Thursday, 7 March 2013

Happy World Book Day (Week) and how to do the best school author visit you can by Juliet Clare Bell

On World Book Day week, with one visit under my belt and three more to go, I thought I’d write about school author visits. For many of us, it’s the busiest week of the year and we’re all doing our thing in different schools but a lot of us don’t really know what other authors are actually doing. Our school visits will reflect our personality in the same way that writing does, which means that the visits will be all be different. I’ve done a lot of visits in the last couple of years but there are plenty of authors with more experience, who've been doing it for decades –including some of the ones I’ve included in this post, so I'm no expert. But I'm really interested in what makes a good visit? Or more important, what makes an excellent, inspiring visit? And can we learn from each other (like we do in critique groups with our writing)?

I asked some authors, illustrators, teachers and librarians for their thoughts on and experiences of school visits...

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 teachers
says 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?


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).


  1. To echo Clare - Happy World Book Day, everyone -and may your school visits be brilliant fun!

    1. Thanks, Jane. Hope yours went well. I had a brilliant day -loads of the children and most of the staff were dressed in bedclothes. I'd taken my slippers along as a prop -but ended up wearing them all day! Thank you to all the wonderful teachers and children at Wychall Primary in Birmingham. What a fantastic school.

  2. Great post, Clare! Thanks for sharing all these ideas and tips!

    1. Thanks, Rebecca. I took the advice of one of the teachers I quoted and adapted something slightly and it worked even better than normal. Hooray for using other people's feedback!

  3. Fantastic piece to end all pieces on school visits! Thank you Clare! Will link to this from Notes from the Slushpile!

    1. Thanks, Candy. I'm just back from the kind of visit that keeps you on a huge high. What a school! And now they're writing some stories which I'll put together as a book next week ready to be published ( and on sale for 23rd March for a local arts event.

      Thanks for linking it.

  4. Oh ... and Happy World Book Day!

  5. Very useful post indeed. Had been thinking of becoming more of a teacher in my own events, as we often meet teachers so keen to check their target boxes, but now I think I am perhaps already on the right lines - inspire and entertain. I like to use bubbles too! Thank you.

    1. Step away from the target boxes Maudie and run open armed to fun and creativity!

      Great Post!

    2. Thanks Maudie -you hear about teachers wanting to check boxes but for me, it's the fun and creative ones that actually impact on the children. I'm just back from a fab visit where no one was thinking of ticking boxes and the children were buzzing. And the children will remember lots more for my not trying to be teacher-y.

      Thanks George -and for your thoughts before I wrote the post.

  6. Inspiring and well-thought out. The schools you visit are lucky to have you as their guest. Thanks for passing along your wisdom.

  7. Fantastic post Juliet! I agree with everything. A couple of additional thing to add:

    Don't forget that how you do what you do might seem mundane and obvious to you, but all of it is fascinating to people who don't do it.

    As an illustrator, I often take sketches of early versions of characters, to show how I develop picture book animals and how they can turn out quite different in the end.

  8. Thank you, Lynne. Great point about things seeming obvious to us not fascinating to others who don't do it. Seeing Helen Cresswell as a child was just magical (and Leon Garfield and Alan Garner -we had an inspired teacher/deputy head) and she showed us things that were completely normal to her that were amazing to us (she only wrote on one side of the paper in her notebooks so she could use the other to edit/scribble etc -which seemed really subversive to us as children who had to use both side). And great, Lynne, to show early versions of characters...

    I've seen you do one presentation at the SCBWI Winchester Conference and it was great. Thanks again.

    1. Sorry, that's
      things seeming obvious to us BUT fascinating to others who don't do it.

  9. This is an excellent piece Clare - Can I link to it from my blog too? Makes me think we should have a SCBWI School Visit session at every conference....

    1. Thanks, Kathy. Please do link to it from your blog. And yes, keeping it up regularly at the SCBWI conference seems a great idea. Mo O'Hara and Steve Hartley did the last one, which went down very well...(I wasn't able to go).

  10. I'm probably the only author on here who finds these posts about school visits extrememly difficult to read. Every time I hear the words be funny, entertaining, engaging, I can feel myself shrivel up and want to run a mile. As a teacher myself (drama and dance) I can go in to any school and have a wonderful time teaching dance, being creative, getting children engaged and excited, but as soon as I'm there to talk about my own books I feel like a fraud. I worry that the teachers will wonder what they're paying for, and I seriously don't know how to come across as funny!!!! I didn't arrange any visits this year for WBD but feel very sad about it. My latest book is doing really well and has recently been shortlisted for it's first award, but I'm just horribly lacking in confidence! Help!!!!

