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Readers Are Made, Not Born: Kerri Smith Majors Details Her Innovative Literary Journal for Education-Portal.com

Jun 27, 2011

The National Book Foundation recently announced the 2011 winners of their Innovations in Reading Prize, an award that celebrates individuals or organizations revolutionizing ways to foster literacy. Among those winners: YARN, an online literary journal that publishes YA (Young Adult) content written by both teens and adults. What's YARN doing to make their mark on the world of literacy?

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By Eric Garneau

Kerri Smith Majors

Kerri Smith Majors is an accomplished author with an MFA from Columbia University. She worked for six years as a writing professor at Farleigh Dickinson University and currently resides in Weston, MA with her husband Mike and daughter Elena. In the summer of 2009, Kerri and her friend Shannon Marshall began planning the world's first YA literary journal that would publish adults and kids side-by-side. From those sessions, YARN was born.

Q. You recently won the National Book Foundation's Innovations in Reading award. What, in your opinion, is so innovative about YARN's approach to fostering literacy?

A. At YARN we believe that readers are made, not born - and they're made with each work they read. Using the short form (essays, stories, poems and interviews), YARN provides a broad swath of content, from exclusive interviews with luminaries like Meg Cabot and Mitali Perkins to boundary-pushers like stories by Jonathan Papernick and finely crafted poems by college student Allison Malecha. Our content acts as gateway reading, enticing YA readers to return to YARN and to venture into their local libraries and bookstores.

Building on the traditional literary magazine model, we also embrace the capabilities of digital publishing. Our site is spunky and engaging, with features like a 'Vocab Conundrum?' dictionary, interactive comments sections, an editors' blog and lively Facebook and Twitter pages.

YARN also reaches into the classroom by creating lesson plans for language arts teachers, the best reading ambassadors we know! Designed by YARN's editors, who are high school and college educators, and with NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) standards in mind, our lesson plans seek not only to inspire a love of reading but also of creative writing. Because lessons are based on YARN's recently published work, we provide fresh content to teachers whose budgets don't allow for stacks of new books on classroom shelves.

Q. What provided the impetus for your starting YARN?

A. YARN was born of a personal need. After writing a story for a YA audience, I searched online for places to publish it and found zero independent literary journals that would allow me, an adult writing YA, to share such a story. Teen writers had slightly better options, but fewer than I could count on my fingers.

I was horrified, not just as a writer but as a reader and educator. Readers can't find what isn't available! This dearth of YA literary journals seriously limited the smart, well-edited short-form literature that teens might read, particularly online; worse, it relegated short-form YA to the dreaded realm of the textbook. There have long been hundreds of literary journals for adult writers and readers, like The Paris Review, Granta and Guernica. Why not for the YA audience? This lack seemed to me a direct knock on the genre, which is often and unjustly criticized for being the inferior little sister to adult literary fiction.

My own private desire to publish something small led me to a larger, public project: to create a literary journal that would showcase fresh voices in YA, including teens, alongside the established writers they admire, thus elevating YA literature and promoting literacy.

Q. Having first started publishing in 2010, YARN's a relatively new project. How have readers responded so far?

A. We're so grateful for the overwhelmingly positive response from readers. You know, when you first hang your shingle out on the Web, you only hear from family and friends... then, slowly, you start hearing from strangers. Now we regularly get e-mails and comments and Tweets and Facebook posts from other fans of YA, and it's so gratifying to know we're part of that thriving community.

Q. Does digital distribution work well for YARN? Have you considered a print edition?

A. We're committed to keeping YARN online, as a literary journal. Not only is it a simple, green publishing medium, it's where teens (a major chunk of our audience) hang out.

Q. Content-wise, one of YARN's major selling points is including YA work from both teen writers and adults. How do you think that benefits YA literacy?

A. The lack of literary journals willing to publish teen and adult writers of YA side-by-side seemed to us like saying teen writers and adult writers aren't in the same league, so let's not put them in the same space. We disagree, and the stories, poems and essays we've published by teens, adults and famous writers have proven us right (in our humble opinion!).

When a high school student can see his or her writing side-by-side with writing by Mitali Perkins or Tomas Mournian, they take themselves more seriously. By extension, readers who see these peer relationships at YARN start to realize that good writing isn't something that comes down from on high - it's being produced now, by people just like them. This kind of publishing makes literature more relevant to more readers.

Q. How might any aspiring writers out there submit to YARN, and do you have any advice for authors looking to get published?

A. We always recommend that writers look at our Submission Guidelines. In terms of advice, we offer the same wisdom writers can get from any number of blogs or books about writing: listen, listen, listen; read, read, read; revise, revise, revise. Don't be discouraged by the rejections, because there will be a lot of them on your road to publication.

A more YARN-focused piece of advice is this: write something for our non-fiction section. We love non-fiction, and don't see nearly as many great essays as we'd like! No history papers, though, please - look at what we've already published there, and then write/submit.

Q. The YARN editors are all accomplished teachers and authors in their own right. What kind of projects do you have going on outside of the journal?

A. All the editors are also writers of various stripes (fiction writers, screenwriters, playwrights, poets), so we always have some personal writing project of our own simmering in the background.

Q. Is there anything else you'd like to tell our readers about YARN or YA literacy in general?

A. YA authors and advocates of YA literature are not only creating the next generation of readers, they're training the next wave of critical thinkers. Today's YA literature challenges teens to question, think and develop opinions. Literacy isn't simply the ability to read - it's the ability to think critically. We at YARN believe that a better world will be created by having more readers in it.

Read what all-ages comic book author Ian Brill had to say about writing for a younger audience.

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