Preparing for an Author School Visit


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dog-reading-294x214For checklists and the mechanics on conducting a successful author school visit go to your publisher’s web site and search ‘school visits’. Random House, for example, features a site called Set up a Visit that outlines basic information you and the host school should follow.

Because even the best planned events might experience some sort of hiccup I also read numerous posts on the subject from authors who shared their experiences in the trenches of elementary schools. Here are my top ten tips to minimize some of those hiccups:

Tip # 1

Alexis O'Neill

Alexis O’Neill

Before you do anything, sign up for blog posts from School Visit Experts. Alexis O’Neill offers a place for published authors to find and share advice on how to create and deliver quality programs for kids, teachers, and librarians. It’s an awesome blog about author school visits. Even if you’re not yet published, sign up and start learning now!

Tip # 2

In 9 Ways to Get Teachers to Love Your Author Visit O’Neill brings up a valid point about the Q&A session of an author talk. Sometimes it’s hard for the author to hear the kids’ questions, and their questions are often repetitive or off-track. To best prepare, ask teachers for questions ahead of time, and then choose which to answer. Another option is to develop your own questions and build them into your presentation.


Waimea Canyon Middle School – 6th grade

The number one question I always get is: “How did you come up with the story idea for Lara’s Gift?” Instead of waiting for someone to ask this question, I ask the audience: “What do you think is the number one question kids ask me?” The kids become engaged and multiple hands shoot up.


Kapaa Elementary School – 5th grade

Here I am in Kauai on a school visit where the hugs were boundless and the leis welcoming. One school even invited the only pair of borzoi living on the island into the classroom to give the kids a chance to meet a real borzoi!

Tip # 3

In 4 Ways to Make Librarians Love Your School Visit, Toni Buezzeo gives great advice: Understand and design presentations to respond to local curriculum. When you are in a school, you are temporarily in the position of an educator. Because every school hour is precious in this age of standards-driven education, and because in all but five states (see map), those standards (entitled the Common Core State Standards) are national, it is easier now, than ever before, to incorporate them into your presentations. Start here and then solicit help from teachers you know to refine your presentations.

Tip # 4

imagesIf you are working with a bookseller to set up a school visit, Catherine Linka, author of 7 Ways to Make Indie Booksellers Love You recommends that you be absolutely clear from the first conversation with a bookseller if you need to charge for a school visit. “It is fine with us [Flintridge Bookstore] if this is how you make your living, but do not expect us to get the business for you. We will, however, be happy to supply books after you have made the deal. If you can afford to do free school visits, it will be a treat for us to call our customers and set those up.”

Tip # 5

26539_OBrien_Coming to school poster_March_Page_1Laura Purdie Salas gives great advice in From 5 Things I’ve Learned about School Visits: send posters and free books once the author school visit contract is signed. She had some mini-posters printed with a bunch of her book covers and an announcement that “Laura Purdie Salas is coming to school on ________!” On the back of the posters she printed tips to help the adults prepare for her visit. She sends 3-4 posters plus 2-3 of her trade hardcover books in advance. She says, “The cost is well worth the extra excitement the materials generate.” I took her advice and created my own poster.

Tip # 6

O’Neill stresses the importance of connecting with your audience by Telling Stories about Yourself. Whether you are speaking to an adult audience or to kids, remember to weave in a story or two about yourself – ones that listeners can connect with. Dig for funny or poignant nuggets from  your growing up years, disappointments/heartbreaks, celebrations (disastrous or otherwise), unexpected kindnesses from others, family vacations (or lack thereof), school (conflicts or triumphs).

Tip # 7

bookplate.1What do you do if the bookseller at your school event doesn’t bring enough books? O’Neill offers a great solution in From Economical Bookplate Solutions: send them a signed bookplate for every book sold that goes unsigned. It’s disappointing – to you and to readers — when schools or bookstores run out of your books during your appearance. Being able to autograph and personalize a book can mean the difference between a sale and no sale.

