Attention, class! On July 21, the doors opened – at least virtually – to a free online summer writing course for aspiring and established children’s book authors and illustrators. In session until August 15, KidLit Summer School is orchestrated by middle-grade novelist Kami Kinard and picture-book author Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, coauthors of the writing-themed Nerdy Chicks Rule blog. At the heart of the curriculum is a blog, where six days a week one of 24 faculty members conducts a “class” that focuses on some aspect of creating and developing strong fictional characters. There are currently 700 students enrolled, and the website has had more than 30,000 page views since the start of school.

In addition to Kinard and Bardhan-Quallen, the faculty is comprised of published children’s authors and illustrators, including National Book Award winner Kathryn Erskine (Mockingbird), Zachariah Ohora (No Fits, Nilson!), Scholastic executive editor Aimee Friedman (Sea Change), Kat Yeh (The Truth About Twinkie Pie), Ame Dyckman (Boy + Bot), and Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich (8th Grade Superzero).

The KidLit Summer School syllabus also includes twice-weekly 30-minute Twitter writing challenges (#30mdare), hosted by YA author Rebecca Petruck (Steering Toward Normal), which provide students with a character-development prompt; those who participate in at least five dares will be entered in a drawing for a “first three pages” writing critique by Petruck. Also on the school docket are Webinars led by the teacher-bloggers, and numerous practical writing exercises and weekly pop quizzes based on the instructional blog posts.

Kinard, author of The Boy Project and The Boy Problem, is a former high-school English teacher and a frequent presenter at writing conferences, sometimes in tandem with Bardhan-Quallen, whose picture books include Duck, Duck, Moose!, and Orangutangled. Each author also does solo presentations.

“People at conferences seem to like our presentations, so Sudipta and I were brainstorming ideas for additional ways to help authors improve their craft,” Kinard explained. “We came up with the idea of building an online community with a craft-based school that will be a growing resource for writers of all skill levels across genres, as well as foster a community of mentoring, friendship, encouragement, and motivation.”

A Flurry of Applications

The summer school coordinators were gratified – and a bit surprised – at writers’ overwhelming response to the invitation to enroll. Calling it a grassroots effort, Bardhan-Quallen noted that she and Kinard publicized the school on the message board on the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ website, on Facebook, and on their Nerdy Chicks Rule site, but “we largely relied on word-of-mouth.” Word obviously spread quickly in the tight-knit children’s writing community. “We had decided that the school would be successful if we had 100 students enroll, and we blew that out in the first couple of hours of registration,” Bardhan-Quallen reported.

She and Kinard were also pleased with the positive reaction on the part of their writing colleagues they asked to join the faculty, including Friedman, who has benefited from the school as both a guest blogger and an author. She said, “An online school like this is a terrific resource because it allows writers with a range of backgrounds and experience, from across the country, to come to one place to glean tips and hints and, ideally, inspiration from those who know what they are going through. As a faculty member, I found it extremely rewarding to read the comments and conversations my post generated. And, as an author, I have found the other faculty members’ posts extremely helpful and yes, inspiring. I’ve learned a lot, and hope the students feel the same!”

Along with honing their writing skills, those attending KidLit Summer School get some fun perks. Students have the opportunity to win critiques of their writing by several teacher-bloggers, including (in addition to Petruck) Kinard, Bardhan-Quallen, and Erskine. Writers also have the chance to win books and original art donated by faculty members. Every student will receive a certificate at session’s end, and diligent students who commented on every blog post within 24 hours of its appearance can enter a drawing for the Perfect Attendance Award.

After classes wrap up, the website will continue to be a content resource for writers, teachers, and librarians. Future sessions of the summer school, which is planned as an annual event, will focus on elements such as plot, humor, and dialogue. “As I continue to work on my own craft and attend conferences and workshops, it’s a huge gift when I can take away one or two ideas that spark greater understanding,” said Kinard. “I hope summer school offers our students that gift, too, giving them an ‘aha!’ moment that will help make their characters irresistible.” Class dismissed!