Department Chair Kathi Appelt on the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults

Kathi Appelt, department chair of the Vermont College/Union Institute & University M.F.A program in Writing for Children and Young Adults, is the author of numerous books for young readers. Her recent titles include: Miss Lady Bird’s Wildflowers: How A First Lady Changed America, illustrated by Joy Fisher Hein (HarperCollins, 2005) and Merry Christmas, Merry Crow, illustrated by John Goodell (Harcourt, 2005). She lives in College Station, Texas.

What is a low-residency master of fine arts program?

In a traditional residential degree program, students typically attend weekly or bi-weekly seminars or workshops on campus. A traditional degree usually has a set or series of classes that are required and may or may not include one-on-one instruction or mentoring. A masters level degree normally takes anywhere from two to four years. In a low-residency program, students congregate only once or twice a year on campus for two-four weeks. During these residencies, students attend lectures and workshops. They are then assigned to an advisor who will work with them on an individual semester plan. So, during the course of a semester, the student works with only one instructor.

What are the advantages of a low-residency program?

There are a lot of advantages. For one, students don’t have to uproot themselves or their families in order to attend a particular college. The low-residency idea is designed to accommodate working adults, people who have regular jobs and can’t simply stop working in order to return to school. They’re also designed for those who can’t or don’t want to relocate. They can also design their own course of study for the most part. A student who primarily wants to work on picture books can do so; likewise someone who is mainly interested in poetry can focus on that. Of course, we encourage our students to use their time with us to explore areas in which they’re unfamiliar, to tap into the faculty’s expertise in a variety of genres.

In addition, each student works intensively with one advisor at a time. The student to faculty ratio is very small, usually five to one or fewer. During the course of a student’s career within the program, he or she will work with up to four separate advisors.

Could you give us some insight into the history of the VC program?

The VC degree in Writing for Children and Young Adults sprang out of the long-established low-residency program in creative writing. A handful of alumni from that program, including Louise Hawes (author interview) and Sharon Darrow, who have been on our faculty all along, joined forces with Marion Dane Bauer and some other well-known children’s authors to start our unique program. We’ll celebrate our tenth anniversary this summer! At the time that we started, ours was the only low res program that offered a specific degree in writing for children and young adults. There are a handful of others that are coming along now, many of which have our alums among their faculty.

How is the VC program structured–number of semesters, thesis requirements, balance of critical and creative work?

VC is designed on a two year timeline, consisting of four semesters and five residencies. Each semester is a little over five months long. In that time, students are required to turn in five packets, one each month.

In the first and second semesters, students must submit a combination of new creative work, revisions, and one or two short critical essays on some aspect of the craft. During the third semester, a student must continue to turn in creative work, but he or she is also required to write a critical thesis. During the fourth semester, the student concentrates on his or her creative work and must turn in a creative thesis. The creative thesis may be comprised of a novel or part of a novel, a work of non-fiction, several picture books, or a combination of all of these. During the last residency, the graduating student has to present a lecture to his or her classmates and faculty members, as well as a reading.

For writers, what is the benefit of doing critical work?

Critical work gives the writer a more intimate and in-depth look at both matters of craft as well as issues in the field of children’s literature. We encourage our students to look closely at the ways in which writers use characters, plot, theme, research, etc., and to then translate that knowledge into their own work. In order to be full players in our field, our belief is that our graduates should be able to look analytically and critically at the work in front of them, both their own and that of other writers. As well, we hope that our students will consider teaching, and in order to be prepared for this, they have to have a solid grounding in the critical aspects of children’s literature.

What takes place during a typical residency?

The residencies are action packed. Each day is filled with a combination of workshops, readings and lectures. The lectures are led by both graduating students and faculty members. In addition, some faculty members lead seminars that are often hands-on. Guest speakers are brought in too. This January, Caldecott winner Mordecai Gerstein will join us, along with Wendy Watson and April Pulley Sayres. Students are also encouraged to do their own readings during the residencies.

Why would a children’s/YA writer want to pursue an MFA degree? What doors does it open, creatively and professionally?

I’ve heard from folks in the industry, especially editors, that the introduction of the MFA in writing for children has raised the level of writing. That’s not to say that the level was ever low, but in the past ten years, children’s books have become more competitive than ever. Another benefit that I see is in the perception that our society has about anything really that has to do with children, that if something is designed for kids then it must be easy or superficial or whatever. The degree all by itself can’t change that. But I do believe that it lends an air of credibility to our profession.

I really believe that our degree raises the standard for children’s literature. That people both inside and outside the field have taken notice is testament to that.

An MFA is also considered a “terminal” degree. By that, our students are qualified to teach in a college setting, and many many of our grads do just that.

Who comprise the faculty of the VC program? What credentials are required? Preferred?

We currently have twenty faculty members: myself, yourself, Marc Aronson (author interview), M.T. Anderson (author interview), Marion Dane Bauer, Norma Fox Mazer, Phyllis Root, Jane Resh Thomas, Ellen Levine, Ellen Howard, Laura McGee Kvasnovsky, Tim Wynn-Jones, Louise Hawes, Sharon Darrow, Liza Ketchum, Ron Koertge (author interview), Carolyn Coman, Alison McGhee, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Margaret Bechard.