Tip # 8

It is worth repeating what Dan Gutman says in The Perfect Author Visit in that a successful school visit usually comes down to how much preparation the librarian, teachers, PTA, and principal put into it. Here are some suggestions from Gutman that you can share with your host school:

  Tell students the author is coming starting at least a month in advance. Put the author’s books on display in the school library. Put a display of book covers up in the hallway.

  Have classes read the books and write book reports or think up questions to ask the author.

  Throw a contest and have the winners receive autographed books.

  Have an art class make posters, banners, and bookmarks welcoming the author.

  Have a writing class write reviews of the author’s books.

  Arrange for the students on the school paper to interview the author.

  Call the local newspapers. Maybe they’ll send a photographer to cover the event. If they don’t, take pictures yourself and submit them.

  If the author writes about a specific subject, create a theme day around it at school.

  Talk it up. The more excited you are, the more excited the kids will be. And when the kids are excited, any message the author gives them will really hit home.

Tip # 9

Camille Powell

Camille Powell

Camille Powell, a.k.a. Miss BookMoot gives lovely insight on author visits from a librarian’s perspective in Advice for Authors on School Visits. The section that hit home most with me was “what to talk about”:

 Often, kids know how a manuscript becomes a book. It is interesting and even MORE fascinating if you tell the story of something exciting, horrible, difficult that happened during the process.

 Students have been taught how to use a library or how to do research . Share something interesting that happened or that surprised you while you did your research. Where did you go to do your research? Got pictures?

 Talking about revision is interesting IF you can relate your challenges in the writing process. If you are sharing a manuscript page bleeding with corrections and suggestions, make sure they can see the details on the page with a visual (a slide or overhead.)

  Illustrate and explain a specific editing change. If you are lucky you will be presenting in the school library but be prepared for a gymnasium or lunch room-sized venue. Think of those kids at the very back. Can they see and appreciate what you are sharing?

  Writers of historical fiction sometimes share artifacts or facts from the time period they write about. Share some true stories from that time too. Something drew you to writing about that event or time period, what was it?

Tip # 10

Authors know how important an opening is to hook readers. The same goes for school presentations. Be sure to read O’Neill’s article on Great Beginnings which features examples of how authors like you have started their talks.

Author Rick Riordan

Author Rick Riordan

And finally, if you ever feel like you’re “trying to fill a reservoir with an eye-dropper” as you plan one school visit after another wondering if your hard work will ever pay off, read My Overnight Success by Rick Riordan for inspiration. You will carry a deeper appreciation of what it took Riordan to get where he is today, as well as be humbled by the doubt he felt along the way.

A BIG thanks to the generous authors and writers that make up the children’s book writing community. To those authors cited in this blog post, hugs all around for taking the time to share your experience.

Out of the Dark



IMG_3277When I was fifteen, I lay in the bathtub, wishing more than anything that I had the courage to sink beneath the water and fade away into oblivion.

When I was seventeen, I contemplated a bottle of Tylenol, wondering if the entire bottle of chalky white pills would erase me.

When I was twenty-four, I sat in my car, prepared to stuff rags into the tailpipe, hoping to slip into the eternities.

When I was thirty-two, post-partum depression overwhelmed me.

The continuation of my story is rather cliche. Suicide was never really an option, so I learned how to manage. I got out of bed each day. I exercised, and that helped. I ate well. I took vitamins. I took 5-HTP, an amino acid that assists in the production of serotonin. I prayed. A lot. I was gentle with myself. I gave myself a manageable list of things to do each day. I became very good at slapping a smile on my face, and when people asked how I was, I always answered, “Fine, thanks,” though my smile was cracked, and I couldn’t meet their eyes.

There were good days, and there were bad days. Just as the bad days were really, really bad, the good days were really, really good. There was just enough sunshine and butterflies to balance the dark clouds and doom.

Even so, a day would inevitably come when I was overwhelmed by an existential despair, and life was simply too much for me. I was ashamed because of it. Though I knew better, I thought that if I just did X differently, I would be fine. I should be fine.

Sometimes I was fine.

More often, I wasn’t.

So I tried harder. I researched depression. I wrote about both depression and the search for happiness here, herehere, and here. I talked about it with friends. They urged me to take medication, but I was scared of drugs that messed with my brain, no matter how much my mind was messing with my brain.

