Thursday, June 9, 2016

Highlights from a Highlights Foundation Workshop

Highlights from a Highlights Foundation Workshop
by Jan Annino

I hope you are curious about the famed workshops
for children's writers held by the people who bring the
world HIGHLIGHTS - Fun with a Purpose, the
I was curious. But I'm not. anymore.
That's because I recently returned from a May
workshop with these creative & wonderful folks.

The first part of the article is about The Tour
of the Highlights Office.
The second part is about The Workshop.

High Fives from The Office,  THE TOUR


Highlights logo emblazoned on scattered carpets

A giant skull in the editor-in-chief’s office (which will be explained
when you take the tour.)

Magazine editors work in an old, downtown former mayor’s home, an impressive
building accented with high ceilings, big, built-in bookcases, and tall windows.

Editor name plates are old Scrabble tile holders, to display the letter tiles
that spell their first names. (Hello Joelle, Channing & everyone!)

All on staff answer mail from children; every piece of child mail is answered.

My heart also melted when I saw that books created by friends
(Lee Bennett Hopkins, Lisa Desimini, Irene Latham) were so handy for reference.

Okay, so I can’t count, that’s six.
The Highlights folks like to over deliver and
I feel all on tour caught that attitude.

If you get in touch with the magazine folks, be sure to say Happy Birthday! 
They are celebrating their sweet 70th. Here's to at least 70 more.

I'm happy to share a fun freebie.
Highlights would love to have young readers take their
(You may want to tell them you heard about it, here!)

So now it's onto the workshop.


A lot of it.
In the ardent
doodle, doodle, idea, idea, scribble, scribble

Breakthrough moments bubbled up,
which meant chucking swaths of lines
and retooling. Terrific progress.
Insights that peeled away the dreck.

Twelve of us.
In the nourishing
meet and greet, exchange resources, helpful critique

Mornings I awakened to birdsong. 
First light filtered in from a wood, across
a red clover field where a red tractor sat.
A breeze tickled delicate white curtains
against honey blond, paneled cabin walls.

(This image is lent me by Joanne R. Fritz.
copyright Joanne R. Fritz, all rights reserved.)

Each of the perfect-weather mornings, I grabbed my
journal-type notebook with the embossed mantra,
 “A moment of gratitude makes a difference in attitude.”  
It arrived home juicy with first pages impressions,
characters, thoughts, titles, snatches of dialogue & questions.

I broke away from the cabin’s spell & went outside early.
Plump robins were at work building a nest in a beam
of my front porch. Writers also saw Baltimore orioles.
I stopped in my path as a blue-purple banner flashed joy -
an indigo bunting!
Bluebirds visited me uncountable times. Plus, such a delight –
chipmunks wove in an out of the slate walls near the 5,200 square
foot airy conference center, known as The Barn. 

More Work
Each morning top-drawer children's authors who became everyone's
dear friends - Kathryn Erskine and Alma Fullerton - 
guided us with pithy & lively lectures & writing prompts. This moved
us forward in our novels-in-verse projects (& one biography-in-
verse project that we know will be a winner.)

The authors were so physical in their presentations, at times it
felt as if we were watching theater.
They surprised us by reading to the group, lines from our
works that they felt were flowing in the right direction.
We also listened to a potent talk & enjoyed many encouraging
conversations, with visiting author Padma Venkatraman,
(A Time to Dance, Island’s End, Climbing the Stairs.) Her works
were knew to me before Kathryn & Alma introduced us to her;
now I have an invitation to have coffee with her in Rhode
Island, when I'm next visiting our family there.

Afternoons offered well-subscribed time for
one-on-one meetings with the mentors.
And for individual writing marathons, inside.
Or out. With assistance from previously noted chipmunks and avians.
Writers who went to the creek at the bottom of the hill
drank in a view of flowing clearness, reflecting the clarity of our
thoughts & work.

(This creek at Highlights image is lent to me by Kathryn Erskine. 
It is Calkins Creek.  Yes, same as the famed Highlights imprint...
copyright Kathryn Erskine, all rights reserved.)

By 4 we collected in the living room of The Barn at
a daily group critique for the brave.
Everyone felt brave, drawn out by the nurturing faculty.
We appreciated the Floyd Cooper art on the walls & the
big sofas holding red pillows emblazoned with the
distinctive H for Highlights logo. Around the corner
a bright Eric Carle poster and a library of great picture
books to browse,  added to the creative atmosphere. 

The evenings were usually free for reading,
writing, or discussion with mentors & new pals who
were now, new mentors.  
I am fortunate that an insightful librarian, also working on
historical fiction like me, asked me to share evening work
time in The Barn, our lecture, lounging, dreaming &
eating space, beyond our cabins.
Another night we were gifted with visits from City
Folk, an accomplished agent & an esteemed editor.
Such insights, we gleaned. Such access, we appreciated.

Here at home, I've since written an entirely new opening to my
story. Which  my weekly critique partner, talented MG/YA
novelist Adrian Fogelin, read just last night.
I've changed a character's name, for the better.
(The workshop helped me understand why I was
stumbling over her name...)  I've written new story lines,
begun more research & feel fortunate to be back on track to
putting more words on the pages.
Thank you Highlights Foundation Workshop.

Favorite Words of Wisdom
Katherine Erskine, whose books include, Mockingbird 
(National Book Award winner), Quaking, The Badger Knight,
plus the forthcoming, Mama Africa:

All of your stories will make wonderful books.

