Saturday, January 26, 2008

School Visits

How does an author get the word out about their work?

Book signings at bookstores can be tough. Rick Riordan's account of some of his bookstore signings is a good reminder of how difficult and painful it can be to get books on the reading public's radar. I know his experiences are not unique.

Riordan's post reminded me of the story a parent told me about her family making a quick visit to a Books-a-Million, on a week-night, years ago. There was an author there selling his book. She said he was young and sitting pitifully alone in the less than crowded bookstore.

One of her daughters struck up a conversation with him while the rest of the family surfed the bookstore. As they got ready to leave, the daughter asked her mom to pu-leeze buy the guy's book. Feeling a bit cornered, but also like it was the least she could do, she agreed to buy a copy.

The young author turned out to be a guy named Christopher Paolini and for months afterward I was repeatedly asked,

"Mrs.P, have you read Eragon?

Aragorn like LOTR?

"No, ERAGON. It is sooooo... good."

Never heard of it.

In my defense this was when the book was still being self-published

BookMoot's Advice on School Visits

School visits are yet another way for authors to publicize their books. I have enjoyed the opportunity to host and participate in many school visits with wonderful writers and illustrators.

School visits are NOT for the faint of heart. Veterans of the school visit circuit have good advice to offer on the subject. Kelly Milner Haas has collected a page of pointers from authors that is well worth your attention if you are interested in advice from the writer's point of view. I have my own theories on what makes a successful visit so I offer these as you embark on this odyssey.

  • You have to develop a spine of steel and sang-froid. Kids can be a tough of audience and they can smell fear. This will come with experience though so, if your knees are knocking at first that is ok. You will get more comfortable as you gain experience.
  • You will be "Raptor-ed." So you will need a driver's license or other official ID with you.

  • You cannot smoke on campus.

  • If they forget to tell you, ask where the bathrooms are located.

  • Keep your presentation to approximately 30 minutes. It will naturally go longer if necessary.
  • You cannot assume the teachers and / or librarians will be in control of the kids. Most of my faculty were VERY conscientious about monitoring their student's behavior but it never fails that the one kid I need to make SERIOUS eye contact with will be in the middle of a sea of faces and I cannot reach him/her.

    can ask a kid to "cool it."

  • If you have 'question-answer' time just know that a sea of hands will launch skyward the moment you announce it.

    As you take the questions, it is ok, in fact I will bless you, if YOU tell the kids to put their hands down while you answer.

    Kids need to be told to lower their hands. Besides hoping to be picked for the next question, they honestly also forget that their hands are hanging in the air like laundry on a clothesline.

    It is part of audience etiquette to listen politely to answers to questions. This is a skill that needs to be taught to grown ups as well as children.

  • You WILL be asked "where do you get your ideas from" and "how much money do you make?" I always threatened warned my kids against asking these questions but you just never know. Have an answer ready.

  • Watch the librarian for cues on which kids to pick. They have good instincts about who will ask an interesting question or which child needs the "face time" and recognition from you for other reasons.

  • You will be asked questions like "I have a puppy" or "my brother threw-up last night."

    I know...
    These aren't questions.

  • Don't start signing autographs at the end of your presentations. You will be crushed in on onslaught of humanity as kids shove hands, arms, and stinky shoes at you to sign. Their teachers will valiantly try to restore order but it may be too late for you. The librarian can create a page of bookmarks for you to sign and they can be copied for everyone.

  • Have a good time. There is nothing like the energy and wave of enthusiasm that hits you when young readers are hanging on your every word.

Tell me a story.

So now, the ponder, what to talk about or do during this presentation. Authors have a gift. Their words move us, thrill us, take us away to other worlds or times and let us walk, for a time in another character's life and footsteps.

Now, sometimes writers can share this gift with their readers face to face and sometimes they cannot. All authors have unique styles and presentations. I've decided that the most engaging and interesting presentations occur when a writer is able to do, in front of an audience, what they do so well on the page--tell stories.

This does not mean you have to join a storyteller's guild although it wouldn't hurt to read up on their tips. Do practice your stories so you will get better. You will also learn timing and where the "gasp" moments or laugh lines are the more you tell in front of an audience.

The stories you share don't have to be out of the storytellers handbook.

  • Jonathan Stroud told the "story" of how he come up with the character of Nathaniel in his Bartimaeus trilogy. He drew the character on an oversize pad, adding items to Nathaniel as the audience added their input. He admitted that he really only began "drawing" in order to add to his presentation but it was an effective story telling technique and kept the audience focused.

  • Eric Kimmel tells folktales from his rich repetoire of books. He plays the banjo too.

  • Susan Stevens Crummel tells the story of her family with anecdotes and pictures. Her "embellishment" of sister Janet Steven's photo resonates with every child (and adult) in the audience. If she just did a this-is-my-family or this-is-where-I-live slide show it would fall flat. It is the stories about her family members that make it so much fun.

