A Postcard and a Dream
Ashleigh Gill, a student in the M.F.A. in Children’s Literature program, received good news this summer. She is one of the winners of the Manchester Writing for Children Prize.
By Marcie Flinchum Atkins M.A. ’05, M.F.A. ’11
shleigh Gill hung onto a Hollins promotional postcard, knowing that someday she’d end up here.
Someday arrived with the summer of 2013, when Gill started the M.F.A. program in children’s literature and brought her passion for poetry with her. Less than a year later, she is one of two winners of the Manchester Writing for Children Prize. In July, Gill and her boyfriend, Chris Clark, whom she credits for nudging her to submit her work, traveled to Manchester Metropolitan University, where the contest winners were announced.
Sponsored by the university, the contest offers prizes in poetry, fiction, and writing for children. It was designed to “attract the best new writing from around the world.” Its creator, Scottish poet and playwright Carol Ann Duffy, is Britain’s poet laureate.
Until Gill decided to enter the Manchester contest, she had written poetry for adults, but for the competition she wrote a portfolio of three poems for children. These poems, along with those of the other finalists, were published in the anthology Let in the Stars. Manchester Metropolitan University’s art students illustrated it, and Gill received an original illustration of one of her poems to bring home.
Not only is this Gill’s first prize for her children’s poetry, it was also her first time on an airplane. Gill and Clark visited London, Oxford, and Manchester, taking in such sights as the statue of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey to “get good luck vibes from the author world.” Those good vibes carried her to the ceremony in Manchester, where everyone welcomed her with open arms. Gill says of Manchester’s friendliness, “It was very southern, in a weird way.” Mandy Coe, the organizer of the event, gave Gill a hug that “picked me up off the ground” and made sure she was introduced to everyone.
Meeting with other writers gave Gill insights into what’s currently being done in children’s poetry. She describes the poetry written by cowinner Louise Greig as “dark, beautiful, and heart wrenching,” which she thinks will inspire her to explore her own darker side in her children’s poems.
Gill graduated from Concord University in West Virginia, where she double majored in education and English. She draws inspiration for her creative work from personal relationships and from nature and is especially drawn to the rural settings of Virginia and West Virginia. Southern Gothic also interests her, as do fairytales and folklore, which were some of her earliest introductions to literature. “I’m obsessed with Peter Pan to an unhealthy degree,” she admits. She also admires the writing of Sendak, Vonnegut, Nietzsche, and Whitman.
During the academic year, she works as a graduate assistant in residence life at Hollins, and she has noticed a difference between the regular term and the summer M.F.A. program. “The undergraduate students are all pursuing different interests,” she says. “The M.F.A. program is a very tight-knit community and everyone is pursuing the same thing. It’s a magical fairyland bubble of creativity.”
Children’s book author Hillary Homzie M.A. ’98 and Julie Pfeiffer, associate professor of English, were Gill’s first professors at Hollins, and she loved the way they opened up their classrooms to discussions and welcomed her as a professional writing partner. Having other skilled readers critique her pieces has made a difference in her work.
After Gill finishes the M.F.A., she would love it if her writing could sustain her, but the realist in her is open to teaching creative writing. She has one year under her belt and recognition from an international writing contest to show for it. Gill plans to continue her studies at Hollins and pursue publication. And to think: A few years ago, she only had a postcard and a dream.
Marcie Flinchum Atkins has spent many summers enjoying the “magical fairyland bubble of creativity” in the children’s literature program at Hollins. She lives with her family in Salem, Virginia, where she teaches fourth grade by day and writes in the wee hours of the morning.
Go here for information about Hollins’ new M.F.A. in Children’s Book Writing and Illustrating, the only one of its kind in the country.
That isn’t a train
Breath like a chimney and
Heart like a drum,
Rocking the walls ’til the splinters are numb.
That isn’t a track
Twisting the ground like the
Tail of a snake –
Cabinets will rattle and pictures will break.
That isn’t a horn
Grinding its fingernails
Deadly and sleek,
Speaking the language that awful things speak.
That isn’t afraid
Shield on my shoulder and
Sword in my hand.
Shouting a wonderful shout of command,
Reprinted with permission from the Manchester Writing School at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Photo by Sharon Meador