A visit with Kent Brown, executive director of the Highlights Foundation

I always loved reading Highlights as a kid, first in our doctor’s office and then signed out religiously from the school library, but it wasn’t until just last summer that I had the opportunity to visit the children’s magazine headquarters in Honesdale, Pennsylvania and spend a day as a guest at the Highlights Foundation workshop site in the woods.  It’s an amazing place that offers a huge variety of workshops and retreats for writers and illustrators — with a schedule that’s going to be even busier in the coming months.  When Alison Myers at Highlights offered me the chance to chat with executive director Kent Brown about what’s in store, I couldn’t resist…

Thanks for visiting my blog today, Kent! I know that you have some changes in store for the Highlights retreat schedule this year. What was behind the decision to change gears from hosting your traditional institute at Chatauqua to offering more at the new facility in Honesdale?  

I see our change as more of an evolution than a major decision.  The decision — the hard one — was not doing Chautauqua in the regular season.  We had a great run there, and many of us — students, faculty, and staff — have lots of attachment to the place. In the past ten years we have continually added workshops at the home of the Founders of Highlights, near Honesdale.  In the past five, we served more people in PA than Chautauqua.  Our new facility encouraged us to re-focus.  We can provide more value to writers with The Barn, a 5000-square foot conference center.

What can writers expect with the new format for the Chautauqua-like retreats?

 We have a full schedule of workshops, but three of them evoke the Chautauqua format. Each of the three is one week long.  So it’s Chautauqua in the Poconos, but with 33 people each week instead of the hundred we had at Chautauqua.  The format, just like Chautauqua, will include keynotes, multiple small sessions on a variety of topics, and a great deal of one-on-ones, both formal and informal.  And, like Chautauqua and all of our programs, the faculty is selected to mingle and share; no head tables, no big egos. Writers will find the format of the three:  Writing from the Heart, Writing Fiction for Children and Young Adults, and Non-fiction Writing for Children and Young Adults, focused by genre or topic more than our larger Chautauqua program.  We do worry that these programs will be seen as too narrow; indeed, many of our writing friends and much of our faculty have diverse interests with respect to genre.  So we understand that worry and will not have a hard edge on the definitions, and will allow for some cross fertilization.

For those who haven’t been to the Founders property, there’s something really special about that place, and I know many folks who attend workshops come over and over. What do you think gives the property that “magical” feel, and what changes will folks notice if they haven’t been to visit in a while?

I don’t know what gives the magical feel.  I can say that I visited my grandparents’ farm every year of my life, at least once.  I cannot remember ever leaving without tears, up to the time I moved there permenantly.  I was 26.

I also know that my grandparents very much believed in celebrating your successes.  I believe writers feel the magic that believes in them and celebrates their successes when they come to the Founder’s home place.

The most dramatic change is The Barn.  We worried that leaving the living room of Grandma’s home would impair the intimate feeling at our workshops.  But we have proven that the new building has the same intimate feel, whether the group is six or thirty six.

Oh yes, I am planting a garden this year.  Marcia has been using fresh vegetables for years, but these will be super-fresh.

Could you share a few of the most memorable things that have happened at Highlights retreats and workshops over the years?

Patti Gauch, always the quick wit, slipped when mounting the stage.  When she got up, she said, “Did you see my new sneakers?”  Child-like for sure.

Dashdong Dog, distinguished visitor from Mongolia, recited his poem, “The Horse,” at a Chautauqua dinner.  Amazing how the rhythm gave us the sense though we did not understand any words.  That experience reinforced in all of us the universality of what we wish for children everywhere.

I love this story – it’s so, so true that we are alike in heart even when our languages differ.

Where do you see the Highlights Foundation going from here?

We have taken on a major challenge to serve twice as many people this year than in recent past years.  We have a commitment to quality and individual attention, and staying small and intimate.  We pledge not to dilute the faculty-student ratio.  We dream of many things:  workshops in other locations;sharing our programs more widely, perhaps in a way that includes those who cannot be on-site.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

 I’m excited about our plans to expand our scholarship program.  Historically we have been able to help almost 25 percent of our Chautauqua attendees.  Our three one-week programs are more than 40% cheaper than we could do at Chautauqua.  And our scholarship program is now reaching every workshop we hold.

 Thanks so much for joining us, Kent, and I look forward to another visit to Highlights before long.  

You can learn more about the Highlights Foundation and check out the full list of upcoming workshops and retreats here.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted April 18, 2012 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    You’ve created an extended family so a visit to The Barn and its property feels very much like a much-anticipated stay at a grandparents’ farm!

  2. Posted April 18, 2012 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    Nice interview. Chautauqua was magical, & so is the Boyds Mills site. Leads me to believe the “magic” isn’t in the places at all, but in the way a writer is treated & respected & nurtured.

    • Posted April 19, 2012 at 3:04 am | Permalink

      Agreed – Magical places are so often about the people who inhabit them. 🙂

  3. Posted April 18, 2012 at 10:54 pm | Permalink

    Hi Kate, I met you last year at Boyd’s Mills. It was great to have you visit and share some time with us. This is a wonderful chat with Kent. He is such a warm and welcoming person, just like the program he runs. And yes, Boyd’s Mills is a magical place. I go as often as I can, but coming from California makes it difficult to go to as many workshops as I would like. I will be attending my third workshop and my third retreat this year and hope to keep up that pace for years to come. Thanks for posting this.

    • Posted April 19, 2012 at 3:04 am | Permalink

      Hi, Rosi! It was great to meet you last summer, and I’m so glad you stopped by my blog. Hope our paths cross again soon!

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