I asked some authors, illustrators, teachers and librarians for their thoughts on and experiences of school visits...
ENTHUSE, ENTERTAIN, INSPIRE
I will remember forever when Helen Cresswell, children’s author (Lizzie Dripping, The Bagthorpe Saga) came to our school when I was a child (and I’m gutted as I’ve misplaced the photo of her signing my book. I had it last week!). So here’s a picture of it instead:
She was a real author and a real person. She said things that I still remember over thirty years later. But she didn’t teach us...
DON’T BE A TEACHER –it comes up time and again when people talk about what they want from author visits. You’re NOT a teacher (well if you are normally, you’re not today, whilst you’re being an author).
Candy Gourlay (author of Tall Story) says:
Don’t be the teacher...the children want an experience that transports them outside the school barriers...
And so do the teacherssays George Kirk, teacher and children’s writer.
You can provide something that teachers cannot provide. That’s why you're there. Give the children something that a teacher cannot give them: an insight into an author’s world.
Jane Clarke (author of Stuck in the Mud, amongst many other books, and fellow Picture Book Den-er) says:
Aim to inspire and enthuse and leave them bursting with imaginative ideas they can’t wait to express in words and/or pictures.
But how do you do that?
BE YOU-WRIT LARGE
Children love to feel like you’re letting them in on a secret. Tell them things about you and how you write. And make it entertaining.
Mine your past. What can you use from your past to give children an idea of what makes you tick and how you ended up doing what you’re doing? What funny/interesting things have happened to you that you can use in a way to put your points across? Can you make it personal (without feeling like you’re giving too much of yourself away)?
Why on earth would I want to tell children about the time I blurted out something excruciatingly embarrassing to Darth Vader when he came to my school in 1977 and it was being filmed for the local news (and they subsequently cut the story from the television)?
Because a) it’s funny and it’s a great start to an assembly to have everyone laughing in horror; b) it brings us closer –I’m human and it’s true. We all do embarrassing things. But I’m letting them laugh at me and I’m laughing at myself; c) it’s relevant to the points I’m going to be putting across later about writing.
Similarly, I play a game where I tell the children stories about me as a child and they have to guess which one is not true.
(Children sometimes guess which one isn’t true –but they usually think it’s not true because it’s so outrageous. In reality, it’s actually not true because the true story is even MORE shocking.)
The children all get involved in trying to guess; they get to laugh at me (again); and once again, it’s relevant to the points I want to make about writing–but in a way where I don’t come across as being a teacher.
Mel Lerway (parent) says about an event by Andy Stanton:
he has the children engaged, excited and enthused about reading.... his presenting style fits with his writing style but I guess the principles are the same [for any author]–energy (bucketloads), humour, slapstick humour and a dash of good old reading out loud....
Steve Cole (author of the Astrosaurs series) says:
I just try and use comedy to engage with them and to interact as often and as sillily as possible. I try and make them think it’s very easy to write and give them ideas on how they can come up with their own stories, to make writing seem as inclusive and fun as possible. Never make it seem like an amazing, mystical act, but rather something like sport or a hobby that they’ll get better at the more they do.
Respect your audience and prepare well –to be yourself in an accessible and engaging way.
In a great blog post on the value of author visits to schools and pupils, Deb Lund (children’s author) talks about how school visits can demystify authors, motivate writing and ignite sparks. By being yourself and letting children into the secret of the work involved in writing something good and the importance of persistence you can also validate what the teachers have been teaching but in a way that’s fun and memorable. To this end, it’s great to bring
Children love seeing your earliest workings out for your story
(they get to unravel it –and it’s long....)
Let them see how messy it is (in my case, at least), different drafts, rejection letters, comments from critique groups, roughs, editor comments, proofs and final book. It shows the reality of it –and the work and perseverance needed- but in a way that a teacher CANNOT SHOW THEM.
Who doesn’t love bubbles? I always use bubbles –because they’re great, and because children love them but also because they make complete sense of the points I’m trying to get across.
Time and again, teachers, librarians and authors asked came up with one major point:
For illustrators, this is often
drawing, live drawing! Do a bit of that and the kids are hooked,says Kate Pankhurst, illustrator and author of Mariella Mystery
Get the kids up adding to your drawings and use their ideas to build a new character for them as a demo before they try for themselves.
But there are plenty of other ways to be interactive for those of us who are less good at drawing...
The writers and teachers I asked said...
Ask lots of questions, do quizzes, let them ask you questions, play games –get children involved.