In October, I watched this at a church conference:

When I hit a low point — again — a week later, I knew something had to be done. I could have been a poster child for clinical depression, and everything and everyone around me was suffering because of it.

What followed then could be taken verbatim from an ad for Prozac or Zoloft: “I saw my doctor, and he prescribed some medication.”

My doctor reiterated to me in a very kind way what I already knew: depression is a physical thing, a chemical imbalance. It wasn’t my fault, nor was it something I could change by will or wish, by eating more carrots or doing more cardio. It wasn’t as simple as choosing to be happy and putting a smile on my face. There was something within me that wasn’t working the way it should.

So I filled a prescription and contemplated those pills for a full 24 hours. The emotional storm was over by that time, and I wondered if I really needed them. I decided I did.

The first month, I felt euphoric. The second month I simply felt healthy—physically and mentally. I tallied up the many unexpected ways the medicine had helped me. The most surprising was that my body temperature normalized. I used to be cold all the time, as if I had ice water running in my veins. No longer. My metabolism sped up. I had more energy. I could focus on my work. I was calmer with my children. I wasn’t stressed or anxious about anything. I had confidence in myself for the first time, ever. Oh, and I was happy, too.

Clearly, this was not just about mood. This was not about choice. This was physical as much as it was mental.

This felt miraculous.

I recognize that antidepressants don’t work for everyone. In fact, they have not been a perfect solution even for me; I have experienced just about every side effect there is, but my body seems to be metabolizing the medicine tolerably well now, and I am a changed person.

I have hesitated in writing about depression yet AGAIN, but I feel compelled to speak since so many writers struggle with it. So I add my voice to the hundreds in the ether, advocating for courage and for treatment, and for an end to the stigma attached to depression. Depression is not a character flaw, or a personality weakness; it is a physical affliction, just like myopia or diabetes.

Let us erase the stigma of depression before depression erases us. Let us support each other with courage and kindness, and without judgment. Too many voices have been stilled by their silent struggle; too many stories have been left untold.

Where we’ve been and where we’re going

So, it’s been a pretty great year for the folks at Quirk and Quill. A few highlights:

1) Two members of our VCFA class had books published this year.

LarasGift_compLara’s Gift by Annemarie O’Brien

hownottobepopularHow (Not) to Find a Boyfriend by Allyson Valentine

2) A number of us got together for our annual S3Q2 and Friends Retreat (I was supposed to blog about it way bay in October but didn’t—my bad).


Rachel W. working during the Generative Workshop.

writing table

Trent, Amy Rose, Rachel H., Mary Winn, Ginger, and Jess cranking out words at the table.


Look – another guy!


Varian, Jess, Jen, Rachel W., and Ginger. S3Q2 for life.




Rachel W., working outside.


Marianna and her striped socks.




Rachel H., writing with the frogs and the fish.


Top Row: Varian, Rachel H., Marianna, Rachel W., Linden, Trent
Bottom Row: Katie, Jess, Jen, Ginger, Amy Rose, Mary Winn

3) In between all the publishing and the writing and the retreating, we also got a little reading done this year. Our own books aside, favorites include:

We Are Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Sue)
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Sue)
All the Truth That’s In Me by Julie Berry (Rachel)
Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (Varian)

4) A number of us spent the year working on novels that will be coming out next year:

mapartMap Art Lab: 52 Exciting Art Explorations in Map Making, Imagination, and Travel by Jill K Berry and Linden McNeilly (May 2014)
The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson (May 2014)
Don’t Touch by Rachel M. Wilson (Sept 2014)
Fat and Bones by Larissa Theule (Oct 2014)

DividedWe Fall

Additional books we’re looking forward to include Trent Reedy’s Divided We Fall (Jan, 2014) and Amy Rose Capetta’s Unmade (Oct 2014).

