Children’s-YA Writing Education

Cynthia Leitich Smith shortly before teaching a Highlights whole-novel workshop.

Cynthia Leitich Smith is the Katherine Paterson Chair of the faculty of the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She also coordinates and teaches the We Need Diverse Books Annual Native Children’s-YA Writing Intensive and has taught or spoken at various additional writer-education programs, including Kweli: The Color of Children’s Literature, The Writing Barn, the Highlights Foundation, Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers, the Oklahoma Arts Institute’s Quartz Mountain, and more.

Contests, Scholarships and Grants

Karen Cushman Late Bloomer Award from SCBWI. PEEK: “…for a work-in-progress from an unpublished author over age 50.”

Emerging Voices Award from SCBWI. PEEK: “…to foster the emergence of diverse voices in children’s books.”

Highlights Scholarships from the Highlights Foundation. PEEK: “In addition to our General Scholarships, there are a number of Special Scholarships in support of specific recipients or workshops, and Named Funds honoring those who have had a significant impact on children’s literature.” Note: Brief application window in January.

Manuscript Awards from SCBWI. Awards and grants for writers.

Natives Creatives Scholarship from the Highlights Foundation. PEEK: “This scholarship provides funds to recognize the inter-generational history and future of stories from Indigenous authors, artists, and creators.” Note: Brief application window in January.

New Visions Award for Writers of Color from Tu Books, an imprint of Lee & Low. PEEK: “…given for a middle grade or young adult novel by a writer of color.”

New Voices Award Writing Competition for Authors of Color from Lee & Low. PEEK: “…given for a children’s picture book manuscript by a writer of color.”

Spark Award from SCBWI. PEEK: “…recognizes excellence in a children’s book published through a non-traditional publishing route.”

Work-in-Progress Grants from SCBWI. PEEK: “…assists children’s book writers and illustrators in the publication of a specific project currently not under contract.”

MFA Study

Association of Writers and Writing Programs: “…provides support, advocacy, resources, and community to nearly 50,000 writers, 550 college and university creative writing programs, and 150 writers’ conferences and centers. Our mission is to foster literary achievement, advance the art of writing as essential to a good education, and serve the makers, teachers, students, and readers of contemporary writing.”

SEE ALSO Interview: Sharon Darrow on the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults and Picture Book Certificate Program by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Cynsations. PEEK: “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.”

VCFA graduate and author Kim Purcell

SEE ALSO A Recap of My First Residency at VCFA by Sarah S. Davis from Broke By Books. PEEK: “Finally, Sorting Day arrived… and it was also Friday the 13th! Which added a little spooky supernatural feel to the already magical day we would learn our faculty advisers.”

SEE ALSO My MFA in Writing by Luisa Perkins from Medium. PEEK: “…gained skill, confidence, and real connections with top-notch writers. I made time and gave myself permission to make writing and reading my top professional priorities — habits I plan to continue despite my busy family life. I have zero regrets about spending a lot of money on my degree.”

Interview: Director Meg Kearney on the Solstice Creative Writing Programs of Pine Manor College by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Cynsations.

Cathie Mercier, Assoc. Dean, College of Arts and Sciences,Simmons

Interview: Dean Cathie Mercier on the Simmons MFA program in Writing for Children by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Cynsations.

Interview: Dean Mary Rockcastle on the Hamline University Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Cynsations.

Interview: Gene Luen Yang on Writing, Teaching and the Hamline MFA Program by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Cynsations. PEEK: “I’ve seen students grow in skill, of course. They come away with better understandings of the craft itself. They learn to critique constructively. They learn to structure and revise. They learn to give from themselves through story. And just as importantly, they learn to call themselves writers.”

Faculty member Laura Ruby lectures at Hamline

Back to School: MFA Week from The Mitten of Michigan SCBWI. PEEK: “Six SCBWI-MI members, three MFA programs, seven days of posts, all of your questions answered, everything you ever wanted to know about getting your MFA.” Posts include: 7 Reasons You Might Want an MFA by Rebecca Grabill.

