It is my greatest hope that every school will see the value of bringing in authors and illustrators to their schools to nurture a love of reading and to inspire kids to go for their dreams. But what does it take to host a successful author’s visit?
In the last year, I’ve visited over 30 schools around the country and I’ve had many incredible experiences talking to kids and meeting educators, including a district-wide book club in Texas last month where I did 15 school visits in 5 days. It was crazy busy and crazy fun. I’ve also helped organize author visits for both of my daughters’ schools for the last four years, so I’ve seen these author/illustrator visits from both sides. Here’s what I’ve learned works best:
1. Make Sure the Kids Have Read the Book
In Texas, many of the kids had already read Trafficked, which made them much more interested in the visit than when I’ve come to schools where they haven’t read it. It’s important to make sure kids have the books in advance. At my daughter’s elementary school, the principal buys at least one of the books for every classroom, so all the kids have had some exposure to the author or illustrator’s work before the visit.
2. Provide Food and Drink for the Author/Illustrator
In most of the school where I go, the librarians have coffee, water and treats, which is really wonderful when you’re running from school to school and you don’t have much time to eat. Also, if it’s morning, a little caffeine before a visit sure doesn’t hurt to pump up the energy a little. When you’re talking to a lot of kids, your mouth gets dry, so water is helpful.
On a practical note, it’s best to have the water in a bottle form because while you’re talking, you might wave your arms about and if you’re clumsy like me, you might knock water all over the place. Not all authors want food, but when we host authors at my daughter’s school, we provide lunch. The parents at some of the schools in Texas provided a lunch buffet and that was especially great when I was going from school to school. At my daughter’s former school in Brooklyn (PS 321), one of the teachers used to make a treat for all the teachers to share while they had lunch with the author. If you make a cake for the author, they will be stunned. It never happened to me before, but in Texas, I got my first author cake!
3 Be Careful About the Set-Up of the Room
The kids should be facing the author. If you only have tables with chairs around them, position the chairs so that they are all facing forward, not inward to the table. Otherwise, kids look at one another and they are more likely to be distracted.
4. Give Instructions to the Kids So They Know What To Do
In Texas, the kids were instructed to be good listeners and ask lots of questions. This is a big one. Sometimes kids who haven’t had an author visit before don’t really know what to do. I usually ask them questions and I can get them talking, but it’s wonderful if they’ve been prepped. Another good option is to get them to write down questions before the author comes. If they’ve read the book and had time to think about questions in advance, the visits always flow more smoothly.
5. Meet the Author at the Door
When you arrive at a school as an author, it’s a bit disorienting and every school has different rules and procedures, so it’s important for someone to be at the front door waiting. In Texas, the super friendly librarian coordinator, Nora Galvan, drove me to all the schools and introduced me to everyone. However, I’ve been at some schools where I was sent wandering the halls in search of the library or classrooms, and it was fine, but much nicer to not have to worry that you’ll get lost and end up in a broom closet.
6. Introduce the Author or Illustrator
This seems fairly straight-forward, but when you introduce the author, it’s great to give some fun facts about him or her. Kids love that. I find kids often ask me questions about these facts or how they relate to the work. For example, they love to know that I have kids and a rescue dog and that I traveled to Moldova to research the book. You can find this info on the author’s bio page.
7. Stay Close
Sometimes educators will just leave me with the kids. Usually this is fine since I have many years of experience as a teacher, but I often think of authors with less experience. I know some authors who refuse to do visits because of discipline issues and teachers thinking that it’s a good time for them to go have a break. Even for me, I find the kids are much more engaged when someone from the school stays in the room. Also, sometimes it takes the kids a while to get up their courage to ask a question and it helps when educators ask questions to get the ball rolling or to fill in the silences. Another key thing you can do is help the author with timing. I get very into talking with the kids, so it helps to have someone say, hey, you’ve got ten more minutes.
8. Make Sure Kids Have Supplies
If it’s a longer visit, more than 40 min, it’s a great idea for the author or illustrator to have some other writing or drawing activity for the kids. For the last school visit at my youngest daughter’s school, we invited author/photographer, Heidi Fagerburg. She writes stories about animals rescued on the beach near her home and she had the kids draw a picture of an animal they’d rescued or connected with in a special way. The kids loved it. When I do a school visit, if the group is small enough, I like the students to have pens and paper, so I can do a writing experiment at the end and maybe inspire them to keep writing on their own. If they don’t have supplies already, though, it’s too much to get it out once I’m there. I often bring index cards for them to write on because then it feels different from school and is pretty fun and not so daunting as a big sheet of paper. However, they still need pencils. Check with the author in advance to figure out exactly what they’ll do with the kids. They should not just be reading from the book. I started out reading too long at my first few school visits and now I read about 5 minutes. Kids want to interact, so for most writers, it’s best to keep the reading part short and sweet. On the other hand, at PS 321 in Brooklyn, we had Jacqueline Woodson. She reads from several of her books and you can’t even call it reading because it’s the incredible performance art, which I could watch for hours.
