This is the third in my series of blogposts that detail my time in America. First, I attended the Children’s Institute, then had two weeks in New York City. Finally, I attended a week-long writers retreat run by The Highlights foundation called Summer Camp at the Barn.

For those who don’t know (just like I didn’t, before I started researching for my grant application) The Highlights Foundation is a not-for-profit arm of the Highlights literary magazine for children. They have a Retreat Centre on a beautiful property in the Pocono Mountains that used to be the home of the founders of the magazine. Year round, they run workshops and retreats with the express goal of improving the quality of children’s literature by helping authors and illustrators hone their craft.
While some workshops and retreats they run focus on specific genres, categories or skillsets, Summer Camp at the Barn was more general in approach, open to writers of picture books through to young adult fiction or non-fiction. Luckily for me, it also fell in a timeline that worked well for the Neilma Sydney Travel Fund to cover both it and the Children’s Institute, so it was an easy choice for me.
As a humorous, confessional side note, I’d spent the build up to this trip describing it to my friends as “a writers retreat on some farm in country-Pennsylvania I found online.” When wonder and concern crossed their face I would say, “well, if I end up chained to a radiator in a basement, I’ll have plenty of fodder for a YA novel.”
Needless to say, that image could not be further removed from the truth. As soon as I arrived, I knew I was in for a treat. The property was stunning, the facilitates top notch and the staff more professional and extensive than I had imagined.
But it was the writing I was here for. I was so eager to switch gears from the rest of my trip and focus on the part of me that wants to develop my writing skills, and move forward in my career. And it quickly became apparent that this would be the perfect setting for me to do exactly that.
The week was full of keynote speeches from the very talented faculty. Lamar Giles, Peter Jacobi, Jillian Sullivan, Anna-Marie McLemore, Linda Sue Park, Shadra Stickland and Mitali Perkins. Each was bursting with inspiration and practical applications. Not to mention some hard truths.


Lamar Giles, who was also assigned as my mentor, opened the week by laying it out there: if you simply want to write for your own pleasure, that is entirely valid and you can approach your practice any way you like. However, if you plan on making a career out of your writing, you have to do the work. He described how every job needs that repetitive lever-pulling in some way, shape or form. You need to work out what pulling the lever means to you.
Lamar’s guidance on my work in progress was invaluable. Especially as it was the opening chapters of a novel. Each morning we had half an hour of one-on-one time with our mentors who had read our submitted work and were ready to discuss it. To have areas that need work specifically pointed out, with an invitation to think how readers are hooked from the start was immensely helpful. But over the week, after we talked about the homework rewrites he set me, and the craft of writing, we discussed my goals professionally, and how best to pursue them.
There was also one or two ‘Hands-on sessions’ a day which we could choose from a variety of workshop topics. Some of these were repeated which was very good as it was always hard to choose between them! I chose sessions on ‘Place’, sensory details, character, fariytale retellings, and close reading.
There was variation in everything that was presented throughout the week. Peter Jacobi stressed how vital reading your copy aloud is. Jillian Sullivan described how our own lives can unfold like a ‘Hero’s Journey’ and how to recognise opportunities when they come knocking. Anna-Marie McLemore posed big questions to ask yourself: What do I want to say with this book? And what do I want to say with my career? It is okay to explore similar themes over the course of your writing, because you’ll be looking at it from different angles. It’s a matter of discovering the thing that is more important than your fear. (That hit home, I can tell you.)
Linda Sue Park revelled in the details. You have to be passionate about the details. How they filter through into your writing needs careful consideration, but if you’re not interested in the substance of your worldbuilding, then why would the reader be? Shandra Strickland stepped us through the mechanics of picture book making, and her process illustrating them. Linda Epstein gave us a literary agent’s perspective in a Q&A. And Matali Perkins spoke on our final day about her own journey in writing, and described it as a vocation. She urged us to think about how we’re serving the planet with what we write.
All of this BARELY scratches the surface of the learning and growth that took place that week. And that is only one part of the experience too. All week we were shepherded by the lovely Alison Green Myers who’s enthusiasm was contagious. The community that was built was so uplifting. I met SO MANY brilliant, passionate, engaged, wonderful people at every stage of their writing lives. I’ve made friends for life.
I’d also be remiss to not mention the food. Honestly, my mouth waters now, months later, simply thinking about it. Especially the bacon.
My experience was a pure delight from beginning to end. Ever since I left (even before I left) I’ve been plotting how to return. I’m a convert now and would recommend Highlights Foundation to any creator of children’s literature I met.

Serendipity was on my side too, as I’ve already described, Highlights was what helped the stars align, right place, right time, with the work I’d done on my manuscript under my belt so that when I met Linda Epstein and she invited me to pitch to her, it led to our happy arrangement. Now I can say I have a fabulous literary agent!

If my life were a Venn Diagram, and three of the major circles were writing, bookselling and sense of self, this trip brought them all together without any discrepancies. I feel whole, as I know my growth and development were. Now I’m hungry to keep growing.

But of all the closing thoughts/final pieces of advice we were offered, the one that resounded loudest (like a gong upside the head!) was when Lamar Giles stated simply, “Stop bullshitting. If you don’t do the work, who will?”

This is me, doing the work.

(The writing, not the swinging… that’s just a visual representation of my my joy)

1 Comment

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Jillian Sullivan

It was great to spend a week with you, Michael. Happy writing.

February 2, 2019 at 6:27 pm ·

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