ABCs and an MFA

MFA programs help children’s and YA authors develop craft and connections.

Group of kids reading books with white background

The MFA is no longer one-size-fits-all. Each year, hundreds of genre writers join advanced degree programs to polish their craft and jumpstart their careers. Simmons College, Pine Manor College, Chatham University, Seton Hill University, Spalding University and Hamline University are among the growing list of schools that offer MFA programs with specialized tracks for children’s and young adult authors.

Shelley Adina found her path to writing success through Seton’s MFA in Writing Popular Fiction. Her courses included “core modules that apply to all the genres: setting and research, plot and structure, dialogue, and so forth,” followed by electives that focused more specifically on her selected tracks. Adina concentrated on romance and YA fiction, a combination that helped her publish more than 30 books post-graduation. Her first book-length sale was her MFA thesis.

Adina, who also writes under the penname “Adina Senft,” now works as an adjunct faculty member at her alma matter. Her MFA also helped broaden her connections and credibility in the publishing industry.

“I do a lot of public speaking for conventions, writers’ groups and small-group coaching sessions,” she says. “Having the MFA degree gives you ‘street cred’ when applying for speaking gigs – a level of professionalism and careful thought that many organizations seek when lining up speakers.”

Joyce McPherson, mother of nine and director of a Shakespeare summer camp for young people, was always drawn to children’s literature. She will graduate from Pine Manor’s Solstice MFA program this month with knowledge of not only how to write for children, but also the pedagogy behind it. She says the rigorous discipline of an MFA program, along with the exposure to multiple genres, puts children’s book writers on a solid career path.

“Expect to be challenged to make every word count, to look deeper into voice (especially with child protagonists) and to focus and sharpen your writing,” she says.

Hannah Goodman also graduated from the Solstice program and has since founded Sucker Literary, an online journal for YA fiction. The MFA experience helped her understand the nuances of the genre, gave her vital industry connections and “provided a support system and the confidence to get back out there and submit work.”

In Boston, Simmons College Writing for Children MFA program allowed Mackenzie “Lee” Van Engelenhoven to study children’s literature both creatively and academically, and gave her the instruction she needed to streamline her writing process.

“My MFA took the raw skills and intuition I had as a writer and shaped it and taught me how to use it more effectively,” she says. “I was exposed to books outside my comfort zone, taught how to read children’s books critically and surrounded by people who loved the same things I do.”

The program helped Van Engelenhoven tackle the challenges that accompany writing in a field not always well received by the academic and publishing industries. She says the two-year program allowed her to “unapologetically write and pursue what I love.” Her first book, This Monstrous Thing, debuts this year with HarperCollins.

Elaine Dimopoulos, who also graduated from the Simmons program, says her MFA provided a nurturing yet rigorous environment that made her more comfortable with drafting and rewriting. Her classes included not only workshops, but also “micro-lessons on craft: how to flesh out characters, write dialogue, evoke setting, foreshadow.”

The program gave Dimopoulos the core skills she needed to write her own books for young readers and the credentials to land teaching jobs at universities and other organizations. Her first young adult novel, Material Girls, is forthcoming with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

“The [writing] process may take some time after graduating, but you will have the training and the drive to get yourself to the finish line,” she says. “A critical background elevates your own writing to a higher plateau. You will be asking not only, ‘How do I finish my children’s/YA novel?’ but also, ‘How does my novel fit into the canon of children’s literature?’”

Hillary Casavant is a writer in the Boston area.

This article originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of The Writer.

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