Learning to Write Children’s and YA Nonfiction from the Masters

Cindy: After more than three decades reading and reviewing other authors’ books, in the last few years I’ve started writing my own. Writers work alone, but they don’t succeed alone. You may have noticed a rise in solo posts by Lynn here at Bookends and that is a result of her generous offer to provide me with more time to concentrate on my current project. Author Barb Rosenstock helped me establish a routine by texting a daily message: “Are you writing?”

I took a hike between sessions on a trail that follows Calkins Creek. I kept waiting for Carolyn Yoder to pop out from behind a tree.

She also suggested I seek out a writing workshop and recommended those held at The Highlights Foundation. I watched the schedule for two years before, finally, my schedule aligned with the class I most wanted to take. I’ve just returned from the workshop and I have to share what I experienced.

The workshop was “A Master Class in Nonfiction for Children and Young Adults” and the faculty was stellar: Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Larry Dane Brimner, Laurie Edwards, Gwendolyn Hooks, Peter Jacobi, Don TateSandra Neil Wallace , Rich Wallace, and Calkins Creek Senior Editor Carolyn P. Yoder shared their hard-earned knowledge, tips, and writing and researching processes with all 22 attendees over the course of five days. In addition to full group and breakout sessions, each of us was matched with a faculty mentor for one-on-one sessions to get advice on our own work in progress. I benefited tremendously from my daily session with Sandra Neil Wallace as I start digging into primary-source and photographic research on my project. Other faculty gave me advice or answered my questions during breaks and over meals. I awoke one morning to a message from Susan, who procrastinated on her own deadlines thinking about my project and had an idea she was eager to share.

Peter Jacobi, a Professor Emeritus of Journalism from my alma mater Indiana University, and a Highlights Foundation institution (he has presented there for forty odd years), reminded us of our duty to use all of our senses in the art of writing:

You must paint with words. You must compose music with your words. You must provide drama with your words. You must sculpt meaningful shapes with your words. You must create a feast of tasty goods with your words. You must construct magnificent palaces with your words. All artists have their own tools to create art.

His words provide good metaphors for the experience. The Highlights Foundation visionaries, Kent Brown and his son George Brown, have sculpted a meaningful and magical place for children’s writers. Chef Amanda and her team created feasts for us three times a day; never have I had such good food while at a professional conference or workshop. Our private palaces (i.e., cabins) were perfect and the faculty shared the tools that help them most as they compose the music of their award-winning and celebrated books. We had some drama, too—the emotion you find when you are asked to mine your memories to fuel your writing, if not with events, then with the feelings that those events provoke. We grew as individual writers and as new friends. And we laughed. A lot.

I haven’t been to “camp” in forty years but leaving at the end of the workshop brought back those memories of leaving a place and a group of people after sharing something very special. I’d love to hear in the comments from others who have attended these workshops, or others that you have found valuable—but right now, I need to get back to my research and writing. And, thanks to the Highlights Foundation, I have plenty of new motivation and instruction to guide me.

From the “Word Garden” next to the Barn.

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About the Author:

Cindy Dobrez and Lynn Rutan are Booklist reviewers and middle-school librarians who have chaired both ALA’s Best Books for Young Adults and the Michael L. Printz Award for YA Literature committees. Follow Bookends on Twitter at @BookendsBlog. You can also find Cindy at @cdobrez and Lynn at @482april.

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