By Annette Hinkle
While the book publishing industry is in a major state of flux these days due to shrinking profits and growing competition from online sources, Sag Harbor’s Emma Walton Hamilton sees one corner of the market where the book industry is not only surviving … it’s thriving — children’s literature.
It’s not just picture books for small children that are perpetually popular (Hamilton has authored several herself with her mother, Julie Andrews), but also categories such as middle grade readers for grades 5 to 8 and Young Adult (YA) novels for those in their teens and beyond which are finding strong audiences.
Hamilton is the Children’s Literature Conference Director at Stony Brook Southampton. More than a year ago, Hamilton and MFA in Creative Writing Director Julie Sheehan realized a growing number of people attending the summer writer’s conference at the campus — specifically educators and librarians — were expressing interest in writing children’s literature, so they instituted the Children’s Literature Fellows, a one-year certificate program, which can be taken remotely or at the Stony Brook Southampton campus.
The certificate program was designed by Sheehan, Hamilton and YA author Patty McCormick who lives in North Haven. McCormick, a National Book Award Finalist, writes edgy novels based on children’s experiences with real world issues such as sexual slavery, self-cutting and war. She has been tapped by Hachette Book Group to write the story of 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai who was shot by the Taliban in Afghanistan in retaliation for speaking out on the importance of education for girls.
The idea for the Stony Brook program is one-on-one mentorship in which Hamilton and McCormick (as well as authors Cindy Kane, Tor Seidler, Rachel Cohn, Maryrose Wood and others) shepherd a small group of fellows through a year during which they write one or more children’s books depending on the genre.
Each of those children book genres, notes Hamilton, have very specific traits and formats that define them. Picture books, for example, are exactly 32 pages long and contain less than 1,000 words — and are written more like poetry, with each word carefully selected. Middle grade books have engaging themes and heroes and include titles like the first books in the Harry Potter series or “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”
“It’s great story telling and engaging. There are usually a lot of series because kids fall in love with a book and want more,” says Hamilton of middle grade books. “There’s nothing really too edgy, no rough language, violence or sex.”
“In the Young Adult novels you can have a series like “Twilight” but also stories that can be a little edgier,” she adds. “That’s where you can have more in the way of language, sex, and depending on the story, urban realism or fantasy. It throws open the gates.”
But YA books, she notes, are not adult fiction.
“The two main differences are that in YA fiction, the hero or heroine is usually a teenager, like the target reader,” says Hamilton. “Also, ultimately in the end even if it’s a sad ending, there is some degree of hope. In adult fiction you can drop the reader down in the depths of hell and leave them there if you want. But in YA and others, there’s a certain responsibility to the young reader. You’re thinking about the audience and other people’s children. You give them tools for coping with life’s challenges. You’re helping kids learn about the world and navigate it successfully.”
Hamilton explains that the six fellows selected for the children’s literature inaugural program early in 2013 are now finishing up their projects — five are working on YA novels and one has written a series of picture books.
“We’re three quarters of the way through the first year. The fellows are phenomenal and each one had a completely unique experience because each one is being individually mentored,” explains Hamilton. “They’re having the time of their lives and getting the kind of support for developing manuscripts you wouldn’t get even if you hired an editor to work full-time with you.”
“This is a creative writing certificate program,” she adds. “You earn 16 credits in one year and it gives you a finished manuscript or three to four picture books, the support to get there and, at the end, puts you in touch with the publishing world and sends you on your way.”
As the final step in the program, come late January, all six fellows, with finished manuscript, outline and prospectus in hand, will travel to Stony Brook University’s Manhattan campus where they will meet publishers, agents and editors and pitch their stories in the hopes of getting their work published.
Now, with the first year of the program winding down, Hamilton is putting out the word that Stony Brook Southampton is looking for the next group of prospective fellows for the children’s literature program. Applications are being accepted through December 1 and the program will begin February 1. Hamilton notes the curriculum is ideal for writers with busy lives, including those with children and careers, who want to work at home and on their own schedule.
Just two of this year’s fellows live locally (including Sag Harbor’s Jaime Mott who has her own landscape design firm and is the mother of toddler twins). Two more are in New York City, another lives in Florida and one is on the West Coast. Over the summer, the six fellows met face to face for the first time during the summer writer’s conference in Southampton.
Ironically, though the goal is get the fellows’ children’s books published, communication during the year long program is almost entirely online. Feedback between fellows and their mentors is accomplished through email, while the group communicates with one another on Google Hangout, Facebook or Edmodo.
“In designing the program, I knew I would hear the lament, ‘I teach and have no time,’” explains Hamilton. “So I knew this remote idea would be attractive to that demographic. That was part of the vision with this certificate program, to make the curriculum, deadlines and assignments specific and assign the right mentor.”
“They have a syllabus and from the beginning they’ve known their target deadline and when they can expect to hear back from us,” explains Hamilton. “There are two books per semester that they all read. Mentors are also expected to assign books based on the person they are mentoring.”
“On the first day of every month, they send their submissions, hopefully 30 pages of new material for a novel or a full draft of a picture book,” says Hamilton. “We have a week to give full feedback and recommendations for rewrites and offer next steps and assignments or, if we think they’d benefit from it, a particular exercise.”
“The standards are high, you have to really be serious about it and have the writing chops,” adds Hamilton. “Though it’s not an MFA, it is a graduate level program.”
“They’re free to ask questions …and they do,” she adds.
For Hamilton, much of what inspires her with this program is the progress she has witnessed the fellows make during the course of their year at Stony Brook Southampton.
“I get excited to get the submissions,” she says. “When they take something and run with it, it makes a huge difference. At the end of the day, everyone of us is a fan of the genre. All big kid literature lovers have such a good time reading and developing the stories.”
Given what’s going on in the children’s literature industry, Hamilton is optimistic about the prospects these fellows will encounter once they leave the program.
“With ‘Twilight’ and ‘The Hunger Games,’ YA is now one of the only growing sectors of the publishing industry, which is why a program like this is so attractive,” says Hamilton. “It’s an area where you can potentially make a living and get a book sold because it’s such a thriving part of publishing.”
Those opportunities can also be linked to education and Hamilton points to “A Long Walk to Water,” a book by Linda Sue Park about the true story of a Sudanese man who struggles to bring water to his village, as an example of how the market is growing.
“Three years after that book was published it was on the best seller list,” notes Hamilton. “Librarians and educators discovered it and understood how it spoke to their African curriculum. Now that book’s on the list of practically every state’s curriculum.”
“That doesn’t happen in adult books,” she adds. “That makes children’s literature attractive.”
For more information on Stony Brook Southampton’s Children’s Literature Fellows program, call director Emma Walton Hamilton at 632-5030 or email her at Emma.Waltonhamilton@stonybrook.edu. Applications are due December 1, 2013 and available online at www.childrenslitfellows.org.