For 32 potential children's authors a recent visit to the Hamptons, the famed summer resort, was spent hobnobbing not with the likes of Alec Baldwin or Martha Stewart but with kidlit celebs. Newbery, Caldecott and Coretta Scott King honoree, author and editor Andrea Davis Pinkney, National Book Award finalists Tor Seidler and Patricia McCormick and New York Times bestselling authors Peter H. Reynolds and Chris Barton were some of the writing stars with whom they spent five days at the Southampton Children's Literature Conference. Since 2008 this annual event hosted by Stony Brook University ran from July 6 - 10th at the school's Southampton Campus and offered the participants an opportunity to study and discuss the craft of writing for children.
Acceptance for workshop participation is based on the promise of writing samples, along with an indication that the applicant will benefit from the conference. In the four years of the conference existence applicants have come from all over the world. For the second year Emma Walton Hamilton, who has co-authored over 20 books with her mother actress, Julie Andrews, including The Very Fairy Princess (Little Brown, 2010), served as the conference director. In that position she is responsible of recruiting authors and other publishing professionals to serve as instructors and features speaker
Attendees chose one of five focus sessions and spent all five mornings immersed in that particular topic conducted by the authors. The workshops were "The Write Stuff: An Author and Publisher Shares Trade Secrets for Crafting Works of Nonfiction and Historical Fiction for Children and Young Adults" with Andrea Davis Pinkney; "All in the Telling: Writing the Middle Grade Novel" with Tor Seidler; "Hearing Voices: Finding the Right Voice When Writing YA Fiction" with Patricia McCormick; "How to Extract a Fable: Connecting with Meaningful Messages, Inner Wisdom and Personal Mission When Writing for Children" with Peter H. Reynolds; "You Don't Have to Choose: Lessons Learned While Balancing Playful Picture Books with Rigorous Research" with Chris Barton.
During the workshops leaders critiqued attendees' writing and participants shared their progress on writing projects with others in the group. In the afternoons and evenings special guests such as father and daughter collaborators Jules & Kate Feiffer, children literature historian Leonard Marcus, and book marketing guru Susan Raab spoke to the group. Marcus' presentation "LET THE WILD RUMPUS START: When Children's Books Got Real With Kids -- And Why" discussed how the visionary editor Ursula Nordstrom transformed American children's literature from a sentimental backwater to a vibrant, emotionally resonant art form, while Raab instructed the audience on how to identify and evolve their brand identity.
On Friday afternoon a dozen middle and high schools students from area schools, all members of the Young American Writers Project (YAWP), read samples of their writings including poetry, memoirs and short stories to the group. The adult writers, both the instructors and attendees, were impressed by the young people who took the risk of sharing their writings with the group. The program was created by Stony Brook Southampton's MFA in Writing and Literature Program and is dedicated to mentoring students and to help them find their unique voice and points of view through the writing process.
Besides learning literary techniques such as the development of character & setting and having one to one conferences about their writing with their workshop mentors, the attendees who paid $1495 to participate were all enthusiastic about the entire experience. "She cares and is rooting for all of us," said conference attendee Muriel Harris Weinstein from Great Neck, NY about her workshop leader Patricia McCormick. McCormick's book Cut (Push, 2002) was recently singled out by Meghan Cox Gurdon's Wall Street Journal article on the dark nature of teen literature. While Barbara Manchee of Pittsfield, NY who hopes to write a biography about the designer Lella Vignelli enjoyed the opportunity to interact with other participants who are at various stages of their writing careers.
The students were not the only ones enthusiastic. Chris Barton, author of Shark vs. Train (Little Brown, 2010) and workshop instructor who traveled from Texas to teach at the conference said at the close of the conference, "Who knew that the faculty would get to go home just as inspired as the students?" Andrea Pickney described her work with the students as "a gift to me".
When asked her reaction to the conference, Emma Walton Hamilton said, "It was a magical week. The final participant readings were just electric. I think the trickle-down effect will last for a long time to come."