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The VCFA Master's for Children's Writing Has Become a Powerhouse

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A lecture in the College Hall Chapel for the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts - JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • A lecture in the College Hall Chapel for the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults program at Vermont College of Fine Arts

During the first of two tours in Afghanistan, JP McCormick was preparing to fly home from a dusty airfield in Kandahar when he discovered his passion for writing children's fiction.

"I was exhausted, I was spent," recalled McCormick, whose tattooed arms reflect his years in the U.S. Army. "I was a rifle platoon leader, so ... I had to stay strong and look strong and capable for my men. I was out walking on the airfield, and there was this little old Russian lady who was selling this tray of old Soviet army crap from the Soviet-Afghan war. And there was this little stuffed mouse. And my heart broke. I made it three steps, and then I spun on my heel and was like, 'How much?' I had to have this little guy, and I had to get him out of Afghanistan.

"Twenty dollars later, this little guy is wrapped up in my rucksack, and that's when the stories really began to whisper to me," he recalled. "They came in the form of animals, and they grew and grew and grew. At the time, it was a way for me just not to lose my mind."

A year later, with his future wife's encouragement, McCormick started writing. "The stories and the promise of them ... sustained me and fueled me," he said. But, after six or eight years of writing on his own, he decided, "I needed outside help." He googled "MFA children's literature."

That's how McCormick, who currently works at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, ended up spending 10 days this past July on the campus of Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. He's a second-semester student in the college's low-residency program in Writing for Children & Young Adults, which was the first of its kind in the nation.

WCYA is one of nine degree tracks offered by decade-old VCFA, which grants MFAs in creative writing, film, music composition, visual art and graphic design. Like the regular writing MFA, the program in children's writing predates the school itself; it was established in 1996, when Vermont College was still part of Norwich University. Over the past two decades, it's amassed a formidable national reputation.

Since 2008, VCFA's overall enrollment has nearly doubled (from 220 to 380), while WCYA's has increased from 55 to 80, according to VCFA founding and current president Thomas Christopher Greene. While the college as a whole currently sits at No. 147 on U.S. News & World Report's list of Best Fine Arts Programs, Publishers Weekly singled out the kid-lit program as a "top choice" in 2014.

The program's website offers a 28-page list of alumni publications, some of which have earned hefty honors. In 2017, the five finalists for the National Book Award included WCYA grad Ibi Zoboi and her former faculty adviser there, Rita Williams-Garcia.

WCYA's alumni roster also includes National Book Award finalist Debby Dahl Edwardson; Jandy Nelson, winner of the American Library Association's prestigious Michael L. Printz Award; Printz Honor winner Julie Berry; and best-selling YA novelists Ally Condie and Lauren Myracle. Printz Honor winner A.S. King is on the faculty, while the list of visiting writers offers a who's who of kid lit: Katherine Paterson, Philip Pullman, Maggie Stiefvater.

In WCYA's student body, "you'll find people just starting out and New York Times best-sellers who want to focus on their craft," said YA novelist Nova Ren Suma, who joined VCFA's faculty in 2016.

Suma is based in Philadelphia, but she, like McCormick, came to Montpelier in July for the 10-day residency — one of two annual meet-ups for VCFA's low-residency students and faculty. The rest of the semester, students work online with a faculty adviser, consulting via phone or Skype and turning in "packets" that include original work and critical responses to readings. Eventually, they'll produce critical and creative theses, before capping their experience with a graduate lecture and reading.

Each January and July, students flock to campus for small-group workshops with faculty, one-on-one meetings, lectures and readings. (Many of the last two are open to the public.) Far from formal or academic, the tone of WCYA's July 2018 residency was celebratory, and sometimes downright quirky.

On July 12, at her morning lecture in the chapel of stately College Hall, faculty member Amanda Jenkins made attendees raise their hands and say, "I solemnly promise to make sure the reader knows where the blankety-blank they are at the beginning of every scene."

Later in the day, graduating student Jessica W. Lee delivered a polished lecture on developing strong characters, a process she described as "get[ting] lost inside the messy, exhilarating darkness of your true self." When she ended it by asking the audience to engage in a five-minute meditation "to connect with your true self," you could have heard a pin drop in the stillness.

If the students were eager to connect with their true selves, they were also eager to connect with one another — and to enthuse about the program. "This is a remarkable place — the word 'remarkable' really doesn't do it justice," McCormick said. Rhonda DeChambeau, a second-year student from Massachusetts, called WCYA "amazing, magical."

Over lunch at Café Anna — named for College Hall's legendary resident ghost — Suma said VCFA was her first choice for a teaching job because she was "so drawn to this particular program" after seeing its effects on her writer friends.

An acclaimed author of moody literary novels with surreal elements, such as her best-seller The Walls Around Us, Suma contrasted the program with her own MFA experience at Columbia University. There, "the vibe was very competitive," and many of her classmates stopped writing after graduation. Here, Suma said, "there's support, there's investment in your work, there's a sense of community. We're building lasting relationships with these writers."

