By Emily J. Weitz
With the addition of offerings such as screenwriting, visual and performing arts programming and travel abroad opportunities in Florence and Kenya, in the last four years the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program at the Stony Brook Southampton campus has blossomed.
This month, yet another addition to the MFA program has been announced, and it is one that hopes to pull in a select group of students from far and wide to study a genre of literature that has also reached new acclaim as of late.
The Children’s Literature Fellowship is a one-year program designed to be a mini-MFA. The goal is to offer writers focused on children’s books or young adult fiction and non-fiction an opportunity to immerse themselves in a fellowship with 12 other students. The fellowship will take the group from the brainstorming stages through the publishing process, but also will introduce writers to critical components of the business, including meeting agents and getting a manuscript out into the publishing world.
“A lot of people who write children’s books can be pretty narrowly focused,” says Julie Sheehan, Director of the MFA Program at Stony Brook Southampton. “They tend to have a specific project. This is a year-long series of four courses. Two workshops are done from home, and two are on-campus.”
Participation in the fellowship program includes enrollment in the esteemed summer writers’ conference, where participants will mix with other writers in classes with the likes of Jules Feiffer and Roger Rosenblatt. It also includes a winter publishing and editing course the following January, when the 12 fellows will return to the campus for intensive workshops, presentations, and training. In between, they will work with a mentor to complete their project.
“From mid-spring through June,” explains Sheehan, “writers will do independent studies with Emma Walton Hamilton [for picture book writers] or Patricia McCormick [for Young Adult writers]. By the summer, they’ll be dispersed into a workshop that is right for them.”
By the fall, fellows will work from home, and in close contact with their mentors, to complete their manuscripts. Young Adult writers will be expected to complete one manuscript, while Picture Book authors will submit three stand-alone books or a series.
“In January, all 12 fellows come back together at the Southampton campus,” says Sheehan. “They give presentations on their manuscripts and they get a lot of professional development. On the last day, everyone will come in to the Manhattan campus for a series of meetings, lunches and hangouts with agents and editors from the industry. Patricia and Emma have an amazing network of connections with publishers, so there will be a high caliber of guests.”
The idea for this program emerged as Emma Walton Hamilton examined the role of Children’s Literature at the Stony Brook-Southampton campus with her colleagues in the MFA program.
“The Southampton Children’s Literature Conference has grown a great deal in the past five years,” Hamilton says. “We have attracted some of the finest authors, illustrators, and industry experts as faculty members and guest presenters, and more students than ever are choosing to pursue middle grade or young adult novels for their MFA thesis projects.”
Sheehan acknowledged that Hamilton was right about this, and this is a way to serve those students better.
“A lot of people who write children’s books can’t drop everything and enroll in an MFA program,” says Sheehan. “This low residency, year-round program is unique, and we have the faculty and the track record to do a really high level right out of the blocks.”
Beyond the smart business decision, though, there is a philosophical reason that the people at the Stony Brook Southampton campus want to have a strong presence for children’s literature.
“Countless studies show that children who read well do better in all aspects of life,” says Hamilton. “They grow up to be better communicators and problem solvers, and even to be more socially and globally conscious… With all the seductive distractions of the digital world, the best way to build or sustain a love of reading and writing is to expose kids to great books. Programs such as the Southampton Children’s Literature Fellowship will help ensure that the most diverse and highest quality literary offerings continue to be available to young readers, who will by extension generate future generations of readers, writers, editors, and educators.”
As they planned the fellowship program, Sheehan, Hamilton and other staff members kept in mind their target audience. They might be teachers, parents or others who work closely with children. Since this is neither the most high-paying industry nor the most flexible, they wanted to offer a program that was both flexible and affordable.
“If you’re a New York State resident,” says Sheehan, “the cost is around $8,000. That’s 15 graduate level courses, an advanced certificate in creative writing, room and board during both conferences, the whole shebang. It’s a practical way for children’s book writers to do something like this.”
As Hamilton looks forward to welcoming the intimate group of twelve fellows to campus this spring, she is excited to have more people who share her commitment to children’s literature.
“These fellows will certainly diversify and enhance the profile of our already esteemed MFA community,” she says. “But most of all, I’m looking forward to seeing the new work that comes out of the program. I can’t wait to celebrate our fellows’ first publications and best seller status.”