conference, among others. I look forward to Big Sur in Cape Cod this week; it is an honor to represent Simmons as a Student Travel Awardee.
11. Landing a Mentorship with Editor Charlotte Wenger
The second year at Simmons is marked by two mentorships, one each semester, alongside history and genre electives. Mentorship is an opportunity to work with an industry veteran to write, revise, and/or polish a manuscript. For Mentorship I, students propose their projects during the second semester of their first year. I proposed a project called “Women of Words,” a collection of picture books about pioneering women in literature and media.
I am honored to have been matched with Charlotte Wenger, a children’s book editor who most recently served as an associate editor at Page Street Kids, having acquired and edited 25 picture books of all genres. She is a Simmons graduate with editorial experience at Charlesbridge Publishing, Candlewick Press, and Rubin Pfeffer Content literary agency. In short, she’s a dream mentor!
12. Making Lifelong Friends
This year would not have been possible without the many friends I made at Simmons. From critiquing each other’s works to going to Pixar Trivia Night after class, we did it all. As the old adage goes… Eric Carle tattoos may be temporary, but Simmons friendships are forever.
I look forward to Year Two and the many memories that I’m sure are yet to come!