School visits offer many advantages to authors, children and teachers alike. Here’s how to get the most out of your event.
For authors of children’s and YA fiction, a school visit offers a great opportunity for them to meet potential readers and raise awareness of their book as well as their brand by interacting directly with an ideal target audience. There’s also a fee (sometimes), and the chance to even sell some stock.
For children, a visit can be a great chance to meet the author behind the book(s) they like, and become inspired to read and write. And for teachers and schools, an author visit offers an interesting addition to the curriculum that can provide the foundation for all sorts of fresh pre- and post-visit activities.
Here are some thoughts from a seasoned author and school visitor on how to make the most out of the experience.
Agree on the Essentials Up Front
Double-check the agreed date and time for the visit, and make sure the school has the equipment you need (if any) and that it will be available on the appointed day. If you need to project some PowerPoint slides or play a video, for example, it’s good to know that the school can facilitate that and that there will be someone on hand to assist you as needed.
Confirm Layout Requirements
If you want the hall or classroom set out in a certain way for the activities you’re planning, be very specific about what you need and confirm that the school will have someone to help with this the day of your visit. You don’t want to have to spend the first 20 minutes moving tables and chairs around!
Don't Haggle Too Much About Money
The fee, if any, for your visit is likely to be quite modest. State schools often have tight budgets, and little room to negotiate. As an author, you’re better off letting go of the idea of a big appearance fee and focusing instead on using the visit as a great opportunity to market and promote your work.
Think About Stock and Marketing Materials
Schools are often happy to promote your books to parents and children before and on the day, so make it easy for them by providing some copy they can drop into a school newsletter or add to the website. It’s a good idea to give an estimate of prices, too, as parents often like to give children the exact amount for a purchase. Schools are usually happy to organize sales on the day for children and parents, too, so think about how best to work this out. Will you coordinate a delivery from the publisher? Or will you bring along the stock yourself? Either way, there needs to be plenty of notice and planned ahead of time.
Settle in When You Arrive
Arrive on the day in good time to familiarize yourself with the school layout and meet your key contact. It’s a good idea to bring your own basic refreshments, just in case. Schools are not as practiced in hosting visitors, and you’ll need to keep your energy levels up. Make sure you know where the staff toilets are, too!
Check Equipment Well Before You Start
As early as you can, find your way to the venue for your session and check that all is in order. Is the layout of chairs and tables right? Do you have the equipment you need? Are lighting and sound working properly? Does the clicker work? Arriving with time to spend checking these things can help avoid all sorts of issues once you get started.
Get the Teachers Involved
As a visiting author, your job is to entertain and inspire your group. Getting the teachers involved can help in lots of ways. if you’re able to chat through what you intend to do with the teacher beforehand, they may have some tips about how to make the session work even better, and can often help you draw some interesting connections with the pupils’ recent course work. And of course, on the day, the teachers are invaluable support in helping you with any discipline or “crowd control” issues!
Timetable Your Session
It’s a good idea to make like a teacher and break your planned session down into manageable chunks, with a variety of formats and activities. After an arresting start (see below), you might move into a short intro to yourself and your work, followed by a brief communal call-out exercise, then give a short reading. Then you might have a pair activity, and finish up with some feedback on the students’ efforts and a general Q&A session. Decide on specific timings for each section, but always overestimate how long each section will take. Don’t be unrealistic and try to fit too much in: better to do two things well than rush through five. If you finish early (unlikely!), you can always read a bit more or answer a few more questions.
Rather than just saying, “My name is…” and reciting a potted CV, think of an engaging and unexpected way to begin your session. You might bring along an unusual prop, or ask the group a curious question, or even come in a bit of fancy dress! Your choice will be related to your work, of course, but whatever it is, make it fun, compelling and different.
Keep Your Talk Interactive and Energizing
When working with schoolchildren, you need to make sure that the session isn’t just you talking at them. Ask questions, plan activities, look for ways to get them involved. Don’t try to cover everything – try to wear your learning lightly, and keep things light and snappy. A good 30 minutes is probably about as long as you need – and remember to leave lots of time for questions. There are usually loads!
Try to Include Everyone
In any group, there will be a few students who are really keen on the topic, and they’ll show their passion by asking and answering question after question. This is wonderful for you, but it’s great if you can include as many of the other children as possible, too. As you walk around and look at their work, ask questions and take an interest in the children who’ve not spoken up as well as those who have. Often they are just as interested, but a little shyer, and just need some encouragement to participate.
Remember that Questions May Be Old Hat to You, but Not to the Student
You will inevitably get asked lots of questions as part of your visit, and some of these will be ones you are very familiar with. But though the topics may be wearisome to you, remember that they are fresh to your questioner, so always try to stay engaged and patient, and treat the query with respect. You can make things more fun for you by challenging yourself to come up with a different answer to the old questions each time!
Leave a Good Impression, and Follow Up
A school visit can be a demanding day, especially if the groups were a little noisy and some of the equipment didn’t quite work the way it should have. But always make a point of thanking everyone, praising the school, and leaving with a smile. A couple of days later, follow up with a thank you note and ask how the session went after you left. You could always ask your contact to recommend you to any other schools they can, too.
Final Thought: Prepare for the Unexpected!
Schools are busy, complex places, children can be unpredictable, and not everything may go according to plan. It’s important to make peace with this, and to have a few backup ideas in place. Projector not working? What will you do instead? The group you’re working with suddenly expands from 10 to 30? Then your pair activity will need to become a small group activity. Printouts aren’t ready or books haven’t been delivered? Lucky you bought some spares, or a flyer with all the links to your book.