The books I read as a child and teenager are the ones that left indelible impressions on me, though it took me a while to realize I wanted to dedicate myself to young people’s literature. After college, I moved to Boston and landed a job as a bookseller at Curious George Books and Toys in Harvard Square. Around this time, Twilight was hitting big, and I happened to be (embarrassingly, finally) reading Jane Eyre for the first time. I remember being struck by how Jane lives—her reactions, her tenacity, and also her capacity for love. I felt that Jane was not only most assuredly a YA heroine, but she also seemed to me a significantly better role model than Twilight’s Bella Swan. Why not adore a brooding boy and claim some agency for yourself? All this reading, and being surrounded by books at my new job, got me thinking about my own writerly ambitions. “I should write the book I wish I had when I was a teenager trying to figure stuff out,” I thought. At the bookstore, I worked with some Simmons alums and was astonished to learn there was a place I could actually study what I had long guarded as a guilty pleasure. It hit me then—I’d get this degree and I’d outwrite Bella for the good of teens everywhere! In 2009 I enrolled in the M.F.A. in Writing for Children at Simmons College, finishing in 2011.
My time there turned out to be much more than a crash course in how to write for kids. I went into the program wanting to write in an authentic and meaningful way. The Catcher in the Rye was another early YA favorite—that book taught me that kids are smart and see through phoniness—so I set to figuring out how to write with purpose but without didacticism. The critical theory component to the Simmons education helped. We analyzed books at length, but also considered the many potential audiences for children’s literature, which helped clarify the tools at my disposal. I learned how to harness my own childhood experiences for story ideas and to create authentic voices that would reach razor-sharp young readers. In the second year, I was paired with Candlewick editor Andrea Tompa for a semester as we worked systematically through an edit of my novel, and the following semester I worked on a different project with Kate O'Sullivan at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Both editors pushed me to finish two full novel drafts in this time, and I also came away with their incisive notes and suggestions for future edits.
I completed the program able to write in a more authentic and meaningful way. I also cultivated a network of trusted readers, well-connected colleagues, and a much deeper understanding of children’s books and children’s publishing. Every day I’m glad I took the leap to transform my guilty pleasure into my new profession.
My day job at PW keeps me connected to the world of children’s books; I’m inspired daily by what’s coming out (and also able to anticipate creative pitfalls) while also working with editors and writers, sharpening my technical skills, and trying to be economical with words. My time at Simmons has prepared me to engage substantively with the children’s book industry, as well as with my own creative process. My degree has led me to an amazing job in an amazing city, and that keeps me inspired.
Natasha Gilmore is associate children’s book editor at PW.
For more on the topic of M.F.A. Programs in Children's Writing, see these two articles:Children’s Lit, in Theory and Practice: M.F.A. Update Fall 2014More Children’s and YA Writing M.F.A. Programs: M.F.A. Update Fall 2014