Highlights Unkworkshop Scholarship



In 2008, several children’s writers joined together for a retreat in Boyds Mills, PA, the home of Highlights Magazine and the wonderful Highlights Foundation. We were all working on different stories in different genres, and so we planned a working retreat, not one where we would meet often to learn from a speaker, but one that would allow us the time we needed todive deep into our stories and come up for air when we needed it. As it turned out, we usually came up for air about 4:00 pm every day, meeting together to share not only what we had written, but also a few tears and a lot of laughter.

The time we spent alone writing and the time we spent together encouraging one another was important for the stories we were working on at the time and to prepare us for the stories we would work on after our retreat at Boyds Mills. It was so important for us that we want to provide the same opportunity for another writer. The Highlights Foundation is offering Unworkshops during various dates throughout 2014. Consider it time to get away and write what your heart most wants to work on. We can’t work it out for any of us to go back right now, so we’re sending one of you!

If you are a sincere and dedicated writer who could use this focused time, our retreat group is offering 5 night’s stay at a Highlights Foundation Unworkshop, daily writing prompts/encouragement from the members of our retreat group (picture book, non-fiction, middle grade and young adult authors) for the length of your workshop and hopefully even a Skype gab session with one or more of us during your Unworkshop (depending on dates and availability.) (You would be responsible for your own transportation to Boyds Mills.)

To qualify for consideration for this prize, send a statement by March 31, 2014 (to retreatscholarship@gmail.com) explaining why this retreat could be important to you as a writer/illustrator of children’s literature. Share a little about the project you would plan to work on during the retreat and your experience writing or illustrating for children. We’ll consider all entries and announce the recipient on April 15, 2014.

Happy Writing!

Loree Griffin Burns
Kristy Dempsey
Katy Traffanstedt Duffield
Kathy Erskine
Alma Fullerton
Sara Lewis Holmes
Anne Marie Pace
Tanya Goulette Seale
Linda Urban
Cassandra Reigel Whetstone

Mother’s Day

Gosh, it's been almost a year since I posted here in my blog. I haven't forgotten. I've just been taking a break, filled up with all that life has been offering and feeling satisfied with the opportunities to touch lives in my day-to-day world. 

But I thought that I would peek in today to share my love for my mother, how grateful I am for her investment in my life and how much I hope to be like her one day. 

A Poem for my Mother

By Kristy Dempsey

If I were with you,
I would hug you 
and ask you to hold me close
and tell me how some days are hard,
like the day you rocked me in the wooden chair
and you cried too. 
I would say, “tell me again 
about the night I was born.”
And you would repeat the words
I’ve heard before, how the doctors said
I was dead, and how daddy prayed
and how when I finally came into the world at sunrise, 
I cried, and the whole room burst into tears with me.

If I were with you,
I would sit close 
and lay my head on your shoulder,
and think about all the threads used to knit me
in my mother’s womb,
how I am just like you in so many ways. 
A lover of words and story, 
coffee and pajamas,
salty air and seashells,
Autumn trees, 
grace and forgiveness and hope. 
I would think about broken knick-knacks,
broken hearts,
April Fool’s surprises,
and trips to the Emergency Room,
I would honor all the sacrifices
I didn’t honor back then. 

Today if I were with you, 
we would sit without speaking, 
because we would already know
what our hearts are saying. 
Those threads that run from you to me, 
those threads that are still knitting me into who I am
would speak the truth.
I would hold your hand 
and we wouldn’t need a single word.

© Kristy Dempsey 2012

Highlights for me from this School Year

As many of you know I began working last August as a teacher and a librarian at an international school here in Belo Horizonte. This has been a challenging and rewarding experience and has been completely worth it.  There were moments that made me laugh, moments that made me cry, moments that reminded me why this work is important. I took time this morning to write down some of the highlights of my year. I’ll continue on at the school but I don’t want to forget these people and moments that made up my year:

  • Putting a book into one of my 6th grader’s hands (Eighth Grade Bites from The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod series by Heather Brewer), which he didn’t return immediately after he moved on to the next book because one of his four brothers (a 9th grader) co-opted it. Then it still didn’t get returned. I couldn’t figure out why until the 11th grade brother came in to pre-empt his other brothers on checking out the rest of the series because he had been reading the books when he could sneak them from his brothers. None of these brothers had checked out books to read for enjoyment since who knows when, if ever. It mostly made me happy because it was the 6th grade brother who influenced his older brothers.
  • Setting a goal of 20 books in the second semester for my 6th grade English Language Arts students to read and watching many of them read at least that many or more. One student read over 40 books in just 16 weeks. In fact, he implied with a smile on his face that I might have been responsible for his grades falling a bit in other classes because he couldn’t stop reading when he left English class.
  • Watching ELL 2nd graders K and C and ELL 1st graders H and W grow so much in their reading/English abilities this year. This is not my victory because their teachers (Ms. K and Miss R) deserve all the credit because of the individual instruction they gave these students, but I had the privilege of watching these students begin to check out more and more difficult books and to see them truly excited about reading in English.
  • Hearing from one of the high school girls: “Miss, no one ever knew or cared about interesting library books for the older students until you got here.”
  • Having my 9th grade students ask one day, “Miss, where is *title of book *?” and when I pulled it off the shelf, they dissolved into whispers and giggles. Then one of them piped up with another request, “Miss, where is *title of another book *?” and when I pulled it off the shelf the same thing happened. Whispers and giggles. I began to get suspicious. The third time they asked me for a book, I’m sure I had a confused look on my face, but I grabbed the book, handed it to them and heard one of them say, “15 seconds.” I demanded to know what is going on. They laughed and replied, “Miss, you know where EVERYTHING is.” They were timing me to see how long it took me to find books. Cute, huh?
  • Reading the 10,000 word stories my 9th and 12th grade Creative Writing students completed in the last quarter of school. Their stories were not perfect but they were entertaining and several of them were exceptional. I was particularly proud of Ing. and K (one of the brothers mentioned in the first highlight above), both English Language Learners, for not only completing the assignment (a huge undertaking that they did NOT believe they were capable of back in August when I presented the syllabus for the year) but for also surprising me with well-paced stories full of detail, setting and characterization that proved they had internalized many of the things we had studied throughout the year.
  • Reading NUMBER THE STARS by Lois Lowry aloud with the 5th graders during library class while they were in the middle of a government unit of inquiry. We asked questions, we researched the answers, we laughed, we held our breath, we cried. There is one moment toward the end of the book when I was reading with tears in my eyes and I glanced up to look at the students’ faces. The emotion in their faces, the expectation in their eyes, the connection we felt in that moment over this book, this experience, is something that will define my role as a teacher and a librarian and a reader and a writer for the rest of my life.
  • Reading all the Pigeon books by Mo Willems with every class from preschool to 2nd grade and being amazed at how well they work for so many different ages. One of the 2nd grade moms came in on the last day of school to finally return The Pigeon wants a Puppy book for her 2nd grader S (for whom English is not her first language). She said S read the book over and over to her family, didn’t want to return it and that they would be buying their own copy.
  • Connecting with one of the high school students over Looking for Alaska and also over his talent and need for creative expression, which he often hides from others as well as from himself. If this is the only year of influence I’ll have in his life, I hope and pray he continues to look inward and to find a way to express how he sees the world on the page. I think it could be not only life-saving/affirming for him but also meaningful for others. P, I hope you never stop writing.
  • Taking joy from Ing. and F and Iv. and V and B as they reminded me what it was like to be a teenage girl and feeling hopeful about the promise for their futures.
  • Connecting with 12th graders B, L, M, C and G as they prepared to begin life on their own. I have had no higher privilege this year than participating in the lives of these women. 
  • 9th grade L’s constant ribbing over my Southern accent, his determination to make my day a little brighter every day, and his humility and ready acceptance when I’ve had to pull him aside for a serious conversation or when I’ve given him advice

It’s no small thing when you can finish one school year already looking forward to the next. See you in August, EABH!


My cousin is dying of cancer.

This is not the first death or long-term sickness in the family that has taken place since I’ve lived overseas — my grandmother and grandfather both passed away during the time we’ve lived in Brazil — but this has been the most painful. And the distance has served to prick at the pain through myriad ways.

My cousin is young and vibrant and full of a wild-eyed wonder at life. (She would smile at noticing that I didn’t write *wide* eyed. She is not naive, nor innocent, and yet she is not jaded or proud or guarded.) She is a giver of grace because she has been a receiver of grace. She is above all full of hope. She laughed at the future and welcomed each day with open arms. She was diagnosed with cancer several years ago and she has fought the good fight. Then, just when we all thought she was into a fingers-crossed-forever remission, the doctors found cancer in other places. She went through all the rounds again and this time nothing helped, not even for the short term. I saw her again after this second diagnosis in November when I was in the US for a quick weekend for the wedding of a friend. We said goodbye then, even though neither of us wanted to, even though we both knew that this was *the* goodbye.

