For 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
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
If 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
Laura 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
What 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, 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
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.