CYN NOTE: The following institutions offer MFA degrees in writing and/or illustration for children and/or young adults: Bath Spa University; Hamline University; Hollins UniversityLesley University; The New SchoolSeton Hill University; Sierra Nevada College; Southern New Hampshire UniversitySpalding UniversityVermont College of Fine Arts; Western Connecticut State University.

Equity and Inclusion in MFA Study

THE ANTI-RACIST WRITING WORKSHOP by Felicia Rose Chavez (Haymarket Books, 2021). PEEK: “A captivating mix of memoir and progressive teaching strategies….”

CRAFT IN THE REAL WORLD: RETHINKING FICTION WRITING AND WORKSHOPPING by Matthew Salesses (Catapult, 2021). PEEK: “…upends Western notions of how a story must progress. How can we rethink craft, and the teaching of it, to better reach writers with diverse backgrounds? How can we invite diverse storytelling traditions into literary spaces?”

The Dangerous Lure of Writing for White Writers in an MFA by Aisha Sabatini Slon from Literary Hub. PEEK: “My interest in writing about people whose experience resembled my own was something that my professor went so far as to diagnose—he described my project as ‘compulsive.’”

The Ghost of Workshops Past: How Communism, Conservatism, and the Cold War Still Mold Our Paths Into SFF Writing by S.L. Huang from PEEK: “The Iowa method purposely eschewed teaching; instead it used the power of cold interaction with a group of critics to mold writers into a `1930s America’ majority opinion of good literature. Unless an instructor is careful, such a method can still easily function that way.”

How Can We Make the MFA Workshop More Hospitable to Writers of Color? Sabaina Murray and Ocean Vuong on Silencing, Compassion and Pedagogy from Literary Hub. PEEK: “When we observe the workshop as merely a place where things must be fixed, we begin at a prescriptive stance—which can be quite detrimental to POC writers. These writers often enter the page with lexicons, vernaculars, syntax, and/or styles unfamiliar to a white patriarchal tradition, and in this prescriptive gaze, their work is often mis-read, perhaps being labeled as ‘wrong’ or ‘weak’ or worse, ‘incomprehensible.’”

We Need New Metaphors: Reimaging Power in the Creative Writing Workshop by Rachelle Cruz from Poet & Writer. PEEK: “The writing workshop and the creative writing classroom suffer from a lack of imagination. They suffer from cyclical trauma, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and classism. It’s our job, alongside our students, to change this.”

Live and Online Classes and Conferences

Gotham Writers Workshop: Creative Writing Classes in NYC and Online.

Inside the Writing Barn
Inside the Writing Barn

Highlights Foundation: workshops for children’s writers and illustrators in Pennsylvania, hosted by the people behind Boyds Mills Press and Highlights magazine. SEE ALSO What to Expect from a Highlights Retreat and schedule of Upcoming Workshops.

Kindling Words: a conference for published trade authors and trade editors. Real talk about acceptance speeches, money, marketing and more. SEE ALSO Crystal Allen, Co-Director, Shares Her Vision for Kindling Words Retreat by Stephani Martinell Eaton from Cynsations. PEEK: “My vision is so huge that I may need a pair of those old Bootsy Collins glasses just so I can see everything! It is not that KW is veering from its amazing structure, it’s just now, the offerings will be amplified, with more variety, more support for #ownvoices, more opportunities for our creative community to unite as a community for all creators.”

Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Conference: “Our spring conference is an excellent opportunity for BIPOC writers and illustrators to learn, get inspired and network with others in the industry.”

Rutgers One-on-One: “A Unique Program for Authors and Illustrators of Children’s Books Sponsored by the Rutgers University Council on Children’s Literature.”

Author-illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Tips for SCBWI National Conference from Debbie Ridpath Ohi. CYN NOTE: For “conference newbies, second timers, plus a challenge for the many-timers.”

