Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Putting Pressure on Pupils? - John Dougherty

I love doing school visits.

I love writing, too, but it would drive me mad if I spent all my waking, or at least working, hours alone in my shed. I like - no, I need - to get out there and perform, too.

I’ve been doing a lot of it lately. I suspect it’s proximity to both World Book Day and the end of the financial year that leads to the annual rash of bookings throughout late February and much of March; but whatever the reason, it’s been great to get out of the confines of my admittedly lovely shed and meet both children and staff at a real variety of schools, from Gloucester to Bedford and from Leicester to Exeter.

There’s always the occasional niggle in school visit season. Inevitably, at some point, somebody at some school somewhere will do something to cause offence. When this happens, it’s important to keep things in perspective. What was said may not have been exactly what was meant; that omission was probably a genuine oversight; teachers are busy people who should be forgiven for not always being able to keep every single plate spinning. Yes, I’ve just driven for two hours to get here; but she may have spent the last forty-five minutes trying to control an uncontrollable Year 5. And, of course, while the best school visits - the ones where the children have been prepared for my visit and are excited about meeting a Real Live Author - are also usually those on which I get treated like a celebrity, it’s important not to let that go to my head and expect the red carpet treatment everywhere.

There was, however, one niggle from this round which has stayed with me, and I really don’t think this one is down to me being a diva (or whatever the masculine form of diva is. Div, probably).

You see, I always finish my school visits with a book signing. Yes, it’s good to earn a little extra income from selling books - most of us aren’t terribly well-off - but that’s not why I do it. Nor is it to soak up a little more adoration - very often it’s when they meet you one-to-one that they say something that brings you back down to earth. No, the book signing is much more important than that.

More than anything else, the reason I do school visits is to promote reading for pleasure. I’m passionate about it. I believe that a school - especially a primary school - that doesn’t at least try to get its pupils reading for pleasure is failing in one of its most important duties. And in my sessions, I do my utmost to link reading and fun.

For me, the signing session is an important way to do that. If a child has been inspired by the day, and is bursting with fresh enthusiasm about reading, it’s good to provide the option of a focus for that enthusiasm; and a book signed by The Author can be just the thing. It can become a treasured, even a totemic, item, invested with significance.

Obviously, not every child will need such a focus - many of them will have books at home that already have particular significance, and for many some all books will be equally special, signed or not. But the signing session means that children are at least offered the option of buying a book which, for some, will be their first Special Book - and, for some, might even be their first book of any sort.

So what’s my niggle? It’s that one of the schools I visited recently refused to allow a signing session. The visit was arranged for me by a librarian, who sent a very apologetic email saying that “the Head was absolutely adamant that she did not want kids from their deprived backgrounds being under any pressure to buy books.”

I’ve got two problems with this. Firstly - and maybe this is me being a bit of a div - I take offence at the suggestion that I might put children under pressure to buy books. While I love it when I sell a lot of books, it’s absolutely fine by me if no-one buys even one, as long as they’ve been given the chance. In fact, sometimes the most special book sales are the ones where nobody turns up, and just as I’m packing up to go home, a child appears, breathless, having run all the way home to get enough money to buy one.

Secondly, and more importantly: books are special. Even my books. Yes, some kids may not be able to afford one, but considering that most parents in the UK, however poor, will buy their children some kind of treat from time to time, surely it’s a positive message to suggest that, this once, that treat might be a book?


catdownunder said...

I once spent a short time working in a school where almost all the children came from very, very poor families. We arranged with a visiting author that we would buy a copy of each of his books for the school library.
On the day I found the children had pooled their 1 cent and 2 cent pieces (we still had them back then) so that they could buy a book to share. They did this because they "thought it was polite". The author had great difficulty in saying anything at all after that - and so did I!

John Dougherty said...

Gosh, Cat, how lovely! I don't really know what to say either!

Anonymous said...

That almost made me cry.
John, I assume you are happy to sign almost anything else? Bookmarks, postcards, corners torn out of exercise books?

Sarah Taylor-Fergusson said...

You can't help but worry that telling you how you're going to do your visit might introduce a thin end of the wedge, whereby authors are no longer invited into schools for being 'troublesome'. I'm sure there are already far too many schools where cuts have meant that they have no budget for an author's travel expenses and so these visits don't happen.

When I was an impecunious editor in my twenties (still am impecunious, although no longer in my twenties!), I went to a talk David Almond gave. It was superb. Afterwards, although I genuinely couldn't afford the 6 quid needed to buy one of his books, I joined the signing queue - and asked him to sign my free hand-out Almond bookmark. I still have it! He probably thought I was a cheapskate, but I enjoyed saying hello and telling him how much I liked his writing.

Katherine Langrish said...

I'm sure John probably does sign bits of paper - we all do. When I'm being efficient, I remember to bring along pre-signed postcards to hand out. The problem about signing in situ is you can then end up with a queue of anything up to 120 children all wanting their hands, arms or exercise books signed, plus extras for their friends who couldn't be there. Chaos!

John Dougherty said...

Absolutely, Bookwitch. I never sign body parts, and I almost never sign books written by someone else - I tell the kids it would feel like taking credit for someone else's work - but if a child wants me to sign a reading record, a bookmark, or even the tiniest scrap of paper, it's an honour.

Gillian Philip said...

I sign body parts (arms only! though I think I once did a face!) and bits of paper - and posters if I've remembered to take them. But just on Tuesday I was at a school where the librarian had printed out dozens of self-designed bookmarks ready for the students, which were brilliant - I'm going to do some myself for next time. It was so simple I was kicking myself wishing I'd thought of it earlier (Vistaprint don't do bookmarks!)

Leila said...

I despair, I really do. Time was that people would go without food to afford books. I don't think they should go without a baked potato with cheese and coleslaw plus a coke to buy *my* books, particularly, (£5.99 - about the same) but where are people's priorities? A book is far more affordable, valuable and important than a computer game, a chocolate bar, a subscription to Sky TV, or a new pair of trainers. The teachers should be encouraging the parents to spend money on things that will be good for their children - like books.

Ms. Yingling said...

This was a very helpful post. I have not been able to have any author visits yet, but if I ever do I certainly hope the author will feel like a celebrity! If authors would bring their own books to sell, that would be lovely, because I don't know that I would be able to obtain any for the students to purchase.