Sunday, 2 October 2011

BOOKSELLER SUNDAYS - Gamekeeper turned Poacher, by Tamara Macfarlane of Tales on Moon Lane


One of a series of guest blogs by booksellers who work with children’s authors in different ways. These guest blogs are designed to show life behind the scenes of a crucial but neglected relationship – the one between a writer and a bookseller. These days, such relationships are more intense and more important, as increasing numbers of authors go on the road to promote and sell children’s books – a goal shared by the booksellers who will contribute to this series.

Tamara’s first book, Amazing Esme, is just out with Hodder & Stoughton.

My own first author event – as an author – passed recently in a blur. I have yet to recall a word I said, as all that passed through my head for the entire session was, repeatedly, ‘It’s just an hour of my life. If I’m still alive at the end of it, how bad can it be?’

I had taken all the necessary precautions and a few extra ones. I had guaranteed myself a full and willing audience: it was an hour out of lessons and school. I would have to be really bad to stop those advantages winning the children over. I had learnt how to use prezi.com and I’d created what I thought was a really impressive presentation. I had rehearsed, collected props, remembered a few golden rules from my four years of teacher training and seven years in the classroom. And then I had gone one step further and enlisted the help of one of the best children’s entertainers in town, Gilbert Giggles.

A little over the top perhaps, but having been in the fortunate position of being a children’s bookshop owner, one who had organised and seen numerous fantastic author events, I of all people knew that the stakes were high. I had observed giant bogies being bounced around auditoriums, been fascinated by virtual tours of exotic places, been entertained by re enactments of bloody battles, seen fake sick in a bag and watched countless teachers climb into wigs and giant pairs of knickers.

I have also, perhaps just as importantly, seen some terrifyingly dull events, the kind where you mourn desperately for the hour of your life that you’ve just had stolen from you, the kind where you daydream of piercing your own ear drums with a couple of HB pencils and you start wondering why the children haven’t realised that they’ve got the advantage in terms of numbers, and, if they got organised, they could overthrow the dull event that’s torturing them. Having resisted the urge to rally the children to arms, on the basis that it would be unprofessional, I resigned myself to using the time to work out how to avoid falling into the same trap.

At Tales on Moon Lane, author events are a vital part of what we do. Done well, they offer a rare kind of symbiotic magic where all involved parties come away happier people. They genuinely offer children an open door into literature by opening the book for them, showing them the way in and enough of the workings to create questions. They make the possibilities tangible and offer the idea that the hard work (that reading is for many children) might just offer them a genuine return of pleasure and interest.

For a generation of children, many of whom arrive at school without having ever owned a book, this experience isn’t just an escape from death by phonics. It is essential.

At the shop we also have a cosy little room at the back where we run a small after-school book club for especially keen readers. These lucky children are often addressed by the authors of the books they are reading. And we have been known to supply cupcakes with book illustrations printed on the icing, just to make the storytelling go down even more pleasurably. It’s little things like that which can make all the difference.

And so, with the weight all of this experience on my shoulders, I stepped out on to the stage at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and wondered what on earth gave me the right to demand these children’s time and attention – because on the other side of what authors bring to children is the fact that no other industry would conceivably be expect their top salesperson to be supplied with 300 children for an hour of direct marketing. Authors are after all also at author events to sell their books, not just to entertain. It is not heroin or junk food that they are peddling, but it is still a sales pitch. And on top of this authors are quite frequently being paid to stand there and sell their own merchandise. Does this view cheapen books? It’s a tough marketplace out there. A huge number of authors make their livings from events and yet the book sales at the end of the event would not cover their train fair in many cases. But I think that authors need to consider the other side of the picture when planning their events. Are they offering schools that can barely scrape together money for enough support staff true value for money? If not, what should this value for money look like?

At TOML, we spend a great deal of time going to watch author events and getting to know the schools with which we work really well, in the hope that when we stage one ourselves, there will a happy marriage of expectation and delivery. Many excellent author events have fallen on stony ground because the publishers have been misguided about the target age group or because the literacy co-ordinator was hoping for a session of deep literary insight and ended up in a giant pair of knickers. There are a few wonderful authors who can cross all these boundaries, but it is a lot to expect form anyone not trained at the RSC.

Have changed from gamekeeper to poacher, I’m understanding that a lot better these days.


Tales on Moon Lane website
Amazing Esme website

27 comments:

Penny Dolan said...

Tamara, thanks for your last paragraph about matching the author with the needs & wishes of the school.

Personally, I'm never sure if, for example, giant bogeys do actually aid a love of reading or undestanding of book though they make for a memorable and often highly praised event. Perhaps it's the sense of true "playfulness" that an author reveals in the session is the magic ingredient, whatever the quantity of props or lack of silly knickers?

Good luck with the new book!

Joan Lennon said...

Both Penny and I were up early because of our respective cats, so it's nice to have your post to read in the rain and the gloom. (A day when you can understand a cat not being keen on peeing outside.)
The best events, like the best books, come in all shapes and sizes, but the passion for the story stays the same.

Lucy Coats said...

