When Catherine Sparrow announced that she was moving out of her childhood home two years ago, her father sent her to the garage.
“That’s it,” she recalled him saying. “Since you’re leaving, can you please clean out all your stuff?”
She understood his frustration, the 26-year-old laughed during a Skype interview on Monday morning. The boxes dated back decades, she soon discovered, pulling out school books and doodles from grade school.
And then she found the picture books—not her childhood favorites but those she had written herself.
“There were unicorns and princesses and dragons. I had started writing proper stories when I was very small,” she said. “There were even a couple of chapter stories that I clearly thought about and scribbled pictures for. I couldn’t believe it.”
The discovery got her thinking. And when she received an advertisement in her email inbox for the Children’s Literature Fellows Program, sponsored by Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA in Creative Writing and Literature, it was fate—albeit 10,500 miles away.
“I thought, ‘I’ll put an application in, can’t hurt, gotta be in it to win it,’” the 26-year-old Australian said. “Then I got accepted, and I was stunned. It was, like, whoa, maybe I should actually do it, even though it’s a little bit of a struggle, with living on the other side of the world, obviously.”
That, in itself, is the beauty of the program, according to author Emma Walton Hamilton, director of the Children’s Literature Conference. Now in its third year, the year-long, graduate-level certificate program offers a more flexible and affordable option than an MFA program—approximately $8,000 for in-state tuition, $13,000 out-of-state—for aspiring children’s and young adult authors.
Executed primarily through email—with the exception of a children’s literature conference at the Southampton campus in the summer, and a publishing conference in Manhattan in the winter—the program can be completed from anywhere and, technically, by anyone with a bachelor’s degree, though most of the students have either an education background—Ms. Sparrow teaches English and German in Australia—work as librarians, or foster an overwhelming love for children’s books.
“It’s really fairly young. Children’s literature only came into its own in the 1940s and ’50s,” Ms. Hamilton explained on Monday during a telephone interview. “Before that, it didn’t exist. It was lumped in with adult publishing.”
Each semester, every writer is paired with a different mentor and has an opportunity to meet agents and editors as they get closer to finishing their rough manuscripts by the end of the program, Ms. Hamilton explained, narrowing their focus to either picture books, middle-grade or young adult novels. So when Julie Gribble started the program in 2013—one of the original six in the inaugural class—she was one step ahead of the curve. She had already self-published her first picture book, “Bubblegum Princess,” after founding New York Media Works following a 19-year career at NBC as a sound mixer.
“It got to the point where you’re doing something very creative in a corporate environment. It was just time for me to move on and explore my own creativity,” Ms. Gribble said on Monday during a telephone interview. “I started off with film and then decided to write a children’s book, and I’m discovering that there is the craft itself, and the business hat you have to put on.”
In the children’s book world, there are gatekeepers—educators, reviewers and librarians, Ms. Hamilton explained—who feel they have a responsibility to make sure children are reading what is appropriate for them and of the best quality. “I’m not vilifying them. They are the champions of children’s lit,” she said. “But I’m just saying they have a much stronger voice and a bigger role to play in children’s literature than they do in adult literature. Publishers and authors respect them enormously, and you wouldn’t do anything without their support, because there would be no point.”
The trick is learning how a children’s story will fit into the industry, or anticipating how it will be received by the school and library community, Ms. Hamilton said. Regardless of whether it is a picture book or novel, the key is writing a hero who is approximately the same age as the intended reader. Even if the character is a talking rabbit, it must have the same emotional sensibility of the target audience, she said.
From there, the stories and themes themselves fork off. Picture books, geared toward a preschooler or elementary student, deal with issues relevant to them—fairness, bedtime and best friends, for example. “You have to keep it very simple, and you have to make sure you’re offering hope and giving a positive end,” explained Ms. Sparrow, whose focus is picture books. “Anytime you’re writing for children, it is our responsibility to give them hope at the end of the book, and not leave them to crash and burn, like we do to ourselves in so many adult novels.”
In middle-grade books, the themes can shift to the challenges of growing up, being bullied and feeling different, and, again, in young adult novels, to moving from a self-centered perception of the world to an other-centered, more compassionate world view, Ms. Hamilton said.
“It’s more about charting your own course,” she said. “Even if it’s not a happy ending, you have to give the young reader some kind of emotional toolbox with which to cope with the world. In adult books, you can start in a dark place, go in dark places and leave them at the bottom of the pit. It doesn’t matter like it does in children’s books.
“Children’s lit is very altruistic—it’s not dogmatic,” Ms. Hamilton continued. “In the adult market, people tend to write more for themselves. That’s a sweeping generalization. They don’t have any constrictions. People who write for kids are big-hearted, driven and want to make a difference in their lives. That’s a great world to be a part of.”
The Children’s Literature Fellows program, sponsored by Stony Brook Southampton’s MFA in Creative Writing and Literature, is now accepting applications for 2015. The deadline is December 1. For more information, visit childrenslitfellows.org.