Julie Fulton (author of Mrs McCready was Ever So Greedy) uses a greedy teddy bear to get children coming up with a class poem. I let the children take charge of me and I become their character in their story where they choose, collectively, what happens to me. Lots of authors also have a bag with objects in so that children can take objects out and come up with stories. The objects are rarely used in the way they might be in real life...
Here’s my bag. The ballet shoe has been a home to various different creatures; a boat; a bed for a tiny person; a catapult etc. The blue ball has been a planet, a weapon, a spaceship... This gets children interacting beautifully with each other, too.
For many picture books, at least, reading to the children can be highly interactive...
In Don’t Panic, Annika! there are children being various characters up at the front, but everyone in the audience also joins in with panicky faces, counting, taking deep breaths and shouting out phrases.
With older children, picture books are great because you can talk about the structure of the story that they’ll be using themselves and coming across in novels, but on a much smaller, manageable scale.
And you can make your visits even more interactive by encouraging the school/children to do some preparation in advance of your visit –let them know your web address (I’ve had children bring up things about me that I’d completely forgotten I put on my website) and Bryony Pearce says it’s great to put up at least one chapter of a novel if that’s what you’re writing on your site so children can read some of your work in advance. This might be more important for novels than picture books, but I’ve got a YouTube video of a real-life Annika reading Don’t Panic, Annika! that schools have sometimes accessed via my website before a visit.
I’ve not touched on Skype visits here –I did my first two just a couple of weeks ago (with Lori Degman, author of 1 Zany Zoo (her and the school children I was talking to over in Chicago and me and the school children she was talking to here in the UK). I’d love to hear from other authors/teachers who’ve done/been part of Skype visits. It struck me how different the interactive element has to be out of necessity and I’d love to know how people keep virtual visits as interactive as they can.
How can we improve our visits and make them even better?
If it’s possible to get feedback, it can be extremely helpful. Sian Cafferkey (teacher and fan of author visits) says:
If you are selling books - which is fine - don't limit signing just to those who are buying... As a teacher - make what you say/do suitable for the age group you're meeting... We've had authors who just have a standard spiel that they think will work for all ages - it won't!Teachers can provide excellent feedback (though it might be nerve-wracking to ask them).
I’ve recently been observed by an agent who arranges school visits for artists (including authors) whose books I’m now on. Two weeks before that, I got to watch a day of Sarwat Chadda (author of Ash Mistry and the Savage Fortress), and it struck me how useful it would be for us to sit in on other people’s visits periodically –for us and for them. And in the meantime if that’s not possible, perhaps we could continue to share some tips and thoughts with each other. After all, we’re trying to provide the best session we can possibly deliver to the children we’re visiting. And if we do it well, it can have a lasting effect on the children we see.
Finally, I think it’s crucial to ask yourself why are you doing visits?
There are lots of reasons authors and illustrators visit schools: to inspire children to read and write and dream...; to earn much needed income so you’re able to write; to promote your books; to sell your books. Different people do it for different reasons: as someone who is passionate about getting children engaged in reading for pleasure (I’ve currently got a grant to do just this) and improving their lives and confidence, the focus of my visits is to inspire children. I need to be paid for it –it’s professional work –just as plumbers and actors and doctors and hair dressers get paid for their professional work. If I did it unpaid, it would be costing me money, as it is time that I am not earning from writing. And it makes it more possible for me to sustain a life where I write. But I don’t do it to promote my books or to sell them –I think with picture books this is different from books for older children as it’s usually parents buying the books and they won’t be there at the visits. For events outside school –festival and bookshop events and those run through parenting groups or even nurseries, promoting and selling books may be a much clearer reason behind the event. Whatever the reason, be aware of why you’re doing it. And if you don’t actually enjoy it, you should say no –for your sake and for the sake of the children you’re visiting. It’s hard to inspire when you don’t feel inspired to be there. If you’d prefer to stay at home and write books instead, then you can inspire them from a distance with your next book.
Thank you to all the authors, illustrators and teachers who offered their thoughts and tips on school visits for this post.
Are you an author or illustrator who does visits, or a teacher or librarian who arranges them? I’d love to hear what works well for you... Do you have any top tips on what to do/what not to do? Do you have any thoughts on fees? Thank you.
Juliet Clare Bell is the author of Don’t Panic, Annika! (illustrated by Jennifer E Morris; Piccadilly Press); The Kite Princess (illustrated by Laura Kate Chapman, narrated by Imelda Staunton; Barefoot Books) and Pirate Picnic (an early reader, illustrated by Mirella Minelli; Franklin Watts).