As recently as three years ago, the credentials required for faculty members were a B.A. plus a history of publication. Currently, a faculty member must have an advanced degree plus a history of publication. In addition, to remain on the faculty, we have to continue to publish.

As importantly as publication history and credentials, however, is a history of teaching. We look very closely at a candidate’s teaching record. In addition, we also require a teaching sample, along with a candidate’s c.v.

Could you describe the campus at Montpelier, Vermont?

The campus is very old. Vermont College is one of the oldest colleges in VT, and many of the buildings have been there for the 100 years that the school has been in existence. There’s a certain charm about that. And I confess that at times, it feels a lot like camp, especially in the dorms. But many of the buildings have been upgraded. There’s a fully equipped computer lab, for example. And a very fine library. The cafeteria is operated by the New England Culinary Institute, so the food is a notch above standard cafeteria fare. And just down the hill, is the wonderful town of Montpelier, complete with bakeries, boutiques, and a movie theater, not to mention a wonderful book store.

Could you describe the culture of those involved in the program?

We are a community of people who are dedicated to writing for children. It’s our heart’s work. Who shows up is folks right out of college, fresh from their undergraduate programs, to people who have had a long career in teaching or something else and haven’t been in school for fifty years. We have students who have already begun to publish and who have found some success but want to stretch their writing muscles, and we have students who are just starting out. We have folks in every income bracket and from a variety of backgrounds. At the end of the day, we’re all there for one thing. To become better writers. And interestingly, that ties us together. Our graduates become life-long friends even though they may live on opposite coasts. There’s a “we’re all in this together” mentality that permeates our community.

How much does the VC program cost to complete (or per semester)?

Tuition for each semester is around $6300. There’s no question that our program is a large financial investment. We understand that, and it’s why our faculty and staff work so hard to make sure that our students get the highest quality of education that is available to them.

Why do you teach at VC? How does it compare to other teaching environments you’ve had?

I teach there for the people. My colleagues on the faculty and in the office are as close to me in many ways as my family. I also think about the people with whom I teach and I’m in awe, not only by the work they do, but also by their commitment to their students. I feel so honored to be in their company. But we also have amazing students. We’re crazy about them. And we learn so much from them! There is nothing more gratifying than watching a student grow in his or her work and then embark upon a successful career. I got a message just the other day from a student who just sold a novel that I worked on with her during her first semester. How wonderful is that?

How competitive is admissions?

Fairly competitive. I don’t have the exact numbers, but I think we’re accepting about 30% of our applicants. We have a limit of 70 students at any given time, and the numbers that we can take each semester vary with the number of graduates, the number of folks taking a leave, etc. We typically accept around 30 new students each year. That’s a guess, but I think it’s close.

At what level are students when they enter the program? Upon graduation?

Students come to us at varying levels–some are old hands, others are just beginning. One of the bonuses of working one-on-one with an advisor is that each student can begin where they are and go from there. I’ve seen students make major breakthroughs in their work, including students whom you might consider advanced. I’ve seen folks who thought they only wanted to write fiction leave us feeling confident about writing picture books or poetry or non-fiction. I’ve seen people come to us having written many books, and leaving writing better books. Many of our students tell us that their time at VC was transformational, and I believe them. I’ve seen the program change lives.

Art, whether its writing, painting, music, is extremely personal. The one-on-one nature of our teaching allows a student to delve into their craft in a deep way. One of the catch phrases that it seems we’re always telling our students is to “go deep.” What this means is to take a piece of writing and really look at what is driving the character, to ask what the deepest underpinnings of a particular story are, to examine the attitudes and controlling beliefs that the author imbues upon his or her work and how they might affect both character and readers. We ask our students to think hard. To become critical readers. To approach their work with curiosity and to examine the longings that provide motivation and conflict within their stories. It’s hard work.

Could you give us some examples of VC success stories?

Sure can. April Pulley Sayres is one of the top players in science books for kids. Andy Auseon just had his first novel nominated to the BBYA list. Leda Schubert has a number of picture books listed beside her name. Candice Ransom just signed her 100th book contract. Lauren Myracle‘s most recent novel made the NYTimes Best Seller List. Carolyn Crimi‘s (author interview) career is taking off big time. Helen Hemphill‘s first novel will be out in the spring. And the big news, of course, is Deb Wiles, whose newest novel was a finalist for the recent National Book Award. It hardly gets better than that.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

Entering a low residency program, or any writing program for that matter, is a huge commitment in both resources and time. I often think that our students are surprised by the intensity of the program, by the requirements of time, and by the dedication that it takes to makes it through. I think they’re also happily surprised by the community itself, how supportive we are, but also how much they come to appreciate their classmates. The classes stay together long after they graduate. They celebrate each others’ successes and buoy each others’ disappointments.

We offer a strenuous program, with no guarantees at the end. A degree by itself will not get you a publishing contract. Only your stories can do that. But we can promise that we’ll push you to do your very best work, and then we’ll push you even harder. Our young audience deserves nothing less.

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