Like most first time writers, when I submitted my application for a scholarship to the Highlights Foundation in 2018, I wasn’t really sure I was good enough to do this. I knew just enough to know that everyone thinks they can write children’s books – and that not everyone can. I was worried I was ‘everyone.’
But, I took a deep breath, hit submit, and decided that I would let Highlights – the gold standard of children’s publishing – decide my fate. If I got a scholarship, I would take it as a sign that I should try to become a children’s book author. If I didn’t – it would mean, in the words of Elsa, that I should just, “Let it go.”
I don’t know who read that application and the sample manuscripts it included, but I am forever grateful that they made the decision they did. I received a partial scholarship, scraped together the money for the flight and remaining tuition, and did one of the bravest things this introverted teacher from Missouri has ever done; I got on a plane and traveled across the country to spend a weekend with total strangers, pretending to know what I was doing.
The experience was, of course, amazing. The setting was beautiful, the food was delicious, and the people were friendly and welcoming. It was quiet! (No kids to put to bed!) I met industry experts and learned more from them in a single weekend than I’d have learned in a whole year researching and working on my own. But knowledge wasn’t the most valuable thing I took away from that weekend in the woods.
I can still recall a moment on the first day when I was quietly wondering if I had been selfish to come here. I pictured my husband halfway across the country, juggling both kids for the weekend, while I spent the weekend chasing this silly dream. At that exact moment, Leslie Helakoski, one of the instructors, said, “I want you all to know that you are exactly where you are meant to be.” She told us that no matter where we were on our writing journey, we were there for a reason. Though I know she was speaking to the entire group, I felt like she was speaking directly to me. I had to choke back tears of relief.
The most valuable gift that the Highlights Foundation gave me was confidence. I met authors who had started where I was – and found success. I met editors who told me my story had “lovely visual imagery.” I gave feedback in roundtable critiques that was appreciated and accepted. I didn’t make an idiot of myself! For the first time ever, I met “real” publishing people – and realized I might be one of them!
If you are considering attending a course or session at Highlights, don’t wait. Take the leap. Make the investment. Do the thing that scares you! If you are creative, curious, and hopeful (and something tells me you are), these are your people! This is your place! And you won’t know until you try.
Chelsea Tornetto is an author, world geography teacher, and SCBWI member who has loved writing ever since she was a kid. Her first book, Conquering Content Vocabulary, was published by Scholastic in 2018, but now her passion is picture books and two were published in early 2022: Gardens Are For Growing and God Made You Too.
Chelsea lives in Jackson, Missouri with her husband, Mike, and her two kids, Tessa and Milo. She loves snow days, lattes, and Target. She hates spiders, her sinuses, and laundry. You can find her online and on her website. You can find out more about Chelsea on her website.