9. Have a Display Set Up in the Library and at the Entrance of the School
At PS 321 in Brooklyn, one of the parents is in charge of making a poster of the author and putting it up in several locations around the school so that all the parents and kids know about the author visit. This makes the school look really great too, for perspective parents. At every school in Texas, they had a large poster of Trafficked and a picture of me, and often a banner welcoming me to the school, which showed me what it felt like from the other side. It gave me such a warm feeling as an author coming to the school and definitely made me want to come back. Even more importantly, kids knew who to expect and they were excited about the book in advance of the visit. It was a district wide book club, so many of the kids had the book, but if they didn’t, they could take it out from the library before I came to the school.
10. Provide Markers, Chalk, Sharpies, Microphone, Powerpoint for the Author
For smaller groups, I prefer to talk to the kids without a Powerpoint, but for a bigger group, pictures really help hold their attention. You have to arrange this with the author in advance. When we host authors at my younger daughter’s school and the author is reading a picture book, it’s super helpful to have it in the Powerpoint form for any group over 20. Otherwise the kids can’t see and get bored quickly. In Texas, because I was running in and out of the schools and all the groups were under forty kids, we didn’t do any Powerpoint. However, when I was visiting schools in Calgary for Wordfest, I did a Powerpoint, showing parts of Moldova. It worked well because the groups had about two hundred kids, and it was easier to engage the bigger audience.
11. A Thank You Gift or Letters
It doesn’t need to be some grandiose thing, but after an author visit, it’s really lovely to get a card or letters from students saying how much they enjoyed the book or the visit. You always wonder, as the author, if they found it useful and you’re much more likely to go back if they appreciated you. If the kids have read the book already, they could write these in advance. At my youngest daughter’s school, one teacher always gives the author a pack of letters at the event itself, and every time, the author is delighted. Otherwise, you could get kids to write their thank you letters afterward. I just received a package of letters from a juvenile detention center where I taught a writing workshop in January. One kid wrote, “I didn’t believe that it takes just 2 minutes to write something down that comes to your mind.” Another wrote, “I think it’s important to let people know about human trafficking because it’s a very serious matter.” From kids who’d committed serious crimes, these letters were precious. I’ll keep them for the rest of my life.
12. Get Parents Involved!
An author or illustrator’s visit takes a lot of work from the planning with the author to ordering books to set-up for the event itself. Every school should have an author or illustrators committee as part of the PTSA/PTA. Maybe you’re thinking that your school doesn’t have money for an author visit. You can get grants for this, but one of the easiest ways around this is to offer to do a large book order. You send home order forms to the parents, which you create, and they send in checks for the books, which the author agrees to sign. At my younger daughter’s school, our book orders range from 100 to 300 books for an author. The publisher will give you a discount, usually 40 percent, and you can either pass the savings on to the parents or use it to pay for the author. It definitely sweetens the deal for the author because they like people to buy their books. I’ve done these book orders a few times for my daughters’ schools and it’s very straight-forward. You call the publisher and tell them how many books you’re ordering and they send them to the school, billing you after the fact. You may not be able to get a huge author with several books to his or her name because most of them charge 1500-5000 per visit. Debut authors will charge less. Also, if you find a local author, she or he may be willing to do it for free. With the lure of the book order, you may be able to get authors to come, as long as they live within driving distance. Or, you can piggy-back on a local bookstore’s efforts and ask whatever author is going there to come to your school.
Just Do It!
Believe me, nothing is more inspirational for someone with a dream than to meet someone who accomplished their own dream. It would have made all the difference for me when I was a kid, which I why I love to do school visits. I always encourage kids to go for their dreams, no matter what, and I use my own struggles as an example. It took me about fifteen years of hard work to make it as an author, but it’s been worth every minute. Please, bring authors and illustrators in to your schools. Even if it inspires one kid to go further than they ever would have gone, it’s worth it.