This is brilliant, Tamara - and wonderful that you have insights into and experience of so many spheres. You've kicked Bookseller Sundays off to a great start. I've never heard of prezi.com, so off to have a look at it. Always looking to improve my author events!

Josh Lacey said...

Very interesting. Writers going to schools and talking to children often feel great pressure to be funny, to be rewarded with great gales of laughter, but I can't help thinking that the best events are often much quieter, focusing on the more difficult and introverted pleasures of books. If children want to giggle, they can just turn on the telly, but how often do they hear from someone about the realities of writing a book, telling a story, following a character through page after page, wondering where he or she is going to lead you?

Katherine Langrish said...

Absolutely. For me, the whole idea of an author visit is to get all the children in the class/audience - including the disruptive one and the so-called 'poor readers' - to enjoy themselves and realise that stories are fun (and happen to come packaged in books). It's invigorating and exhausting in about equal amounts!

Pippa Goodhart said...

I'm another bookseller turned writer, Tamara. Is there a word to describe that particular morphing of careers? I'm sure there are lots of us about.
My experiences as bookshop host to authors, and as an author speaker, suggest that either the quiet, thoughtful, but really interesting, approach, or the all bells and whistles laugh-out-loud kind of approach can work equally well, if done wholeheartedly and by an author who clearly likes their audience. Badly done, one style leads to yawns, the other to cringe - not sure which is worse!

adele said...

Have just lost a long comment. Trying again! First of all, thanks for a very interesting post, Tamara and good luck with your book.
Second...I'll try and make this shorter...events work best when organized in such a way, and usually by wonderful booksellers like Sonia Benster and Sue Steele and Andrew Cant that the children and the books are in the same room together. I try very hard NOT to say: buy my books. I hope very much that no bookseller has ever been driven to contemplate self-mutilation while I've been speaking...and thanks to Josh for his comment. All I do is talk to the children and let them ask tons and tons of questions and answer them. There is no vomit or bogies involved at all. I try and wear earrings and scarves etc that the girls at least can look at if they're bored...that's as far as I'm prepared to go with dressing up! Enjoy all your own events, Tamara! That's half the secret, I reckon. If you''re having fun, the audience generally is too.

alberridge said...

Wonderfully interesting post, Tamara - thank you. I'm beginning to suspect those of us who write for adults could learn from all this too.

I don't think it's ever patronising to bring props or costumes or anything that makes the past seem more real, because those things excite me personally - except possibly the big knickers. But I do love swords, I love handling genuine artefacts from my period, I love sharing them, and I agree 100% with Adele that if the writer's enjoying herself then the audience are more likely to do the same.

Of course if I get arrested at my next event for arriving in giant knickers and threatening the audience with a 6' rapier then I am going to blame YOU.

Lynda Waterhouse said...

Lovely to hear from you. Tales on Moon lane is legendary in my neck of the woods. Thank you also for your part in organising the Southwark Reading Festival. I think you have highlighted the need to clairfy just what is expected from both sides from an author visit. Sometimes I work with a dancer and sometimes its a much quieter affair.

michelle lovric said...

Like you, Tamara, I don’t see any natural synergy between writing and performing. They seem worlds apart. Even the RSC couldn’t train me to enjoy the stage. When I first started out with eventing, it was a terrible shock, and I was moved to whine about it on ABBA here.(http://awfullybigblogadventure.blogspot.com/2009/11/golem-michelle-lovric.html in case the hyperlink doesnt work.)

But now that I am much more aware of what the booksellers (not to mention publishers, publicity people and agents) put into these things, that two-year-old ABBA piece seems ungrateful to me. As you rightly point out, the children also put something valuable into it: they give us their attention, and that deserves repayment. I’m with you, Adele, I don’t ever try to sell the books. Instead I talk about the parallel world I inhabited when I wrote it. Any child can visit that world during an event, even if they are not a reader or cannot afford a book. I have seen a children’s event where the well-known author sold her books very hard, and it was quite distasteful.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Like Adele... also lost my comment a moment ago. Blogger playing up. Thank you Tamara for highlight thta perverse thing of being a writer and a performer. And like Josh I think the best moments for me have been when I've lowered my voice and being able to engage in a much more mysterious and magical way. But we all have our good days and our bad days... that never again experience! Of course having a session in a wonderful bookshop helps. Good luck with the book Tamara.

H.M. Castor said...

A timely and very useful post for me - thank you, Tamara - as I'm about to embark, in just a couple of days, on what seems to me right now a terrifying schedule of events! I am hugely grateful that I've got the chance to do them - I've done very few before, and those have been spread over 25 years, so I've never really got into my stride. But I must say I'm intimidated both by the stories of other authors' riotously entertaining events (oh, how I envy people who are naturally funny!) and also by my very strong desire to deliver something that's as good as possible... something to capture the attention of those reluctant readers, to make all the children feel that meeting an author is something special & intriguing... not to mention my terror of being a total & utter flop. My events range from primary school audiences to sixth-formers, so I'm needing to prepare several different approaches. This article is immensely helpful, as are the comments. Adele, re your scarves & earrings, I remember the wonderful artist and author Sarah Garland telling me years ago when she turned up to an event in some fantastic stripy tights that at least they would give the kids something to look at! (But she didn't need them; she could draw wonderful spontaneous pictures of their teachers... Oh how I envy that skill too!)

