Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Interview: Kent Brown on the Highlights Foundation, the Writers Workshop at Chautauqua, and the Founders Workshops

Kent Brown on Kent Brown: "I got to Highlights quite by accident, and initially I found it hard to sit at a desk. Some of my career ideas were agriculture journalist, teacher, farmer. I have found considerable satisfaction in the things I've done in the Highlights organization for the past 38 years. Some years ago I admitted to myself that I was not going to be a writer, which I think has helped me to be happy editing and pointing others to writing."

What is the relationship between Highlights magazine and the Highlights Foundation?

Highlights for Children magazine and other parts of Highlights for Children, Inc. are a regular company with shareholders (mostly family).

The Highlights Foundation, Inc. is a non-for-profit 501(c)3 educational organization. It is run by a Board of Trustees, separate from the Highlights corporation. We are delighted to receive support from the Highlights corporation, but are not controlled by it.

Could you share with us some of the history of the foundation?

We started by running an experimental conference in Chautauqua, New York. The idea was to find caring faculty with big hearts and small egos, and offer a submersion for a week. We originally advertised a faculty-student ratio of one to four.

What are its goals?

The officialese is: to raise the level of the offering for children, which we do through educating and inspiring writers and illustrators passionate about serving kids.

We want to do this in a non-threatening atmosphere, helping others to overcome fear of rejection. Our specialty has been intense rather than enormous, individual rather than mass, and small and targeted rather than huge.

How do writers benefit from participating in a workshop experience?

Gaining belief in themselves is key. At our flagship Chautauqua conference, there are lots of opportunities for really getting to know other writers--students and faculty alike. Many say the distinction between the teachers and students disappears and all are learners.

Our Founders Workshop programs, held out at my grandparents' farm, provide an intimate and intense experience. Whereas the Chautauqua curriculum is broad--we offer forty-five workshops during the week--Founders Workshops are each targeted to a single topic, such as Writing YA Novels or Finding Your Voice or Writing About Nature.

When was the first Chautauqua workshop? What was it like?

The first ever Chautauqua was 1985. There were a lot of little logistical glitches, but the sharing and caring of the faculty came across, and the week became a life-changing experience for many. I was looking the other day at the picture of that first faculty. I have gratitude for those who took a chance on new idea.

The Highlights editors served as staff workers and cleaned rooms and did dishes.

How has the program grown?

Chautauqua has become refined and we now offer in our mix forty-five elective workshops that week. But the core strategy of lots of interaction has not changed.

We still make sure that the faculty and attendees mix and gets lots of time together. We have never had any head table. I think the concept of a head table is counter to our mission.

How have the workshops changed over the years?

The workshops themselves remain pretty much the same. We match faculty members to topics in their areas of expertise, and each one brings a unique sensibility and skill set to that topic. Participants get to choose between three workshops offered in each of three daily sessions from Monday through Friday. We also offer a general session to kick off each workshop day from faculty members who inspire us all.

What is the difference between the Writers Workshop at Chautauqua and the Founders Workshops?

In many ways, the Chautauqua experience is a broad survey, with lots of techniques and genres branching off. It's a combination of large group, small workshops, and one-on-one critiques.

The Founders Workshops are more intimate, and generally focus on targeted topics or specific genres.

What costs are involved?

In all our programs, you get yourself there, and we do the rest. Chautauqua is inclusive of all materials and meals, gate pass to the Chautauqua grounds, plus the entire workshop program. Lodging is an additional cost at Chautauqua.

So far we have avoided a la carte. It strikes me that paying separate for a specific service--a one-on-one critique session, for example--produces too great an expectation and places a specific value on what is only part of a greater process. Our Founders Workshops include everything--private cabins, gourmet meals, and topnotch instructors.

Long ago we decided we were not going to keep people alive on hot dogs and baked beans. We want everything from instruction to meals to be top shelf. Our programs may seem expensive when compared to short one day sessions, but when compared to an all-inclusive long weekend or an entire week away from home anywhere--even without instruction from some of the biggest names in children's literature--they're worth every penny.

What scholarship opportunities are available?

Of the 100 max attendees at Chautauqua, fully 25% receive some sort of financial aid. Our developing grant programs for the Founders Workshops provide support for a minimum of one in ten.

What faculty members will be leading workshops in 2009?

You can see the whole list on our Web site: www.highlightsfoundation.org. We're excited to have every one of these children's publishing pros with us.

Some of this year's notables are Philomel VP and editor at large Patricia Lee Gauch, Caldecott winner Eric Rohmann, Little Brown senior editor Alvina Ling, award-winning novelist Donna Jo Napoli, and popular picture book author Candace Fleming. We're also pleased to welcome our friends Eileen Spinelli and Jerry Spinelli.

What is your criteria for selecting teachers?

I guess you might say we look for the right combination of knowledge and niceness. Our faculty members are pros in the field, but they're also down-to-earth, accessible types who really want to help others reach their goals and dreams.

They're the kind of faculty members who'll plop down beside you at a picnic table and ask about your writing with genuine interest, then walk down to Bestor Plaza with you to get an ice cream.

What children's or YA books of late have "grown" from your workshops?

Many books grow out of our workshops--after twenty-five years, more than I could name. A few include: Lori Reis's Super Sam (Charlesbridge), which she actually wrote while at Chautauqua; Wolf Snail: A Backyard Predator by Sarah C. Campbell (one of this year's Theodore Seuss Geisel honor books), which grew out of our nature writing workshop; and Blue, a historical novel that evolved after one of Carolyn Yoder's history writing workshops.

These are just a few of the published books--many, many terrific books and stories grow out of our workshops, and we feel that each of them is equally important, whether they find publishers or not.

One of the important things to remember about our workshops is that every writer who comes is a writer of equal value--no matter what luminary might be sitting beside you at breakfast you'll quickly realize that they're just like you--someone who is excited about kids' books.

Which "name" and/or rising stars did you see when they were beginners?

Sharon Creech comes to mind. Sneed B. Collard, III. Candace Fleming, who's now on our faculty. Susan Campbell Bartolleti. Linda Oatman High. Cris Peterson. Virginia Kroll. Mary Casanova. Monica Gunning. Kristi Holl...once again, the list goes on and on.

But again, for us, it's not about names or stars--it's about writing for kids and loving it, and getting to know lots of other folks who feel the same way.

Is there an application process for participating writers?

Yes. Writers submit an application and writing sample. Jo Lloyd is happy to answer any questions and can be reached at 570.253.1192 or jalloyd@highlightsfoundation.org.

How would you describe the community--if there is one--that grows out of these programs?

Many communities and friendships grow out of these programs. Critique groups (some via email, some in person), Yahoo groups, Facebook friends, groups that come to workshops together year after year, writers who find editors, editors who find writers who become friends...the connections are too long to list.

I guess we feel that everyone who attends one of our programs becomes part of the Highlights family.

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