“Are those your real teeth?” asked a small child sitting at the feet of the well-known children’s author who, after an hour talking about her books to a large audience, asked if there were any questions. “Did you write the Bible?” another asked an elderly author. “I thought you’d be prettier and not so fat,” commented another. Australian children’s authors who are pro-active in schools have many such anecdotes. “School visits vary from unbelievable hell to the fantastic,” recently commented one best-selling writer.
Promoting their own titles, meeting their readers, exciting kids to read, helping to develop literacy and writing skills, boosting their income: these are the main reasons why authors visit schools. The reasons schools invite authors (and illustrators) to visit range from wanting students to meet “a real, live author”, to letting students quiz the author of a book they are studying, to hoping that the author will impart “tricks” of the writing trade (sometimes via writing workshops), and as an alternative to an out-of-school excursion. Naturally, expectations on both sides of the author-visit fence differ.
Over the past decade, it has become increasingly more difficult for authors to expect their publishers to promote their titles: there are fewer publicists, more titles in the marketplace and less promotional money. Nowadays, most children’s authors realise that being published means that one has to be pro-active in self-promotion, and happily, most publishers are only too pleased to have authors taking the initiative.
It is not easy for creators – who often lead solitary lives - to walk into schools and entertain hundreds of children with whom they have no history and no relationship, no knowledge of what level of enthusiasm there is for the visit, even who the trouble-makers are. For some authors, their school visits experiences are not happy. This is especially so where the author has no teaching background or public speaking experience; more so when students are not adequately prepared, supervised, and/or are unruly. One author of YA novels expressed his experiences thus: “I’m not a natural speaker. I work at it. And I’ve been told by others that I’m a very good speaker. But my enthusiasm for going to schools has ground down into a knot of resistance.”
Like other authors interviewed for this article, he reported on bugbears many have - that students have not read any of their books leading up to the visit, on presentation day authors are given far more students than initially agreed upon, there are last minute changes of venue or presentation times, and they are often expected to introduce themselves. Other complaints include visiting authors having to move a venue full of furniture by themselves pre-performance, and having to find essential equipment (such as a microphone and electrical extension chord). Some have been asked, five minutes before the presentation, “What is this visit all about? What did you say your name is? What books have you written?”
One of Australia’s leading, award-winning children’s authors mentions a time when her talk was interrupted by carpet-layers – three days early – who proceeded to cut up carpet on which her audience was sitting! Try speaking to 200 infants’ children with a lawn mower or a jack hammer just outside the open windows; workmen replacing blinds in the same room, or frequent amplified voice-overs from the office! These things have – and do – happen!
Teachers sometimes leave students – often large groups – alone with authors who may be inexperienced at crowd control. “The moment you deal with a discipline problem,” a children’s author explains, “you’ve crossed the line. You are no longer a visitor; you are one of ‘the enemy’.” He related that in a city school as he walked from the car park to find the office, a group of kids once started flinging spit balls at him. “They (the teachers) then took me into a double classroom that stretched a long way back and was packed to the rafters with over 150 kids. No microphone.”
The worst story reported was of a children’s illustrator in Darwin on tour who, ill with flu, literally collapsed after her third consecutive hour-long session. The organisers insisted she continue her gig 15 minutes later – with another group of hundreds of children.
Happily, the vast majority of schools’ organisers – teachers, librarians and English co-ordinators – are enthusiastic and courteous. Many have already introduced their students to the visiting authors’ books; often they have created fabulous displays of students’ author projects – wall murals, dioramas, photographs, reviews, book cover replicas. Such enthusiasm means that the audience is buzzing as the author enters, the presentation primed for success!
A Tasmanian public high school teacher summed up the “best” author visits as those which are planned, organised and entertaining, where the author is flexible in accommodating a school’s needs and where he or she not only spreads the word about their own books, but acknowledges that other authors exist. She also suggested that authors should know to project their voices and how to manage poor student behaviour. “The important thing,” she said, “is that students see that authors are human with their own idiosyncrasies and foibles, and that they are approachable.”
Another teacher-librarian who has organised author visits for decades suggests that authors should expect misbehaviour and “have a strategy for silly behaviour or dopey questions.” She offers further valuable advice: “Very few groups of kids are capable of listening for more than twenty minutes. They need to do or look at something or to talk about things.” An English co-ordinator for a private boys’ secondary college recommends that authors, “Get kids talking about themselves as writers and readers. Make them laugh. Be sincere.” She describes the various authors whom she has invited to her school as “exceptionally funny,” “incredibly empathetic and supportive during workshops”, “exciting and unpredictable,” “boring”, and “enthralling.”
As a children’s author who once made most of her annual income from school visits, I always referred to myself as an author “performer”. My background as a primary school teacher was invaluable, as was my study of marketing practices and of watching children’s performers in action, as well as years with Toastmasters International practising at how to speak in public. Unlike many pro-active authors, I never used a booking agent: for me, nothing beats direct contact with organisers as it ensures that all contingencies are covered. Many authors charge an hourly fee for a school visit (often in line with the ASA’s recommended fee of $450 for a 180 minutes’ presentation.) However, I found that charging a per-head fee with a minimum number of students meant that when teachers tried to admit more students than originally agreed, I was adequately renumerated. Prior to all engagements, I verified - orally and via mail - that the organiser and I were agreed about the location of the presentation, the session times and duration, the grades and number of students involved, and the cost per student and minimum hourly cost. My flyer also listed what my performance involved and additional services I offered (such as writing workshops, sales of my remaindered books and teacher in-service and/or parent courses.) Most of my bookings were the result of word-of-mouth recommendation or of teachers having seen me in action at conferences.
