Tips for new authors: school visits

This morning I’m off to read my one and only (so far) picture book to a kindergarten class.
I love talking to the littlies. They ask such wonderful questions:

  • What’s your favourite colour?
  • Do you have a dog? Why not?
  • Did you write Thomas the Tank Engine? Why not?
  • Are you married? Why not?
  • I went to the beach once.
  • Why is the sky?
Ever so easy to answer.
It got me thinking about what makes a great school or bookshop visit; for the author and especially for the kids. I can still remember the day Ivan Southall came to my primary school. That’s the day I decided I wanted to be a writer.
Now, I’m no big expert, but if you’re just starting out, maybe this practical list will help – it includes things I’ve watched others do and need to work on too:
Before
  • If you’re going to read from your book, practice reading out loud, at home, and slower than you think possible.
  • Ask the teachers if there’s anything specific they want you to cover – any topics being discussed in class, or queries about your own work or process?
  • Ask yourself why you’re doing it. If the answer is that your publisher wants you to, that might not make for the most gripping speech the crowd has heard. So ask again. What do you want to share? Encourage? What have you got to say? Why did you write the book in the first place? Why do you write books at all? Why would anybody read them?
  • Make sure you are agreed and clear on all details: where, when, what year level, payment (if any), tech requirements.
  • It’s work. A professional appointment. Dress respectfully.
  • Pose yourself a few sample questions (eg, someone will always ask: ‘where do you get your ideas?’ so your reply to this impossible question would be…?)
  • Allow time to get lost on the way or stuck in traffic, arrive, find the right room, cool down/warm up.
  • Take a bottle of water.
The big talk
  • Say thanks for having me – it’s an honour and a privilege to have readers, and you have the opportunity to tell them so.
  • Start with confidence, even if you don’t feel it. You are the ultimate authority on your own books. Shine.
  • Make sure everyone can hear you.
  • Move around a bit, if you can. You don’t need to pace the stage, but try to present a relaxed body language that invites engagement.
  • Slow down. Breathe. Look up. And again.
  • Ask them a few age-appropriate questions: favourite books, films, X-Box games, characters – who likes Harry Potter? 
  • Some of those present have dreamed of becoming a writer or illustrator one day – target a few comments at them. 
  • Remember: one of them may be the next you, and this may be the day they decide what they want to be when they grow up.
  • It’s OK to ask people to sshh, but if they are getting a bit too ratty (hot day, hard wooden floor, long talk) get them to stand up and have a stretch or play a little game. 
  • Take note of the room – feel what’s happening as you speak, and adjust your tone and pace as best you can.
  • Look around you, make sure you appear to be making eye contact with people all around the room. And actually do it.
  • Don’t go overtime. It’s kinda selfish. If there’s no clock, ask someone to warn you when you have three minutes left, and then wrap up fast.
  • End with a bang – even if it’s just a big thank you, a call to action as simple as “Keep on reading”, and a round of applause.
  • Enjoy yourself. Yes, really. 

 

Powerpoint
  • Don’t use it if you’re not utterly comfortable with it – or coping without it if there’s a technical hitch.
  • Powerpoint is great to give structure, present images and embed video. Handy for people who are visual. That’s all. Don’t rely on it.
  • You don’t need to put everything on the slides. Images, maybe a few bullet points – not your whole talk.
  • Try not to look at the big screen, or even at the monitor or laptop – know the slides so well that you don’t even have to look. It’s your story. Just tell it.
  • Take the concept of each slide as the jump-off point for that bit of your talk, then have a chat about that concept. What you say should be different to the points on the slide – don’t read the words out loud. 
Q&A
  • Repeat audience questions or incorporate them into your answer, in case nobody heard it.
  • Ask people their names when you select them to ask a question and say hello.
  • If it’s a complicated or hard question, ask the group if they have any ideas or experience of it – on some issues, more than one perspective is handy.
Afterwards
If you can, take something along you can leave with the bookseller, teacher or librarian – it might be a poster you can sign, or some bookmarks for them to give out later. That will help the kids remember your name and your book title after you’ve gone. Offer to sign the library’s or bookshop’s copies of your books.

Be happy if kids want you to sign books, posters, arms – anything. Ask them questions about themselves as you sign, check how they spell their names if there’s nobody there to help you.

Over the years, I’ve watched world-famous authors (who shall remain nameless) at festivals and events not bothering to engage with kids at all, grizzling about signing their own books, gossiping with their publicists while kids are clamouring to ask them questions, blanking staff members, or getting volunteers up on stage and then humiliating them in front of the whole group.  You don’t want to be that person – no matter how famous or rich they are, they probably won’t get invited back.

On the other hand, I’ve watched amazing writers like Margaret Mahy, Antony Browne and Jacqueline Wilson (and closer to home the likes of Andy Griffith, Richard Newsome and Sally Rippin) really engage warmly with a group of kids, then do it all over again – just as genuinely – an hour later.

You may not be a big name. You may be shy. You may feel nervous. You might not be the person who cracks jokes and works the room like a US President.

But you might be the person who changes someone’s life.

What do you think?

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