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?