After the Guardian’s “10 Rules of Writing” article, I was going to post my “10 Rules for School Visits”. However, they were mostly things like “don’t wear trippity shoes or “take your own lunch, because you probably won’t get any and if you do, you might not want to eat it”. In other words, those rules that are all about being prepared for what might go wrong. So, here, in no particular order, are my 10 Rules for Why I Do School Visits.
One. I travel through different landscapes. I have visited foreign schools, but here I’m thinking of places within the UK: the green hills of Denbighshire, the terraced railway housing in York, the faded Victorian pomp of northern towns, the tiny village school overlooked by windswept Pen y Ghent . . . All places I wouldn’t see stuck at my desk.
Two. I see education as it is working now. I am interested in the child’s experience of school, of reading and writing and art and the whole learning environment. Schools are often bright highly-purposeful places where teachers work wonderfully hard, but sometimes I do have to bite my lip: “Yes, that’s a lovely display of parts of speech you have on the wall there. Must be inspiring! And as for that list of official WOW words – how tremendously, fantastically, surprisingly, amazingly witty. That’s how I work all the time!”
Three.I actually get to introduce MY books and stories to the children and teachers. Three times out of five, nobody beyond the booking teacher has heard of my name or books, but I do not let that bother me. I may not be Morpurgo the Many-Shelved, but by the end of my visit, we will all have had a good time together over my stories, and maybe that’s how they’ll remember me and maybe that’s why they’ll read my books.
Four. I am forced to connect with people other than my family. Sad fact. Writing is an “internal” activity, and when you write deeply, you live in the world of your own mind - for a long, long time. It is good to connect with the real world again.
Five. I am allowed – within reason and quite lightly – to Show Off. No, not quite Oscar level, but I can act my characters, their moods and emotions as I talk about the books. I can show how a small idea can grow into a fantastic creation, or read aloud so that children listen for the rhythms of writing. I can use all this to show children that writing is not a dull dimly-lit sitting time, waiting for the next words. Writing has excitement and energy. And a bit of the dull stuff too.
Six. It helps with the ideas, although not as many as people imagine:“ Please Penny, will you make a story about our school?” - but the many oddities I see and hear keep the creative mind alert. (The half-eaten cake left in the teacher's fridge for five years? )
Seven. I can sell my books. Well, er, maybe. I like to sell my books. I want to sell my books. Furthermore, a hundred life-long blessings on the teacher and school that understands that fact, especially if they’re not organising a cheap book sale of other people’s books, sparkly pencils and pink pens at the same time. I – and any other visiting author - needs to sell books to stay in print. Think of it as a charitable act.
Eight. I earn money. Yes, money. This is an essential and at times overwhelming reason. Money buys me writing time. Money keeps the roof overhead, just about. Sometimes the balance between being Out There and At Home Writing is very difficult and more than one season I’ve got it wrong. No Writing Time means No Books.
Nine. I learn about the books children are reading now. On World Book Day this week I was working in a well-stocked primary school library. (The joy, the joy!) Seeing the books, and even the names of writing friends up there on the shelves made it feel a very happy place.
Ten. Easy-peasy. Despite all the little pinches to the ego, the triple layer of security checks, and the deep after-visit energy drop, I do school visits because I enjoy them.
And because I've got a free weekend for writing ahead.