The Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College in Boston, established in 1977, was the nation’s first-ever master of arts in children’s literature. In response to a growing demand for writing and craft classes, Simmons launched an M.F.A. in writing for children in 2003. In the evolving field of children’s writing M.F.A.s, Simmons is the big player.
Simmons’s programs at CSCL are composed of rigorous and highly academic coursework, often on surprising topics. Students might take a course in folklore one semester, and the next, a course that dissects contemporary fantasy from a feminist perspective. Critical and theoretical approaches to children’s lit remain at the core of all the offerings at CSCL, which have evolved over the years to include a trio of dual-degree programs that have transformed Simmons into the Mecca for aspiring writers, librarians, and teachers hoping to specialize in children’s and YA lit.
It typically takes students two years, both of which are full residency, to complete degree requirements for the 36-credit M.A. in children’s literature or the 32-credit M.F.A. in writing for children. Those who want an interdisciplinary course of study or specialized training also have the option of enrolling in the M.A./M.A.T. in children’s literature/teaching (64 credits that lead to a teaching certification at the elementary, middle, or high school level), the M.A./M.A. in children’s literature/English, the M.A./M.S. in children’s literature/library science, and the popular M.A./M.F.A. in children’s literature/writing for children.
Cathryn Mercier, director of the children’s literature program and of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature—who received her own M.A. in children’s literature from Simmons in 1984—thinks of the M.F.A. as a natural addition to CSCL’s offerings. “We noticed a number of alums going on to have careers as writers and we thought: are they just talented, or is there something going on here we should share?” She also notes that in the years prior to the start of the M.F.A., there was a distinct uptick in requests for writing classes. “Students always wanted to know how many writing classes they could take.” Mercier and her colleagues developed the program with lots of feedback from alumni, publishers, and authors; one thing immediately became clear. “Everyone felt that our academic foundation is one of our great strengths. We decided to build the M.F.A. as another track, so that all of our students, regardless of degree, share the same strong academic background.”
One month after graduating from Simmons with an M.F.A. in 2014, Mackenzi Lee sold her YA novel, This Monstrous Thing, at auction in a two-book deal to HarperCollins. She describes an atmosphere at Simmons that’s supportive and immersive, and offers many intangible benefits, like a campus community that fosters networking. All of this is what you’d expect to hear from a graduate of a high-level M.F.A. program, but what’s perhaps more surprising is how alumni like Lee go on to stress the value of the program’s academics. “I loved the idea of not only understanding craft, but also the history and critical elements of children’s literature,” she says. This is a consistent refrain among graduates. “The critical training, for me, was irreplaceable,” says Elaine Dimopoulos (M.F.A., ’08), whose first YA novel, Material Girls, comes out from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in spring 2015. “I learned to ask questions of my own writing: How diverse are my stories? Could a critic deconstruct my work and find contradictions?”
Mercier explains that the programs were carefully designed so that writers are never only talking to other writers—they’re also talking to publishers, librarians, booksellers, and editors, gathering professional advice that will help launch them into successful careers in the field. This mentality is also embodied in the mentorship, or thesis year, in which every M.F.A. student completes two separate projects, working one-on-one with an agent or editor. Thanks to a collaboration with Mount Holyoke College and the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, students can also study onsite at the museum. These strategies for teaching practitioners how to apply their studies toward making a living seem to be working—Simmons has graduated a number of successful children’s lit authors, among them Wicked author Gregory Maguire, and several judges for the Newbery and Caldecott medals.
“Children’s literature is a tricky genre because it’s the only one where the writer isn’t the intended audience,” says Anna Staniszewski, a Simmons M.F.A. grad and the author of several books for children and young adults. “It’s seriously underrepresented in academia, and often taken less seriously than other disciplines, because people seem to think there’s something easier about writing for children than writing for adults.” Mercier adds, “As long as we devalue children in our society, we devalue the people who write for children.”
Across the country, programs in writing for children are popping up, though there are far fewer than programs in poetry and fiction writing. “The more programs the better,” says Mercier. “The interest in the academic study of writing for children is more than a pop culture moment—perhaps the proliferation of programs means we’re beginning to take what children read seriously.”
The center offers a number of funding packages, including teaching, research, and graduate assistantships, as well as work opportunities at the college’s Writing Center. The most competitive applications, says Mercier, are the ones that show a history of experience in the children’s lit world—students who’ve worked in bookstores and libraries, for instance. Of course, the writing portfolio matters too.
“There’s always been an academic arm in children’s lit made up of apologetics,” says Mercier. “But no one apologizes here. We’re engaged in a rigorous study of children’s lit, and students feel liberated—they get to read Beverly Cleary, Avi, Virginia Hamilton, in serious and critical ways—and for them, that’s a gift and a privilege.”
Julie Buntin is a freelance writer living in New York.
See below for more on the subject of M.F.A. programs in children's literature.More Children’s and YA Writing M.F.A. Programs: M.F.A. Update Fall 2014Earning My Writing for Children M.F.A. at Simmons: M.F.A. Update Fall 2014