We hope these guidelines will help you when you begin tackling the form of the critical essay. Don't panic. Keep in mind that it's a form you're after, not a formula.
What the essay is
What it isn't
Advisors will differ on what constitutes the perfect essay opening, or even the perfect essay. Some will expect a traditionally constructed essay with a clear statement of purpose. Others will want you to experiment with the form of the essay as you do with other forms in your creative work. All advisors, however, will expect you to articulate a point of view, and to express, support, and defend it in terms that are clear and logical. Don’t let your opinions read like a tract, or an attack. The nature of the essay is to argue, persuade, consider, and reason. This often includes thoughtful discussion of obvious counterarguments.
We expect that you have the ability to summarize the book(s) under discussion in your essay in such a way that a reader will have a clear enough idea of the story to understand the essayist's point. This requires concise writing and an understanding of the modest goal of the essay. You should be able to illustrate that you grasp the author's intentions, at least with regard to the craft issue under consideration.
Occasionally an essay might lead you to discuss thematic concerns or changing attitudes within the field or even in the wider culture. You may decide to weigh in with cultural or ideological concerns. Both these are fine, for context.
Primarily, however, we hope that your critical writing will help you to look more closely at the craft of writing and to articulate, incisively, what makes a poem or a story tick. It is of particular relevance that you look at issues of craft that you yourself may be struggling with. The essays you write should complement, not compete with, your creative efforts. Examination of craft is emphasized over pure criticism.
We are not a program dedicated purely to literary analysis. We want to produce creative writers. This means we expect you, in your essays, to demonstrate the ability to read creatively. Don’t approach texts seeking to either praise or condemn them, but rather to understand—understand what's happening under the skin of the words, and think about why you respond as you do.
For all these reasons, we want to encourage the use of primary sources as your major background reading for your essays. Secondary sources to bolster your arguments or viewpoint can be used, too, of course, but they can’t take the place of wide, deep reading in your chosen field of literature for children and young adults. Put another way, "expert" quotations should not take the place of your own expressed analysis.
Keep in mind that your audience is knowledgeable about youth literature but not necessarily the specific area you're exploring. Your tone should be engaging and conversational, but not too casual.
What to expect in the program
We require 10 short (2-5 page) essays or the equivalent in first semester. Advisors will assign longer essays and revisions as needed. In second semester we require 8 short and 1 longer (8-10 page) essay or the equivalent. This is a general outline of what is expected; keep in mind that each advisor may vary the specific requirements as they see fit.
An acceptable essay at the graduate level will demonstrate