Imagine an elaborate line-up of dominoes that you will be setting off, in touching
the first one. Each domino must connect. Each scene must connect with the next.

Keep in mind who is the antagonist. Who is the battle against.

Alma Fullerton, whose books include, In The Garage, Libertad, Burn &
the forthcoming, 50 Lashes:

Don’t sacrifice story for poetic form.

My first draft is basically barfing on the paper.

The evil person can be even nastier if we don’t see
him/him from his point of view, but when we view that antagonist from the outside.

Bonus Staff
The talented, kind & funny chef staff  (hello there, Marcia,
Amanda, Megan, Derrick & a spot-on walk-on, Kent!) matched
the quality of the story-crafting faculty. And their treats are
missed (hello there, toasted kale appetizer, mushroom loaf,
stuffed peppers, cream of squash soup, rhubarb crunch,
grilled asparagus, local cheeses, et. al!)

Bonus Friends
It was a thrill to discover that Group Blogger Marcie was in the
cabin next door! We often sat side by side at the group critiques
or for dining. I was delighted to learn so much about her
Thailand-set novel. which is sure to be a winner.
I am eager to read her impressions about
this transformative Highlights experience & know they
will be along when this funny & super-bizee pal can
catch her breath. We are so fortunate to have her here
at Group Blog! I know I will have her book in my hands one day,
for her autograph. I can say I knew her... way back when.
I don't have my picture of us together, as my 125 images &
camera didn't make it home with me. But, that's another Story.

More. I read every page of the journal that dwells in my cabin
& discovered that a mentor of mine, esteemed children's editor Paula Morrow,
was previously the cabin's dweller. I left many appreciations
in the journal along with a doodle of the cabin.

Bonus Work
Although I only anticipated that my novel-in-verse would move
other book projects are boosted from my time at Highlights.
I gleaned insights for two completed but not contracted books.
One is a p.b. bio,  which I have added to my To Do
list for revision.
For my chapter book series that has two written books
& the outline for several others, where animal
characters provide the antics, discussion helped me realize
that my stakes aren't high enough. So these two are
returned to the Must Do To Do List.

If you travel from afar, a feature is that you can ask
the accommodating staff to arrange to arrive a bit early or
stay later, for ease of your traveling. This of course depends
upon availability.
So a few of us were there the evening after the midday end of the
workshop, for extra fellowship. And then in the morning,
I was floored at how considerate Founder Kent Brown, Jr. was
with my balky station wagon. He even corralled a pal
to come & add coolant. Upon arrival back in Florida,
I scooted a small thank you box from our family,
a gift package of choice, fresh pecans (our house is just
about 30 minutes from the best sw Georgia
pecan groves) - sent priority mail to The Barn,
for use in the gleaming & airy kitchen.

Another tip is that since many Group Bloggers are focused
on picture books, Kathryn Erskine will be co-leading a picture
book workshop this year, in October.
Tell her I sent you to her!

If you ever see Kathryn or Alma or Padma listed for a workshop & can
arrange to attend their event, I feel you will be
so appreciative of their mentoring.

To Be Continued
And finally, it was sweet to learn that one of my new friends
from the workshop, mentioned above as our
spiffy techie librarian who set up our workshop fb group,
is pals with a poem maker & writer friend of mine,
here in Florida.

I have email & fb messages from a buncha new writer-mentors pals.
We are pledged to encourage each other on our research & writing &
publishing paths, in the way everyone is so good to all here,
at sweet Group Blog.

Appreciations to everyone who made the stay so transformative.
Appreciations to Group Blog for providing this platform to share goodness.


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    1. And I am toast. :) I do believe I will be jelly after your journey to Highlights - hope it's soon.

  2. Lovely write-up, Jan! It sounds so beautiful and awe-inspiring. I also like your mantra!

    1. I can see you there - teaching - some day Tina. Thanks for these kind words.

  3. I haven't been to a workshop in a couple of years, but I will be going in August for a poetry workshop. I'm so excited to hear that Marcia is back in the kitchen! She wasn't there last time I was and it just wasn't the same.

    1. Many of us like the sound of that workshop, Rosi. So glad you can attend.
      The attentiveness of everyone, including Marcia & her staff is quite
      Would love to know the theme of your previous workshop there, if you care to share.

  4. Wow, Jan, it sounds like the Highlights workshop infused enough advice and inspiration to last for a loooong time! I'm so glad you were able to go. Thanks for all of the tips and quotes. Now, have a go with those manuscripts!

    1. Appreciations Patty.
      I think you would be a good faculty member there in p.b., future years...

  5. What you say is sooooo true! The Highlights people are awesome! I'm heading there in mid-July for Summer Camp. Your post has made me even more excited, if that were possible! :D

  6. Awww. Julianne, your lucky students don't know how much their spirits will be lifted by YOU. Brava! to Highlights for bringing you on. Say hello to the chipmunks for me.
    And the creek. And Amanda in the kitchen... And Kent... And the red tractor... And...

    I'm at jgaoffice at gmail dot com if you even want to be in touch.

  7. Jan, your lovely write-up brings it all back to me afresh. It was truly magical. How I wish we were still there, still being inspired by our amazing faculty and by all the wonderful attendees. And by the food and the gorgeous surroundings! I'll try to hold onto these images as I continue to revise.