Hamline News

Masters of their Craft

master craft article


Two years ago, twenty-two professional writers and novelists, nurses, carpenters, teachers, real estate agents, and stay-at-home parents enrolled in a new master of fine arts in writing for children and young adults program offered by Hamline’s Graduate School of Liberal Studies.

Some wanted to write fantasy novels for young readers, others picture books, and others poetry. Some wanted to graduate with a degree that would allow them to teach composition or creative writing at the college level.

None knew what to expect from the new Hamline program. At the time, there were only two other existing MFA programs in the country that focused exclusively on writing for children and young adults.

“I had two books published already, but I wanted to take my writing to the next level, and not be just a ‘good’ writer but a great writer,” said Loretta Ellsworth, a former Spanish teacher from Lakeville, Minnesota. “I heard Hamline had this new program, and it just seemed to be the right fit at the right time.”

She was also drawn by the star-studded array of children’s book authors who would be teaching in the program, including Kate DiCamillo, author of Because of Winn Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux, both Newbery Honor winners that have gone on to become films, and Jane Resh Thomas, author of Lights on the River, The Counterfeit Princess, and Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth the First.

The two-year program pairs students one-on-one with authors who serve as advisors each semester. Students are also required to attend eleven-day residencies in January and July, which immerse them in workshops, lectures, and readings on the craft and process or writing, the field of children’s and young adult literature, and the publishing business. During each residency (held at Hamline’s Saint Paul campus), visiting authors, agents, and editors supplement presentations by regular faculty authors.

Marsha Qualey, Midwestern author of contemporary young adult novels including Come in from the Cold, Just Like That, and Thin Ice, is among the esteemed faculty who helped to launch the program.

“I had done some work in the adult MFA program at Hamline as an independent study advisor, and I really enjoyed the experience,” Qualey said. “This combination of providing a writing community for students and then guiding them through independent work is such a good model for writers. It parallels the real lives writers will face when they are done with school and are working one-on-one with their editors.”

“The main goal of this program,” Qualey said, “is not to help students get published, although that will definitely come. The main goal is to provide students with the writing tools they need to work on their own and to better their craft.”

Students learn to master the elements of the craft, such as plot development, characterization, and point of view, and they develop tools for revising and critiquing their own work. They also leave the program with a well-rounded view of the children’s book market and a sense of what to expect when it’s time to look for a teaching job or to submit their work to the publishing world.

“We do not impose a particular style or a formula on our students,” said Mary Rockcastle, dean of the Graduate School of Liberal Studies. “We are invested in finding out what a student wants to achieve and learn, and then we help to equip them with the tools, knowledge, and confidence they need to achieve that. Our graduates walk away with an enormous array of skills and resources. They have become masters of their craft.”

Rockcastle also believes that faculty and guest authors’ faith and investment in starting this MFA program have been extraordinary and speak to its quality.

“We were so pleased that so many established authors were willing to invest in the program, to teach, to guest lecture, and simply to endorse it,” Rockcastle said. “They believe that this is a place where students can pursue their dreams of becoming writers of children’s and young adult literature, and they are willing to put their names behind it.”

For Dave Revere, a media relations coordinator who works at a university in Montana, the experience has been transformational.

“Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to write the kind of books I liked to read,” said Revere, who hopes to one day support his family as an author of fantasy novels for middle-grade readers. “As I grew older, that interest just never really left me, but it started to feel more and more out of reach. I decided that I needed to find a place and environment that seriously engages in the craft of children’s writing. I wanted to grab my dream proactively—and push through it. I needed structure and deadlines and a program with strong mentorships. I found Hamline…and I am s grateful that I did.”

Loretta Ellsworth agreed.

“I worked with such incredible advisors in this program, and I am just still amazed at the dedication and investment that they put into examining and helping us with our writing,” Ellsworth said. “The line-by-line editing, the ability to see the big picture of our work, and the writing exercises and guidance they offered to get me back on track when I was struggling was just so valuable.”

As Ellsworth graduated from the program this January, she walked away with something even more valuable than her diploma.

“Now, two years later, I see my writing through a new lens. I feel more confident and grounded in craft elements, and best of all I have become a part of such an amazing writing community at Hamline,” Ellsworth said. “It’s a family. People share their struggles, their journeys, and their successes.”

And, speaking of success, Ellsworth is experiencing that, as well. She just sold a new novel, due out next spring—a book she wrote at Hamline.

by JacQui Getty