Interview: Sharon Darrow on the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults and the Picture Book Certificate Program

Sharon Darrow has taught writing at Waubonsee Community College, College of DuPage, and Columbia College of Chicago. She writes poetry, short stories, creative nonfiction, picture books, and novels. She is the faculty chair of the MFA program in Writing for Children & Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Her stories, essays, and poems have appeared in literary journals and anthologies, including Lee Bennett Hopkins‘s Home to Me: Poems Across America (Scholastic). She is the author of Old Thunder and Miss Raney (D-K Ink, 2000), which was honored by Western Writers of America; Through the Tempests Dark and Wild: A Story of Mary Shelley, Creator of Frankenstein (2003), a Junior Literary Guild Selection; a novel, The Painters of Lexieville (2003); and a narrative in poems, Trash (2006), all from Candlewick Press. The novel was named to KLIATT’s Editors’ Choice-Best of the Year YA Fiction list and won the Oklahoma Book Award for Young Adult fiction. Trash was also a Junior Literary Guild selection, an ALA Quick Pick for Reluctant YA Readers, and a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award.

Sharon also teaches writing workshops and retreats and speaks in schools. She lives in Plainfield, Vermont.

Cynsations readers last heard from former faculty chair Kathi Appelt on the Vermont College MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults back in 2005. Could you remind us how low-residency study works at the college? What is the balance between creative and critical work?

We see the critical work as two-fold. First, it provides a basis for improving our own creative writing through analysis of the works of others. Second, the critical component allows us to grow in our ability to enter the conversation of our professional field and to take our places among those who study and ponder the overarching issues in children’s literature today and, in particular, in the craft of writing for young people.

[See additional information on program structure and low-residency education (more globally) in the interview with Kathi.]

Could you describe the residencies?

Our residencies are like packing a whole semester’s worth of class hours into ten days. We have lectures and discussions, workshops, readings, and writing exercises, plus an intensive conversation in the community about writing and writing for children and teens specifically.

Each residency includes speakers and writers-in-residence and artists-in-residence like Carolyn Coman, Jane Yolen, Laura McGee Kvasnosky, Jean Gralley, Nancy Werlin, Gregory Macguire, and Holly Black, to mention a few recent-and-upcoming visitors. Editors visit us as well–of late Melanie Kroupa, Susan Van Metre, and Jeannette Larson.

The past few years have been a time of exciting change. Could you update my audience on the news to date?

Yes, we’ve had very exciting news. We have become an independent college! We are in the enviable position of being able to establish ourselves as a viable and interesting graduate school of the arts here in New England.

Our three existing MFA programs (in Writing, Writing for Children & Young Adults, and Visual Arts) will grow in response to the needs of our students as they intersect with emerging opportunities in visual art and culture and in writing both for grown-up audiences and for younger audiences. In the future, other MFA programs will be added, so get ready to watch this college grow.

What inspired Vermont College of Fine Arts to launch as its own, separate institution?

For many years, it was a strong and energetic entity held by larger universities as a separate college. Over time it became clear that it could and did have a life of its own and, in fact, deserved to be cared for and grown by those who knew it intimately and who best reflected the mission and vision of Vermont College.

Who is on the current faculty? How would you describe their professional range, talents, and commitment to teaching?

Our current faculty and visiting faculty is made up of professional writers in the field of children’s and young adult literature. Their interests and areas of expertise range from poetry to fiction to creative nonfiction, from writing for the very young to writing for upper-level YAs.

Our faculty members are: Kathi Appelt, Marion Dane Bauer, Margaret Bechard, Alan Cumyn, Sharon Darrow, Sarah Ellis, David Gifaldi, Louise Hawes, Ellen Howard, Uma Krishnaswami, Jane Kurtz, Julie Larios, Martine Leavitt, Leda Schubert, Cynthia Leitich Smith, Shelley Tanaka, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Tim Wynne-Jones.

These are expert teachers who are also experts in writing and are able to communicate clearly to students in lecture, workshop, or one-on-one teaching.

Their aim is to guide student writers as they make the journey into their own words, to find their own process, to grow their own stories, and to become expert writers who are also strong and capable in the craft of writing as well as able as critics and facilitators to good writing as well.

(It may be of interest that our board of directors also includes such distinguished authors as M.T. Anderson and Katherine Paterson.)

What is the criteria for teaching?

We hire critically acclaimed faculty who have had teaching experience and who are accomplished writers. All have a good deal of experience in the business of publishing, working with agents and editors, and navigating the waters of an ever-changing marketplace.

What is the range of writing experience for entering students?

We have the entire range from a very few who are just beginning to those who have published many books.

Most, however, fall into the category of writers who have studied for some time and who are prepared for the intensive process this program entails. Some have published perhaps one book, others none yet. But all are serious about this field and their place in it.

What minimum level of accomplishment do you recommend for entering students?

We look for students who have obviously spent time reading in the field and practicing the kind of writing they admire and want to produce.

We expect a good handling of grammar and punctuation and other basic tools of the writer.

We look for voice and spark, both somewhat indefinable, but evident when they are there and just as obvious when they are missing.