We Need Diverse Books Native Writing Intensive: Offers an opportunity for reflection, conversation, celebration, and manuscript and career development. See also, Native Writing Intensive Is a Community and Career Building Opportunity by AJ Eversole from We Need Diverse Books. PEEK: “When asked about the biggest takeaways of the intensive, attendee Byron Graves (Ojibwe) said, “That I belonged in the literary world. That I wasn’t alone. And that I had a group of like-minded people as a support system.”

Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers: annual, top national summer conference based in Sandy, Utah, hosted by author Carol Lynch Williams.

Writing Barn: events and classes in Austin, Texas with an emphasis on writing for young readers, hosted by author Bethany Hegedus.

Online Classes Only

The Manuscript Academy: “We believe that the writing conference should be affordable, accessible, and awesome. We offer personalized, creative access to the top minds in the industry–all without leaving home.”

Writing the Other: “Learn to write characters very different from you sensitively and convincingly.”

Self-Directed Study

Anatomy of a Writer’s Group by Allison Whittenberg at Crowe’s Nest. PEEK: “If you are thinking of creating your own writers group, here are some guidelines…”

Children’s Book Insider: “Every month, for more than two decades, we’ve shared instruction, advice, market tips and inspiration through the pages of the CBI.”

Essential Kidlit Blogs and Newsletters for Writers and Illustrators by Teri Daniels from KidLit Crossing. PEEK: “Most of these resources are free. A few require membership. All are immensely supportive.”

WORLDS WITHIN WORDS: WRITING AND THE WRITING LIFE by Sharon Darrow (Pudding Hill Press, 2018). PEEK: “…shows that a writer, through the process of discovery and revision, not only revises the work, but the self as well, and that through this creative process grows as a human being and becomes more capable of writing what must be written. She brings the knowledge and wisdom her years of experience writing for children, young adults, and adults has given her to this compilation of essays taken from a selection of lectures she presented during her twenty-year teaching career in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.”

Writing Retreats by Mary Atkinson from Crowe’s Nest. PEEK: “Settling in is a necessary part of going on retreat. It might take you an hour; it might take you three days. Either way, it’s got to be done. One of the fastest ways I’ve found to settle in to a new retreat space is to unpack my suitcase and then take a nap.”

Teaching Writing

Teaching Authors: Six Children’s Authors Who Also Teach Writing. PEEK: “Here, we will share our unique perspective as writing teachers who are also working writers. While part of our goal is to discuss what we’ve learned about writing and the teaching of writing, we also hope to accomplish something here that we can’t do on our websites: facilitate conversations between writers, teachers, and librarians about the subjects we love best–writing, teaching writing, and reading.”

Teaching YA Fiction in the Writing Workshop by Jacqueline Kolosov from Crowe’s Next. PEEK: “YA literature is all about exploration, and it has to be messy: visceral: emotionally true. And the protagonist has to be someone the reader can get behind.”

Young Writers

Aaron Shepard’s Young Authors Page: Writing and Publishing as a Kid from author Aaron Shepard’s Web site.

ALL ABOUT ME: A KEEPSAKE JOURNAL FOR KIDS by Linda Kranz (Rising Moon, 1996). This journal is filled with beautiful, fanciful, and fun illustrations and with interesting questions to inspire young writers (and grown-up ones).

Alpha Young Writers Workshop: A twelve-day writing workshop for 14 to 19 year olds held in July each year at the University of Pittsburgh’s Greensburg campus. Focuses on science fiction, fantasy and horror writing. Limited to 20 students and includes workshops with guest authors. Applications open January to early March with successful applicants notified in April.

Austin Bat Cave: “Bringing local artists and teachers together to offer free after-school tutoring, in-school support, and creative writing workshops for students from every community in Austin.”

ALL ABOUT ME: A KEEPSAKE JOURNAL FOR KIDS by Linda Kranz (Rising Moon, 1996). This journal is filled with beautiful, fanciful, and fun illustrations and with interesting questions to inspire young writers (and grown-up ones).

Get Inked Teen Writing Conference: An in-person writer’s conference for students in grades 7–12 on the campus of Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, and a virtual conference limited to 70 remote participants. “…participants will spend the day connecting with published authors in writing workshops and small-group breakout sessions.”