6) Looking forward, here are some words of wisdom from the crew:

“If you want to walk on water, first you have to step out of the boat” – Carol Allen

“If you’re a super busy person, give yourself reasonable, attainable goals, keep them visible throughout the year, and chip away at them tactic by tactic until you’ve nailed the goal!” – Annemarie O’Brien

“Write because you love to do it. Because you have to do it. Because you love words and story and losing yourself to that amazing place where story happens. That’s how the very best books are born.” – Sue LaNeve

“You will forget what it took to write the last book. This is a blessing and a curse. Use the blessing of forgetfulness to be brave about taking on a new project. Banish the curse of forgetfulness by reminding yourself that the struggle is totally normal.” – Rachel M. Wilson

“Write like there’s no tomorrow.” – Varian Johnson

Happy 2014, everyone!

When THE END Is All It Should Be

I finished reading a book last night. It was a story that took a few chapters to draw me in, but by the end I knew the characters well and loved them for their flaws and eccentricities. I celebrated their victories and mourned their losses.

As the book came to an end, I remember thinking, “It’s perfect. There is no other way I would want to depart from these characters.” I even shed a few tears for the beauty of it all.

Upon seeing my reaction, my husband jokingly said, “Every book comes to the same ending when the author writes THE END,” and seriously added, “I don’t understand crying over a book.”

Well any reader, even my husband, knows that not every THE END is the same. Some leave you scratching your head. Others leave you wanting. Still others leave you mourning the hours of time you wasted on such an unsatisfying book. And as for tears. Well. My tears last night were not simply for one character or situation. I shed tears because there was something in that character and situation that spoke to my own existence. Something that resonated with me on a deep level. I cried for the feelings that I shared with that character, not just because of something sad or touching that happened to him.

All of this has brought me to think about my own writing. Recently, I completed a first draft of my novel. Printing out a copy to read was pure satisfaction. But then I began reading. I’ve been reading my draft while also reading the book I finished last night. I’ve come to a sad conclusion. I don’t love my book. I don’t feel for my own characters the way I felt for someone else’s. I don’t experience the same emotions when I read of my character’s plights and victories.

So while I am disheartened by this knowledge, I am also grateful to have noticed this now. I am driven to cut, rewrite and revise. I know the connection that I want to have, that I want my readers to have. I know that it’s not there. But I aspire now to create it. From the lump of clay that is my first draft, I will form something beautiful, something worthy of the words, “It’s perfect. There is no other way I would want to depart from these characters.”


When I was seventeen we lived in Costa Rica, on the mountaintop rainforest of San Ramon de Tres Rios. We lived in a cabin surrounded by bushes with pink blossoms as large as human heads. A red hummingbird feeder hung outside the kitchen window and the beautiful little birds zinged to and fro, from flowers to feeder and back again. In the evenings, sunsets lit fires in the sky.

One day the neighbors bought a goose and set to plumping it up.

Every morning for many months that goose honked  – loud, boisterous, look-at-me-ain’t-I-something kind of honking, and continued honking until I would roll out of bed, bleary-eyed and slightly distraught.

Dad would hand me a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice.

Mom stood at the kitchen window watching the hummingbirds, a dishcloth flung over her shoulder. My brother ate cereal. Dad squeezed more oranges.

The goose honked.

“Christmas is only a week away,” said Mom.


We nodded.

These days, I’m revising a picture book and there’s a beautiful little two-line sequence that is my darling. But the lines are honking, the story slightly distraught. I never loved the neighbor’s goose the way I love these two lines.

Even so, Christmas is only a week away.

A Meeting, 25 Years in the Making

In December of 1988, I opened up my first letter from my new penpal.  “Dear Danielle,” I read, “I am Heela Naqshband. I am 9 ½ years old. I have very dark brown hair.”


First letter, December 1988.

This was before anyone had the internet – before, even, many people I knew had computers.  Writing letters was the only way to keep in touch – long distance phone calls were way too expensive.  To a fourth grader, getting any kind of mail was special, and having a friend who lived far away was really special.  Heela was the first friend I had who lived outside of New York.  She was the first person I knew who wasn’t Catholic or Jewish.  But we had so much in common!  We liked the same TV shows!  We liked the same music!  Everything about her was both exotic and familiar.  And judging from the pictures she sent, she was so pretty.

Heela, 1988.

Heela, 1988.