We expect at least 25 hours a week of dedicated time to this study and so want to know if that is possible, given the prospective student’s current lifestyle.

Are established authors welcome to enroll in the program? What would inspire someone who’s already publishing successfully to pursue the MFA?

Of course! VCFA has graduated many students who were already established, publishing authors. Each person has his or her own reasons–to take it up a notch, to try genres not tried before, to acquire a degree that qualifies one to teach in college, to become a part of a larger community of writers for a lifetime of connection and continuing education, etc.

Each of us on the faculty feel that we are receiving a huge bonus ourselves as working writers by being a part of this program, learning more and more about our craft, being challenged to write what we haven’t written before, and to enter the larger conversation on a more academic level.

Can you offer examples of established authors who’ve chosen to enroll at VCFA?

Oh, yes. Our grads include Carolyn Crimi, Stephanie Green, Carol Lynch Williams, Candice Ransom, Sherry Shahan, to name a few.

Could you tell us about the picture book certificate program?

This is a new program designed to enrich our students’ study of the picture book as a special area of concentration, as well as offer an opportunity to those not enrolled in the MFA degree program to spend an intensive semester in the study and writing of the picture book.

The student will attend a residency at the beginning of the semester and one at the end, which culminates in the presentation of a paper or lecture on a aspect of writing the picture book that they have researched and practiced that semester.

The residency workshops are made up of picture book writers exclusively and lead into and cap off the semester study, which is made up of both individual and group-study activities.

What is the relationship between the certificate and degree programs? Is the picture book semester transferable for credit toward the MFA?

The certificate program is separate from the degree program, but can be transferred as credit upon (a) application and acceptance into the program, (b) the granting of a petition made by the student, and (c) the approval by the advisory committee and faculty chair.

Is it likewise open to those already publishing?

It is, in the same way. The semester is designed to provide an opportunity for the writer to grow exponentially in the area of study. We believe that this specialized semester will accelerate the writer’s “apprenticeship” in publishing and enhance the growth of the already published author.

What is the relationship to the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults and the other VCFA MFA programs?

We are a college made up of three programs whose aim is all the same: excellence.

Is there an opportunity for joint study within two (or more) programs, and if so, how would that work?

There is an opportunity for dual-genre study between the MFA-Writing and MFA-Writing for Children & Young Adults programs. This would entail a five-semester degree with two semesters in one program, three in the other, depending upon the chosen emphasis.

In order to do this option, students must apply to both programs and be accepted by both. However, if they are accepted to only one, then they will have the opportunity to attend that program, if desired.

More globally, could you describe the morale and culture of the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program?

This is a strong community of like-minded writers who support one another, challenge one another, and rejoice with one another.

Though like-minded in this aspect and in the love of children’s books, there is diversity of background, prior educational experience, ethnicity, age, interest, and just about any other likely category.

I believe there is no place in the U.S., in much of Canada, and many other places in the world that we might travel and be unable to find one of our alumni. That is part of what makes the low-residency study model so viable and vigorous. We bring such diversity to our common love of writing.

What do you want to say to those considering a low-residency MFA in Writing for young readers?

Do it. You’ll love it. You are in for a treat and a great adventure, something that will change your life and introduce you to people you will know for the rest of your life. I know that sounds over the top–but it really isn’t.

And for those who say, well, I don’t really want to change my life and I have enough friends already, I challenge you to come to VCFA and see if you are surprised. Our main objective is to grow writers who write wonderful books for young people, but the “side-effects” of that include a truly rewarding life experience.

Why do you teach at VCFA? How does it compare to your previous teaching experiences?

I’ve taught writing for the continuing education departments of Waubonsee Community College and College of DuPage, taught undergraduate literature, composition, and poetry workshops at Columbia College Chicago, and I’ve taught many SCBWI workshops and retreats. I love teaching!

But I love teaching at VCFA most of all. It’s my community now, the place I belong and where I get great satisfaction from seeing my students grow strong and confident as writers.

With regard to your own writing, you last visited Cynsations in June 2006. Could you update us on Trash (Candlewick, 2006)?

Ah, Trash was such fun to send out into the world. I love when people read it and then want to talk about the poetry forms in it and about how such strategies can be used as vehicles of characterization and to propel narrative flow.

I also really like that more boys seem to have read it and are moved to write me than they have with the other books. That’s kind of cool.

What do you do when you’re not writing or teaching?

I’m probably reading about the Middle Ages or watching PBS or sitting on my deck watching the sunset over the Vermont mountains or hiking or snowshoeing or meeting friends in town or, when I’m lucky, getting to travel to visit my daughters or go out and about in the wide world–France being my current favorite destination.

Is there anything you’d like to add?

I’d just like to encourage your readers who might be interested to take the further step of talking to someone they know who has the MFA degree from Vermont College of Fine Arts, or calling Katie Gustafson at 802.828.8696 or Susannah Noel at 802.828.8637–or emailing me [see sidebar].

I’m happy to talk more about this place I love, this writing for children that we are all so dedicated to, or even what the weather’s like or the food in the NECI cafeteria–anything that interested persons would like to know.