Ithaca Young Writers’ Institute: A two-week, in-person program for high school students taught by Ithaca College Department of Writing faculty. Includes fiction, essays and poetry. Takes place in Ithaca, New York, and on-campus housing is available.

JUST PEOPLE AND OTHER POEMS FOR YOUNG READERS & PAPER/PEN/POEM: A YOUNG WRITER’S WAY TO BEGIN WITH POEMS by Kathi Appelt, photographs by Kenneth Appelt (Absey, 1997). Great for teachers and writers of all ages.

Literacy In Place Rural Teen Writing Contest from Dr. Parton’s Literacy in Place: A writing contest for teens in grades 9-12, living in the United States. Accepts fiction and nonfiction submissions, up to 2000 words. Check for the next submission window in summer 2024.

OUR STORY BEGINS: YOUR FAVORITE  AUTHORS AND ILLUSTRATORS SHARE FUN, INSPIRING, AND OCCASIONALLY RIDICULOUS THINGS THEY WROTE AND DREW AS KIDS, edited by Elissa Brent Weissman (Atheneum, 2017). An anthology collection of quirky, smart, and vulnerable childhood works by some of today’s foremost children’s authors and illustrators.

Penguin Random House Creative Writing Awards hosted in partnership with We Need Diverse Books: Each fall, $10,000 college scholarships are awarded to high school seniors in the categories of poetry, fiction, memoir and essay. The application program will be available again in October 2024. Note: Only 1,000 applications are accepted so applying early is recommended.

Sewanee Young Writers’ Conference: Holds an annual “…a summer conference for high schoolers passionate about creative writing… two weeks reading, cultivating your writing, and forming a community with other young writers from near and far” on the Sewanee campus in Sewanee, Tennessee.

Society of Young Inklings: Online community for young writers offering live writing workshops, journaling challenges and author interviews. One-on-one mentorships are also available.

SPEAKING OF JOURNALS: CHILDREN’S BOOK WRITERS TALK ABOUT THEIR DIARIES, NOTEBOOKS, AND SKETCHBOOKS by Paula W. Graham (Boyds Mills, 1999). This insight-packed paperback features children’s authors like Graham Salisbury, James Cross Giblin, Jacqueline Woodson, Jean Craighead George, Jack Gantos, Bruce Coville, Naomi Shihab Nye, and Marion Dane Bauer. SPEAKING offers childhood photos, reproductions of actual journal pages (lovely art and charming doodles), and interviews that delve into the creative process.

Teen Author Bootcamp: Organization dedicated to inspiring a love of reading, fostering creativity and providing young writers with tools to tell their own stories. Holds a teen writers conference every spring in Provo, Utah that includes in-person and online options. Offers free, on-demand webinars on a variety of writing topics. Contest and publication opportunities are also available.

Writing Organizations

Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers (CANSCAIP): “a group of professionals in the field of children’s culture with members from all parts of Canada. As a National Arts Service Organization, CANSCAIP supports and promotes children’s literature through online forums, newsletters, workshops, meetings and other information programs for authors, illustrators, performers, parents, teachers, librarians, publishers and others.”

Children’s Book Guild of Washington, D.C.: “A professional organization of authors, illustrators and children’s literature specialists promoting high standards in children’s literature since 1945”

Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI: international organization hosting publishing conferences and workshops. Join your regional chapter.

More Resources

Book, Magazine, Organization and Web Resources from The Purple Crayon (for when you need to keep reading, keep learning).

The Purple Crayon: A Children’s Book Editor’s Site from freelance editor Harold Underdown. The ultimate children’s writers and illustrators site. Teaches most of what you what to know starting out and then offers to quiz you about it. Articles on variety of subjects appeal to more established writers. Includes information about writing, promotion, publishing and more. Especially see: The How Do I Get Published? Quiz. SEE ALSO Harold Underdown on THE COMPLETE IDIOT’S GUIDE TO PUBLISHING CHILDREN’S BOOKS by Cynthia Leitich Smith from Cynsations.