By: Alex Woolf
School visits can be a wonderful way for a children’s author to connect with their readers, raise their profile, and make a bit of extra money. For children, meeting the creator of their favorite stories can be magical. For authors, it’s an opportunity to get out of their ivory tower and gain a direct insight into the interests and passions that drive modern kids.
That’s the theory anyway… But as any children’s author will tell you, school visits can also be a special form of hell. Whenever we veterans get together it isn’t long before we’re swapping war stories and comparing scars. There are so many things that can and often do go wrong. The good news is, most of these can be avoided with good preparation. So here’s my handy list of dos and don’ts when planning and executing a school visit…
DO be flexible about the fee: Some schools don’t have the budget for a big fee, but they can compensate for this by promoting you and your books ahead of the visit to students and their parents and then organizing a big book sale on the day.
DON’T be too flexible: If you offer your services for next to nothing, you’re devaluing what we do and making it harder for other authors to earn decent money from school visits.
DO make sure the school has the equipment you need for your talks and workshops, especially PowerPoint facilities. Also ensure that teachers are aware of how you’d like the classrooms set up (e.g. kids in rows or grouped around tables, and whether they’ll need pencils and paper). The more of this kind of detail you can tell them ahead of the visit, the smoother it’s likely to go.
DON’T leave it to the last minute to send through a list of books you’ll be bringing to sell. Send the list (along with reading ages and prices) at least two weeks before your visit, so your contact at the school has had a chance to send it out to parents, and the children will (hopefully!) have brought money on the day.
When You Arrive
DON’T be shy about asking for coffee, tea, biscuits, etc. Some school staff appear to forget you’re human and may be feeling a little frazzled after your journey, and that you might need something to pep yourself up before entering the lion’s den (sorry, classroom). Also, don’t forget to check out where the staff restrooms are—you do not want to find yourself using the children’s restrooms.
DO check that everything is set up as you wish in terms of PowerPoint and classroom layout. Technical problems are extremely common in schools, and there is more often than not a 20-minute delay as someone goes to find a pony-tailed IT guy to fiddle with the computer, the screen, and/or the clicker. I’ve had to give talks before where the PowerPoint has failed, or where the room’s too bright and the screen is invisible, or it’s too small, or I have to march 20 yards in mid-flow to press a button on a keyboard each time I want to move the slide on. Everything that can go wrong eventually does when you do enough school visits.
Delivering a Talk
DON’T make it too long. Children’s attention spans are notoriously short, especially in the age of Snapchat. Keep it light, funny, and informative. Talk for no longer than 30-40 minutes, then ask for questions, which is always the most enjoyable part—though it has its own dangers (see below).
DO talk about how you came to be a writer, what and who inspired you, the books you’ve written (no harm in a little self-promotion), some tips about how to be a writer (stress how important it is to read books—teachers and librarians love to hear you say that).
DON’T launch into a history of your life, David Copperfield style. Unless you are J.K. Rowling, people are unlikely to be interested. These talks are supposed to inform and inspire young people to take an interest in writing and literature. You can use elements of your own personal story to illustrate more generally what being a writer is like, but they don’t need to know what grades you got in your high school exams and that, as a child, you loved large peaches and chocolate (unless you happen to be Roald Dahl).
Running a Workshop
DO insist that teachers take an active role in maintaining discipline in the classroom. You are not a trained teacher, and if they start playing up you can’t be expected to know how to regain control. That is the teacher’s job. I’ve heard one horror story where a pupil snatched the glasses off an author’s face and threw them to another child. I myself have been in a classroom where the kids were getting very noisy and the teacher just sat there texting on her phone. I was inexperienced then. If that happened today, I would have strong words with her.
DON’T make favorites. It’s so easy to favor the kid with the sweet smile and the charming manner, who answers your questions so eloquently and is always first to raise his or her hand when you ask for volunteers. You end up only wanting to teach them. But of course you need to make time for everyone. Make sure you visit every child as you walk around the classroom, especially the quiet ones, and ask them how they’re getting on. Some may have English as a second language, or just lack confidence. One or two might be secretly nurturing a real talent.
DO make lots of time, at least 20 minutes, for a Q&A at the end of your talk. Kids really appreciate the chance to ask an author questions, and it provides another opportunity for the kind of interactions that can make school visits so memorable and inspiring.
DON’T be impatient. Authors get truly sick of certain questions. The worst of them are “How old are you,” “Are you famous,” “How much money do you make,” “Which is your best-selling book,” or “Do you know J.K. Rowling?” You can virtually guarantee that at least one of these will be asked during any school Q&A. The best you can do is keep smiling and answer it as best you can—or else, as I often do, say “none of your business.” Even good questions can be a little wearing because you hear them so often: “How did you become an author,” “Who is your favorite author,” “Where do you get your inspiration from?” My approach is to avoid the stock reply, and try to be spontaneous and original. That’s why my favorite author changes at every school I visit.
The End of the Visit
DO be charming. The librarian spelled your name wrong on the posters, the PowerPoint broke down, a kid spilled coffee on your trousers, and you sold two sodding books at the sale. Never mind. Keep smiling. Pose for photos. Thank everyone, and tell the teachers their school is amazing, and their pupils are exceptional. You never know, they might even invite you back next year.