Knowing that first impressions count, my entrance into a school playground meant I was dressed appropriately (in my brilliantly coloured performers’ jacket and diamante-encrusted cap and shoes). A typical author performance in front of 200 fourth graders might go thus:
Di: Well, hello (name of school)! Today, I'm going to tell you the BIGGEST secret in the world. (Pause). It's a secret about me. And all authors... And teachers too! But it’s … (confidential whisper) … rude!
(Long pause, as, with wicked grin, I surveyed the audience.)
Di: Do you want me to tell you?
Di: Do you really want to hear? It's really, really rude. (Sideways glance at teachers…)
Kids: (shouting) Yes!
Di: Okay then, but you have to promise not to tell a single solitary soul in the whole wide world because it is really, really embarrassing and very, very rude..." (By this time kids are hysterical.)
Di: All right then. I’ll tell you this very, very personal secret about me – and your principal, Mr Twistburger, and your librarian, Ms Goodfellow … and all the teachers in your school… and all the authors in Australia…
(The secret – that I have holes in my underpants - was then revealed and created great mirth, even more mirth when I asked how underpants can possibly be put on without holes in them?)
Not all my introductions started like this, but this was typical. Sometimes there was a series of jokes or verse (usually vile, but tame enough to pass the principal’s inspection). By the time I had introduced myself, the kids knew that their “show” was going to be a treat, that maybe my books would be as funny as I was. It was rare for a child to misbehave: they were all engaged in the performance.
Talking to an audience of kids is like writing the first sentence of a novel: one needs a mighty good “hook”. Not everyone writes humour and is willing (or able) to be exuberant in front of hundreds of pairs of critical eyes. But “hooking” from the start is essential, as is having a program which is marketed to suit the ages and interests of one’s audience, (at the same time fulfilling one’s purpose, which is to get one’s book into as many hands as possible.)
It is true – as teachers know - that students love being amused and entertained; they love anecdotes (especially family secrets, the grottier the better), and they need to be actively involved in their own learning. Successful visiting authors take this on board and use audio and/or visual props. Students can easily be encouraged to participate in dramatisation of an author’s writing. In short play adaptations of his books, my children’s author husband, Bill Condon, frequently involved good-natured teachers who hammed it up in their roles of “babies” or “starry-eyed lovers”, much to the hilarity of their students. On one memorable occasion, Bill’s trick of sprinkling “African itching ants” (tea leaves) to attract his “lost (plastic) spider”, created mass hysteria among his infants’ audience and all 150 of them bolted from the school hall!
A smart visiting author, having presented a pacy, involving and visually interesting session, will always allow for questions. The best questions are generally from the school rascals: “Who will get the royalties from your books after you die? Can you take your teeth out? “Were you good at school?” “Are you gay?” “Did you ever get put in a mental hospital?” The top ten most-asked questions don’t change much from school to school:
1. How much money do you get?
2. How old are you?
3. Where do you get your ideas?
4. How long does it take to write a book?
5. What is your favourite book?
6. Where do you get your titles from?
7. Do you write about real people?
8. How long does it take to write a book? (This question is always repeated)
9. What’s your next book about?
10. Please, will you write about me?
Publishers and booksellers can be an authors’ godsend, if they are supportive and pro-active. Publishers can – and sometimes do – provide publicists to accompany their authors on tour and to arrange media interviews on the way. Availability of authors for school visits and conferences listed on publishers’ websites are helpful, as is practical help such as cab-vouchers or car-park passes, lists of contacts for forthcoming festivals and/or conferences, teachers’ notes, press releases, publicity material, and media contact details. Publishers often throw out materials such as over-supplied proof-sheets and book jackets which authors can either display in talks, or donate to schools. Pro-active authors are in an excellent position – and usually only too happy - to publicise not only their own books but those of other creators in their publisher’s stable with give-aways, such as newsletters, pencils, bookmarks, even company promotional flyers.
In the past, most publicists asked authors to inform them of the dates of their tours, school visits, conferences and festivals a term in advance so that they could alert booksellers in the appropriate regions to stock the author’s books. More lately, judging from the many I’ve spoken to, this does not appear to be the case. One children’s author says, “Even if your publisher does not inform bookshops (of a local school visit), at least they can see that you are pro-active. A bonus of visits is that after you have visited a region, shops may stock your books.”
Booksellers can indeed benefit from an author’s visit to their region, if they are prepared to put in the effort. After ordering in relevant titles and mounting a window display, they can publicise and arrange for the author to talk after school (or in the evening) at a local venue and/or to an interested group, such as librarians or parent groups. Book signings at the school itself and/or in their store are also do-able. Country booksellers have reported to me that even a year after I have toured their region, customers still ask for and order my books.
No official statistics exist to prove that school visits by authors generate more readership or income for their books. However, the large numbers of visiting authors “at the chalk-face” would seem to be testimony to their belief that the publicity generated speaks volumes.
© Dianne Bates
Dianne (Di) is the author of over 130 books, mostly for children. She’s been in the children’s book industry for 35+ years and compiles (since 2006), a twice monthly magazine, Buzz Words, for those in the industry. Check it out on www.buzzwordsmagazine.com