  • Brian Jacques knows his audience, connecting with rollicking tales for all ages. He saved the story of his early experience as a youthful member of the Merchant Marine for the "grown-ups" at the librarian's conference. He was serving with older uncles who would not let him off the ship to see the "naughty ladies."

It is ok to be a little gross.

A little mayhem goes a long way with a youthful audience (as does the word...underpants.)

  • K.M. (Katie) Grant shares the amazing story of her Uncle Frank, the last Jacobite beheaded in England for helping Bonnie Prince Charlie. She had us at "beheaded."

  • Eoin Colfer told a tale of his first experience with flight which involved a bike, a ramp and a desire to set a world record which ended up "in hospital." His hilarious description of an arm, broken in two places is not for the squeamish. You can meld hilarious with squeamish.

  • In the mayhem department, and in a league of his own, there is the sublime Jack Gantos. His stories of growing up with neighbors like the Pagoda family or how he acquired the cat that would be later known as Rotten Ralph may cause problems for you as you try to breathe, cry and laugh simultaneously.

Do not instruct.

1. Generally, kids know how a manuscript becomes a book.
They've been there, done that.
What was something exciting, horrible, difficult that happened during the process?

2. 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.

3. Talking about the revision process is interesting IF you can relate your challenges with their writing. It helps if the kids can see a manuscript page bleeding with corrections and suggestions. Have a visual (slide or overhead) that all kids can see easily. If you are lucky you will be presenting in the school library but be prepared for a gymnasium-sized venue. Do you have a funny nickname for your editor like Crummel does?

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

Participation is a plus

  • Susan Stevens Crummel (who was a teacher) asks a student to be in charge of her slide show. I was amazed how she instinctively picked a child who needed to bask in that responsibility.

    She also involves the children in a reenactment of her stories. She finds the best participants for key roles by asking the kids "who is the funniest person in your class?" It never fails that all hands point in the same direction. By putting that child on-stage you are helping them, eliminating a distraction in the audience and making a wonderful memory for everyone watching. Kids like watching their classmates perform and they really do know who is the funniest person.

  • Illustrator Michael Dooling gives kids an opportunity to hold his paint brush and add their own touch to a painting. He also tells stories about the people or events he writes about.

  • Illustrators and artists like Mike Artell give drawing lessons. To watch an ocean of children earnestly bent over their drawing paper and following directions (especially the "following directions" part) is enough to raise a lump in your throat.

Finally, know that librarians talk to each other and word of mouth is your best friend. A successful event at one school will lead to others.


Gail Gauthier said...

It was great reading this today because just this past week I was offered a day of work in a school during the first week of March. My first day in a school after a very, very long dry spell.

I agree with you regarding "Do Not Instruct." However, when I first started talking in schools in the 90s I was always being asked by teachers to talk about revising or to bring in all my drafts. I also agree with you about not going into how a manuscript becomes a book. Yet so many writers talk about that.

Your "Tell Me A Story" suggestion is a good one. My school presentations improved (for me, anyway)after I took a storytelling workshop at a writers' conference. Treating the presentation as a story instead of a "talk" is much easier for the presenter, and I hope more engaging for the audience. I think we all understand the concept of story. Lecture, not so much.

Camille said...

Wow, how interesting that you did take a storytelling workshop and it helped your presentation.

Authors talk about the revision process because it is directly applicable to part of the writing curriculum and teachers like that.

The sight of a manuscript with post-it notes and markings is very impressive but it would also be interesting to highlight a specific change and explain why it was reworked to improve the story. I'm not a writer so I don't know if that is actually possible but it would be thought provoking to be able to talk specifics, especially if it can be done with humor. Crummel talks about her editor, "the little red pen."

One thing that Gantos does that is so helpful, is he gives concrete examples of how kids can take weird stuff that they record in their journals and turn it into a story. Since they've just heard some truly wacky stories, it makes sense.

It is hard to remember a lecture but we all remember a story.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding, Camille!

Anonymous said...

Printing this out and bookmarking it. Wonderful information. As an author (though not so young) who has spent time behind a lonely table hidden in the back of a bookstore, school visits are something I'd like to pursue. Unfortunately, I haven't had much luck with our local schools. I've talked to librarians, receptionists, teachers, and administrators and nobody quite knows what to do with me. "What exactly do you want to do?" they ask. Apparently author visits are few and far between on this island. If you have any opinions/advice on how best to make the initial contact/arrangements for authors, I'd be thrilled to read it! Besides name recognition, what sells you on an author?

Unknown said...

GREAT post! I am hosting an author this week and while he is not well know, he is FABULOUS - he is known as the "reading Guitar Man" and he sings songs about reading with the kids and then he does a little storytelling. I was just telling him at lunch that I never have an author unless I have either seent hem in person OR I have a trusted media specialist/librarian friend that has something good to say.

And I second the comment you have about Jack Gantos - he was a teacher at Emerson College when I was there in the early 90's, I never could get into his children's lit class, and told him this when I saw him speak at a conference a few years ago!