Based on the letters I saved, we wrote for at least four years.  There’s an entire year – 1989 – that I saved no letters from, though I’m certain in that first year of writing we must have written frequently.   I can’t say why we stopped writing – though I wouldn’t be surprised if I was supposed to write last and didn’t.  In the summer of 1992, the summer after seventh grade and the date of the last letter I have from Heela, I suddenly had a social life and friends.  I spent less time in my room reading and more time out.  However, as a teenager, I often thought about Heela and how she was doing, but I was too embarrassed to write after having not written for so long.  The years progressed.  I was in high school.  Then college. Then I was teaching.  Somewhere in there, social networking happened, and I joined Myspace.

Over the years at home and the many moves I made as a young adult, I had come across her letters in the same box over and over.  Did she still live in Nevada?  Would she even remember me? Packing to move in 2004, I opened the letters again and realized I might be able to find an answer to these questions.  A quick search on Myspace revealed that a Heela Naqshband did, in fact, live in California.  It had to be her.  I sent a message, and we got back in touch after so many years.

Looking at old letters, December 2013.

Fast forward 9 years, 25 years since that first letter.  A cold December morning, a tiny Mexican restaurant.  We were finally meeting.  I was anxious, but for no reason.  Meeting Heela wasn’t like meeting someone new.  There was no awkward small talk or weighted silences.  It really was like we had known each other our whole lives.


Well, most of our lives, anyway.

Tips on Converting Prose into Graphic Novels with Cynthia Leitich Smith


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Unknown-3One of the perks of being part of the Writing for Children & Young Adults Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) community is access to the generosity of that VCFA community. Every year in July the faculty, students, and visiting editors, agents, and other publishing guests offer gifts for the VCFA auction aimed at raising funds for the school. The gifts range from whole novel critiques to week-long condo accommodations in Hawaii, as well as hand-knitted hats, jewelry, watches, artwork, books, and other writing related gems.

BYQUE5mCQAA_sYuOne such gem was a graphic novel lecture consult with Cynthia Leitich Smith, best-selling author of the TANTALIZE series, among others. Given her success at converting her prose into a successful graphic novel format, I was curious about the process, bid, and won. So one Saturday morning not long ago, a few VCFA alums like Frances Lee Hall and I gathered at Ann Jacobus’ home in San Francisco and googled in Cynthia for a lecture and Q & A on converting prose into a graphic novel format. Here are some of my take-away points:

  1. Suppose you have a published novel you’d like to adapt to a graphic novel, you wouldn’t want to necessarily retell the same story from the same POV character. Think about offering new content or perspective with the goal of adding value for your readers. Perhaps tell the “same” story from a secondary character’s point of view, for example.
  2. A graphic novel manuscript looks like a screenplay. At this point in time, formats vary by publisher. There is no standard direction—ie 12 point font, Times or Courier, 1 inch margins, double space—as exists for prose. Candlewick’s graphic novel format is: action flush left, center speaker name above centered dialogue and centered interior monologue in italics.
  3. If you also write picture books, think of your graphic novel in the same way. Think of illustratable moments and get out of the artist’s way!
  4. Cut, cut, and cut some more by omitting descriptions, emotional reflection, and transitions.
  5. Simplify. Trust the artist and your reader.
  6. Trim dialogue and exposition to the bare essentials.
  7. Do include enough text for the story to make sense.
  8. Think of each page as 5 panels of art. Each picture is a snapshot of one moment.
  9. Cut, cut, and still cut. For example, from 965 prose words Cynthia cut, cut, and cut until she had 47 graphic novel words.


The biggest impression Cynthia left me with was the amount of time she and her TANTALIZE editor, Deborah Noyes Wayshak spent on the phone reviewing and revising each page. Definitely not for the chicken-hearted!

For articles on converting prose into a graphic novel format, read these articles:

Novel to Graphic Novel

Prose to Graphic Novel

If you’re a teacher, check out this Scholastic Guide on how to use graphic novels in the classroom.

For more in-depth articles on graphic novels, check out these links:

The Graphic Novel Renaissance

The Woodcuts of Lynn Ward

The Curies, Seen through the Artist’s Eyes

For a bibliography of graphic novels, Cynthia recommends Dave’s site. Please click here.