DeChambeau echoed that assessment: "Everybody is very warm and welcoming. There's an amazing level of talent here. People are very supportive of each other."

VCFA also offers respected MFAs in general writing and publishing (including a resident program). Why does children's writing get its own track?

Well, for one thing, there's plenty of demand. Ann Dávila Cardinal is the college's director of student recruitment and the author of a YA horror novel set in Puerto Rico, forthcoming from Tor Teen. "Writing for children and young adults is just booming," she said in her office, near the vertiginous summit of College Hall. "In the literary world, genre writers are kind of ghettoized. [Here,] there's not that judgment."

Suma agreed that, in most MFA programs, kid lit "would be sidelined." While acknowledging the stereotypes about writing for young people — that it's easy to toss off, or the province of fusty librarians — she described it as a field of immense potential: "There's an openness that doesn't exist in my experience of writing for adults. In terms of experimentation ... I think the writing we're seeing is so extraordinary and so brave. We know the value of what we're doing."

DeChambeau learned for herself that children's books aren't child's play when the program encouraged her to branch out from writing YA into targeting younger age groups. "Everybody thinks writing a picture book is an easy thing," she said. It wasn't. "It really opened my eyes."

Greene, who has overseen the growth of VCFA's operating budget from $5 million to $12 million, called WCYA "currently the greatest single incubator of talent in the writing-for-children-and-young-adults world."

He minimized his own role in building the program, saying, "Most of what I do is hire really good people and get out of the way. The leadership for this program really has been through the faculty. They've been able to attract top talent, and diverse talent."

"Diversity" is a watchword in today's kid-lit world, with organizations such as We Need Diverse Books focusing on the rarity of historically marginalized voices in libraries and children's publishing. In addition to standard writing-craft topics, the lectures at VCFA's July residency addressed questions of how to make kids' books more inclusive. "I'm Not Your Diversity Valet," proclaimed the title of Kekla Magoon's faculty lecture. Fellow faculty member Cori McCarthy spoke on "Gender Unbound: Crafting Binary and Nonbinary Characters for Evolving Generations."

In 2016, WCYA alumni launched the Young Writers Network, a northern New England "mentoring network" that connects the program's grads with kids who are "underrepresented in children's literature as a whole," according to its mission statement. Said Greene, "This is a small place that's having a really outsized impact on the larger culture."

WCYA accepts 50 to 60 percent of its applicants, said Cardinal, and about half of students receive financial aid from VCFA to handle the tuition of $11,882 per semester (plus a room-and-board fee of $877 per residency). New York literary agent Barry Goldblatt funded a $5,000 scholarship to encourage students of color to apply.

No literary agents or editors spoke at the July residency, and no lectures were devoted to pitching or publicizing books, in a marked contrast to the average writers' conference. "We keep [publishers and agents] out a little bit," said Greene. "We want the students to focus on their writing and getting better, and not necessarily on getting a book deal." Suma concurred: "The main focus is craft. I save industry talk for the fourth semester."

While publishing pros may not hold court at VCFA, they show a keen interest in the program's grads, said Cardinal, who recalls agents asking her, "'You went to VCFA? I read everything that comes from there.' It opens doors, the reputation," she added.

Tirzah Price, a 2015 WCYA grad based in Michigan, has also seen how the VCFA name piques agent interest. "I truly believe that having my MFA from VCFA helped immensely in the querying process," she wrote in a Facebook message. When Price spoke with prospective agents on the phone, all "were very curious about the program and students" and "had very nice things to say," she recalled.

But more important than name recognition, Price believes, is "the huge alumni network that gets you connections and contacts." And it's a strong network, as Bobi Martin, an Arizona-based writer of numerous science books for elementary schoolers, can attest.

When Martin graduated from WCYA in 1999, "Nothing like it existed," she said. In July, she was back on campus to attend her first residency in 19 years as a graduate assistant, serving as a "go-between" and helping new students acclimate. "We make sure everybody feels connected — one of the great strengths of this program," she said.

VCFA offers mini-residencies for alumni and other ways to stay in touch. In online groups, Martin said, she networked with the grads who came after her: "I never felt disconnected. You just naturally form friendships and strong connections."

"Graduates are the best advertisement for the program," said Suma.

Of course, no MFA is a passport to fame, fortune or National Book Award nominations. Not all of her fellow grads have had success stories, Martin noted: "Some people will never sell a book. You have to bring your own commitment."

McCormick isn't short on that. At the July residency, he was busy workshopping the story that grew out of his purchase of the "little guy" on Kandahar Airfield. His elevator pitch? "A young and bookish mouse in Kandahar has to come out of his shell ... and strikes out with his friends to find the most precious and valuable book in all of Afghanistan before the Taliban can find and destroy it."

McCormick acknowledged that "a lot of people run around cheerleading and whatnot: 'VCFA's so great!'" His job with the State Department tends to make him skeptical, he said, "always questioning, always evaluating." But when it comes to this program, he's convinced, "This is the real deal."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Majoring in Minors"

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