Sara said...

Oh, this was good, good, GOOD. I don't think I've read anything better (or more practical) about school visits. I'm printing it out right now.

Seriously, don't you think you could do a workshop on this? I know I'd book you into a conference if I could!

Camille said...

Kris, that is an interesting question. I would think a librarian would be very interested to have someone "local" available to talk with the kids.

Have you got a good idea of what your presentation would be like? If so, you might do a "flyer" listing the kinds of things that you will be sharing, such as story telling, the writing process, creative writing, etc. It wouldn't hurt to show an alignment with with state curriculum requirements.

Make it look good professional and try mailing it to the librarian and / or PTA folks. Sometimes it is the PTA that helps pay for these events.

I also get a chance to meet authors at the state library convention. Is there a story teller group that gets a booth there that you could throw in with or does your publisher have booth and would they let you appear there with information about your author presentations?

Sometimes librarians want the reassurance that someone else has seen your "act." You might consider teaming with the public library this summer. My county library offers programs in the afternoon throughout the summer in conjunction with the summer reading program. If you are willing to volunteer your services it would be good experience and give you a reference.

Our local SCBWI also has a list of authors who are interested in doing school visits. I referred a parent from a local charter school to their website not long ago. They couldn't afford travel costs for an author visit and were looking for someone local.

I wish you the best of luck.

Camille said...

Sara and Phil--
I am happy if this is useful. The important thing is to take charge. Kids need the assurance that someone is 'driving the bus.' Phil definitely "drives the bus."

Your comment made me are correct, with the exception of Michael Dooling, I don't think I ever had someone at my school who I had not seen or had a recommendation for.

Dooling's website had some very authentic and sincere reviews and ... well... being the history lover that I am, I was sold on his three corner hat.
Although, now that I think of it, I contacted him because Dan Gutman told me about him. See? Word of mouth.

Last year at TLA, I ended up in a conversation with a stranger, while standing in a signing line, about Phil Bildner's high energy presentations. I note he is back in Texas again. Word of mouth.

Anonymous said...

Entling No. 1 remembers almost all of her author visits in elementary school. Your mention of students drawing along with the presenter reminded me of the visit of "Commander Mark" (Kistler) when I was in first grade. We all got to draw in 3D along with him while he demonstrated on his transparent white board, which was SO cool. To this day, I can draw a waving American flag and 3D box only because of his presentation.

Mama Bookmoot probably remembers better than me - didn't we also get a visit from Chris Van Allsburg? I have a vague memory of standing in line to pick up my autographed copy of The Polar Express.

Book Calendar said...

I congratulate you on being able to do this. Visiting classes in schools is incredibly hard to do. I look out at the class and my heart freezes up. I am just not good in front of 30 kids in a classroom showing them books with the teacher looking at me. I find it far more difficult than adults.

Camille said...

I wish everyone had an opportunity to talk in front of a class of kids. I think it would provide real insight into the challenges and pressures that go along with teaching.

Camille said...

Mama Bookmoot does not recall Mr. Van Allsburg visiting entling no. 1's school. I think you might be recalling Peter Catalanotto, another wonderful author, illustrator.

Laini Taylor said...

This is a great post, Camille! I just linked to it from my blog. I have another question: how do authors get invited to DO more school visits? Do you have any suggestions about that? Thanks so much for all the great info here!

Don Tate II said...

At my school visit last week, I had a very different and somewhat uncomfortable experience. After I finished presenting to about 200 first, second and third graders, one little girl approached me for a hug. Not wanting to brush her away in front of everyone, I hugged her. But then I was swarmed by about 20 girls, arms out, wanting hugs. I was extremely uncomfortable with this, but, not sure what to do, I did in fact hug each and every one of them. The teacher asked me if I had this happen before, and no, it was a first time. Perfectly innocent, but these days, you have to be extra careful. Was I being too paranoid?

Camille said...

No Don,
You are not being paranoid. You were being kind but you are absolutely right to deflect hugs.

One thing I've used and also seen authors do is step back and offer to high 5 kids. The only problem with that is then EVERYONE wants to slap your hand and there are always kids who want to break your hand as they smack it. I also shake hands sometimes if it is a small group.

It is entirely appropriate to thank a child for offering but then tell them you can't hug them. I usually add, "But,I salute you..." and give them the Vulcan Live Long and Prosper salute. That's just me, I'm a trekker. Sometimes I bow to them or give them a "thumbs up."

That way you don't risk you hands and you don't have to spend the next break briskly scrubbing with antibacterial soap--although just being in a room with kids makes that a good idea anyway.

What the kids are really after, whether it is a hug or a high five or even eye contact, is the individual attention from you, especially if they have enjoyed and connected with your presentation which, it sounds like, they really did.

Varian Johnson said...


This is great advice. Thanks for posting.

Laurel said...

This is a truly useful, funny, fresh post. THANK YOU!!!