And so, my cousin is dying of cancer and there is absolutely nothing I can do for her . . . or for my mom or aunt who have been her primary caregivers in these last months. I’ve often thought, as I’ve been reading stories to my students in the library, that if I could I would sit by Lisa’s bed and read her stories and poetry and bible verses. We would steer our focus away from the pain, away from her coming last breath and we would escape together, wild-eyed, into the wonder of life and the glory of creation for but a few moments. And it would be something. It would be the small something I could do for her.

And so instead, I read stories for my wide-eyed innocent students, for these little ones who are still learning the grace and truth of life, who for now are only rehearsing through story the sting and sorrow of pain. It is never just rehearsal for very long.

May we all stop and pay attention to the wonder around us. Mary Oliver said it best, I think:

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

National Poetry Month

I did an exercise with my 12th grade Creative Writing students (all girls!) today where we wrote a poem about a time we felt angry and then took phrases from it to write a scene in our longer piece of fiction we are working on for the end of the year. It was cathartic and difficult all at once, but it was a relief to take our own feelings and let our main characters "borrow them". Here’s my poem:

You used your power like the tip of a knife
     enough to wound
                    to cause me pain
                    to leave a scar

And yet, you said it all with a smile
            as if you knew
            (but could care less)
my feelings were hurt, I felt small.

Then, when I was proven right
        (you were wrong)
you didn’t even apologize.

Now I’m the one with the secret smile.

I’m a a little late jumping in this year to celebrate National Poetry Month on LJ. I’ve been at an Educator’s Conference in Campinas, Brazil. It was refreshing and overwhelming all at once and I know it will impact my students and my teaching practices and perspective from here out. This conference was made up of educators in American Schools from all over South America. It was a privilege to meet colleagues and directors of schools, to spend extra time with those I’m honored to teach with every day and to spend some time thinking about the hows and whys and the whos of what we do and the wheres of the future and how it is changing. Truthfully, I am exhausted but in other ways I feel settled and directed and ready for the Monday morning bell to ring. 

This poem wasn’t written for either Poetry Month or as a poem about my weekend but I did recognize the unexpected graces that came my way this weekend and I’m grateful.

Unexpected grace colors 

air, trees, ears, cheeks, 

creeping surprise 

with delight settling close

to warm a soul, remind

a heart of its reasons.

–Kristy Dempsey © 2011 (all rights reserved)


I’m currently in Campinas (near São Paulo) at the AASSA (Association of American Schools in South America) conference. I’m choosing to focus mainly on the librarian and literacy tracks. I’m also looking forward to meeting other American School librarians and teachers. This is my first year teaching and serving as a librarian so I’ve never been to a conference like this before. The only thing I have to compare it to is a writer’s conference. Right this minute I’m sort of missing my writer friends, looking around to see if someone can help me brainstorm some plot possibilities for my WIP, but I think once we get started there will be plenty I can apply to my professional teacher life . . . and maybe even a few things I can apply to my writing life. I’ll keep you posted!

Friday Five

 1. Things that prove I sometimes have the maturity of an 8 year old boy: I *barely* held in my giggles this week when we were talking about the truism "Don’t tell me the sky is the limit. There are footprints on the moon" and a student leaned over and quietly asked me  — with complete sincerity –, "Are there footprints on Uranus?"

2. Preparing for Book Fair on March 19. The theme is SuperReaders/SuperHeroes. I painted a stand alone superhero girl today and will paint a superhero boy next week. I am not an artist but I am a very good copier/imitator. My superhero name shall be Xerox. 

3. So-wonderfully-happy-making-news this week as one of my poems was accepted for a forthcoming found poetry anthology.

4. In other good news, DIZZY DINOSAURS, a Lee Bennett Hopkins Easy Reader Poetry Collection in which I have two poems, just received a great review from Horn Book and they printed one of my poems IN COLOR with the review!

5. Best news of all: We have a week-long break from school for Carnaval. No school until Monday the 14th. I shall relax and enjoy. Even superheroes/superlibrarians/superteachers need their rest.