Ann and Frances, please feel free to chime in on anything I may have missed. The same to you, Cyn.

Thank you, Cynthia for offering your time!! You have always been generous with your knowledge. I wish you success in meeting your deadlines and great reviews.



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In the next two days, I will be writing 4000 words on my NaNo project. I will be cleaning my house. I will be cooking for an army of teenagers.

And I can’t wait!

I thought I’d share some of my favorite Thanksgiving recipes, because, you know, this is a writing blog.

And writers have to eat, too.

Here’s what we’ll be eating at the Gingerbread House this week:

Turkey for a crowd

Buttermilk mashed potatoes


Sweet potato casserole

Kale salad

These dinner rolls.

Apple-Cranberry Pie.

Apple pie

Chocolate cream pie

Pumpkin pie

We’ll also have homemade and canned cranberry sauce (nothing says “Thanksgiving” like rings around your cranberry sauce), a jello salad, acorn squash, green beans with bread crumbs, gravy, and my grandmother’s orange bread, if I can pull it off.

What are your favorites? What am I missing?

My Love-Hate Relationship With NaNoWriMo

For some, NaNoWriMo has been a month of moderate goals and exceptional results. (See NaNoWriMo And All Its Glory.) For me, NaNoWriMo has produced not just words and excitement, but also frustration and a sense of failure.

I set out on November 1st to tackle the goal of NaNoWriMo for the first time: 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s a lot, but I know it’s possible (even for me). I was writing on a different project in October and very nearly keeping that pace. But at the beginning of this month, as I sat down to work on a completely brand new project, I found that the words just wouldn’t come with the same energy and ease as they did in October.

I am traditionally a slow writer. Ridiculously, painfully, excruciatingly slow.  I thought, though, that NaNoWriMo might teach me to work with abandon. I thought that it might allow me to see a new project before me and jump in, consequences be damned. Crumbling plot line? Inconsistent desire line? Unidentifiable setting? Who cares? All of that could be fixed later. Words on paper. That was the goal.

And here is where I’ve experienced both excitement and frustration. I have been writing on a brand new project. Brand new! I haven’t done that in years. It feels wonderful. It feels freeing. My mind wanders each day through a brand new world, with new characters and fresh problems to ponder. Success! And yet frustration. I am nowhere near 50,000 words, which is the goal I set out to tackle. By the end of November, I expect that I’ll land somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 words. In a normal month, I would call that good writing. But here, in NaNo, it feels like an abysmal failure.

So this is the love-hate relationship I have developed with NaNoWriMo. I love that it drove me into a new project. I love that it gave me a goal. I hate that I did not reach that goal. I hate that it has bred feelings of inadequacy within me.

While I will not make it to 50,000 words this November, I feel that I must overcome my feelings of failure and cheer for the victories I have attained. I am writing something new. Yay! On average, I’ve had a successful month of writing. Yay! And my OctoWriMo was a huge success. Hip! Hip! Hooray!

So while I still love and hate NaNoWriMo, perhaps it has led me to a victorious end, though not the end I first set out to reach.

NaNoWriMo And All Its Glory

There’s a pile of papers on my desk that desperately needs to be graded.  There’s a pile of laundry in the hamper that needs to be washed.  There’s a pile of mail on the dining room table that needs to be sorted.  But do I care?  No. Why not?

I’m writing a novel this month.

For the first time, I’ve decided to participate in NaNoWriMo.  Originally, I planned to add 30,000 words to my current WIP and finish it.  Only 1000 words a day as opposed to the 1,667 required to reach 50,000 words by November 30th.  I wouldn’t claim a badge or brag that I’d written a novel in 30 days even if I did finish my novel.  However, once I started writing, I realized that I could actually do it. I could actually write 50,000 words in the month of November.  I’ve far surpassed the goal I set for myself, and I plan to keep going.  As of now, I am more than halfway to 50,000 words.  I’m only slightly behind because of a big weekend, but I plan to catch up this week.

And it feels so, so good to be writing.

Sure, the bathroom could be cleaned, the dog could be walked for a bit longer, and I could use some exercise. And those dishes?  They can wait. Why?



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