    1. Thank you for your comments, which can’t have been easy to post up. You’ve made a really good point about lacking the confidence to do it. I think lots, if not most, of us have suffered or still do from imposter syndrome. Why would anyone be really interested in OUR books or us? In my first school visit, in my workshop sessions with individual classes, I actually read someone ELSE’S picture book to the class as I thought it was a great book and it was relevant to the game we were going to play. But then they all assumed it was my book (why wouldn’t it be? –I was an author of picture books, reading them a picture book). In the next class I made it even clearer that it wasn’t my book, and the teacher looked at me, bemused, and said ‘Aren’t you going to read YOUR book to us?’ and genuinely surprised, I said ‘Would you LIKE me to?’. It took a few visits to believe it completely that the children and staff were genuinely excited to see a real-life author –even if it was me!- and that they really want to see you being confident about what you do. You’re making something really real for them which is usually quite far removed.

    2. You must be really creative and engaging –and energetic!- to be able to teach dance and drama to children, which is most of what you need for a school visit, and you’ve got the advantage over many authors who are terrified by the thought of managing a whole room full of children. But you’re an expert at that. You don’t need to worry about the humour side of it. Maybe I pushed that too far: it’s more about the confidence to be yourself with confidence. And that may come out as humour or it may come out as just being really real. And that’s great. Could you incorporate any of what you’re confident in doing into your sessions? Could you get them doing dance and drama and make it relevant to your writing/life?
      Have you ever gone to a schools visit workshop (we’ve done some in British Isles’ SCBWI –I don’t know if you’re in the UK?) or shadowed someone else’s visit? It sounds like with a bit of confidence, you’d be doing excellent visits. If you’d like to chat about this offline, please email me through my website . It would be good to chat more... Thanks again for posting and really good luck.

  11. 'Anonymous', I'm sure others will also say that you don't have to be funny - just be yourself. We're all different and a school asks us in because we're children's authors, not children's party entertainers! If you're honest and enthusiastic, the passion for writing and books should inspire others. However I know exactly what you mean about feeling a 'fraud'. Snap!

    1. That's true, Paeony. Passion and enthusiasm is crucial. That might come out as humour or it might not. It sounds like the author above has passion and enthusiasm in bucketloads if she's teaching dance and drama to children and that getting over the feeling a fraud bit is the issue. What's the best way to do that? Just by making yourself do a few visits that you're terrified to do? Or observing others? Or attending workshop classes? What would you recommend? Thank you for posting.

    2. I really understand the feelings of 'anonymous'. I'm much quieter than Clare although I do love humour, so I always have a good chivyingtalk with myself before visits so that I will be able to deliver a fun and inspiring experience to the kids, meanwhile not losing who I really am. Was pleased last week when the feedback said they really appreciated my 'enthusiasm and calm attitude'.

    3. Thanks, Donna. It's great to hear from people who do it all sorts of ways. And if they said "enthusiasm and calm attitude" then that sounds like you did 'being you' perfectly. You're still enthusing the children. I really hope I haven't made it even harder for the commenter to go out there and do her visits by putting extra pressure on. I like the idea of your doing a pep talk beforehand. Do you find it helps? 'Anonymous', could that help before you did a session?

  12. Just finished two visits, have today to regroup, then off again tomorrow. Thanks for your great post, and for your kind words about my blog post. I've worked with lots of authors now on their presentations, and what it boils down to is what you said so well. Be yourself! And I was reminded how important that is this week when a girl came up to me after a presentation and said, "I like how you're just yourself!" Wise little girl. Wise JCB... And congratulations on your Crystal Kite nomination!

    1. Thank you, Deb. And good luck being you with your next visits! And thanks for the congratulations...

  13. completely wonderful piece about school visits! I notice your excellent orange dress which also marks you out as someone rather interesting. I have an orange jacket which is fun.

  14. Thanks, Addy. Orange is always good.

  15. Wow, this is all really interesting and I love the comments as well. I think authors should discuss this side of writing life a lot more so we can all learn from each other. It's frustrating that it's so rare to get the chance to see another author in action.

  16. Thanks, Joe. I agree. I remember before we started doing critique groups that people felt they were exposing themselves and that someone else might be influenced by their ideas etc., and I wonder whether it's a little similar with author visits. It can certainly be unnerving being watched by someone else, and you might be giving away a few special things that you feel you're doing uniquely, but I suspect it's like critiquing, where pretty soon you realise it's all worth it and it becomes much easier. And as for other people taking your ideas, I don't think anyone can be you, so if they adopt some of your strategies, it'll still be a different assembly/session. Thanks again, Joe.

  17. Excellent post!
    I think that if you are excited and passionate about what you do there is no need to worry about being funny or entertaining because your delight in writing and in your books will spill over and inspire the children. Being yourself really important.

    We are all different and approach writing in a different way, which is what makes it such an interesting job and so fascinating to hear how other people do it.
    School visits can be scary at first, but it is really useful to go and watch other authors and see what they do. Not so that you can copy them but because there is always something new to learn. Festivals are a good way to see lots of different children's authors working with an audience but if you can approach another author and ask if they would mind you coming along on a school visit, that can also help and most people would be okay with that (probably best to get them to check with the school first, too.)

    1. Thanks, Linda. And great tip about festivals being a good place to watch other children's authors. That's often much easier to do than shadowing someone on a school visit (but I do love watching authors in action at school, too).