Leila Rasheed said...

Thanks for this very interesting post. I agree with the comments above that it's important not to merely entertain the children. A good thing to do is learn to run simple creative writing workshops for children, and base your visit around that - they will get more real pleasure and lasting value out of making up their own poem or story than out of a stand-up act. Children like to *do* things, if you can get them doing, thinking, making, they won't get bored. And if they do get bored? Well, I started writing because I was bored in a school lesson... and look where it got me :)

Jennie Walters said...

Very interesting post, Tamara. I'm sure your event was great and that you captured Amazing Esme's sense of fun! Agree with Leila that sometimes it's good to get children writing themselves but workshops can be hard to organise without teaching experience and knowhow. I found it often depends how I feel on the day, and timing is crucial too. I once had one poor class for 1 1/2 hours - nightmare for both parties!

Miriam Halahmy said...

Lovely to hear about author events by someone who has stood on both sides of the events. I think that this is something we are all thinking about improving all the time because ultimately we want the children to enjoy being with us and for that enjoyment to be mutual. Many thanks for starting off this wonderful series for us on ABBA.

Linda B-A said...

What a great article - though it puts fear in my veins, too. You're right, when budgets are so tight, schools who pay for author visits deserve to get value for money. I guess the bottom line is that they want the children to be inspired to read more. Performance, though, as we all know, makes demands that are not necessarily compatible with writing. I am sure none of us sets out to be boring or cringe-makingly over-the-top but it is sometimes difficult to gauge the audience beforehand. There are some great natural performers be they funny or serious or both: others of us, really have to work at it. I think Josh is right about the potential effectiveness of the quiet events. One of the most enjoyable author events I've been to had Justin Stomper being a pirate followed by Dianne Hofmeyr talking about Egypt with accompanying slides, music and artefacts. But I've also seen Michael Morpurgo simply read his book and that was magical, too. Good luck with the events, Tamara.

Linda B-A said...

Sorry! I meant to write Justin Somper...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Stomper's good Linda. That day Justin was truly 'stomping out'his pirate lyrics. He does his presentations with such swashbuckling style and sweeps the audience along.

Linda B-A said...

And you, Dianne, got us all in the mood with your wonderfully evocative music - a technique which I always intended to copy but never quite got around to...

Keren David said...

I was lucky enough to persuade Ann Jungman to come to my son't school last year to address the whole school and staff, plus many grandparents and parents. She kept the whole hall enraptured, first by the quality of her prose, when she read out one of her stories, second by telling us about her life as a writer - managing to inform and entertain everyone from reception to the oldest grandparent. No props or stand-up, just someone who was honest, interesting and a good writer. I think a background in teaching helps as well!

Nicola Morgan said...

Well done and good luck with your book!

"ended up in a giant pair of knickers" - ah yes. I saw something like that once...

Savita Kalhan said...

A great post - and very interesting to hear the other side of it, too. I was once with Alexander Gordon Smith, who came equipped with props and jokes, and had a few hundred secondary school kids eating out of his hands. I had to follow him, which, as a complete newbie then, was one of the most terrifying experiences I've ever had!
Best of luck with your book!

Emma Barnes said...

It's wonderful to hear the perspective of the bookseller on events - I agree it is a privilege to address our readers so directly, although sometimes a terrifying one!

My own aim is to make the event fun and entertaining, while conveying a couple of more serious points - about the lasting joys of reading, or that everyone, however bad at spelling, can tell stories - which they can take away with them. Also not to break my ankle jumping off a platform, as almost happened at a schools' event last week!

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Thanks for the post, Tamara. I hope you enjoy your school visits. love talking to children,reading to them and showing them the artifacts I've lugged all the way from the station. My aim is for the children to have fun and to become more interested in reading. Also for the teachers to go away with lots of ideas for follow-up activities. I find that the biggest thrill for many children is to meet a real live author and to find out how books are made. Such an adventure.
Wishing you good luck with the book.

Barbara Mitchelhill said...

Thanks for the post, Tamara. I hope you enjoy your school visits. love talking to children,reading to them and showing them the artifacts I've lugged all the way from the station. My aim is for the children to have fun and to become more interested in reading. Also for the teachers to go away with lots of ideas for follow-up activities. I find that the biggest thrill for many children is to meet a real live author and to find out how books are made. Such an adventure.
Wishing you good luck with the book.

Sue Purkiss said...

Fascinating post, and very reassuring comments too - reassuring in that they demonstrate the variety of styles that work. (And you do know when it works, don't you? That sense of rapt stillness when you're reading ...)

What is likely to lead to a very dark teatime of the soul is when you turn up for an event and there's no-one there - which can happen when the organiser is new to the game. You really feel for the organiser - but you're secretly convinced that it's really your fault because you're just not interesting enough!

Thanks for the post, Tamara.

Julia Golding said...

School events for me have ranged from the inspiring (amazing kids and schools) to the downright disheartening (unengaged teachers). I'm not sure they are ever 'value for money' in the sense of generating enough sales immediately (unless the books go on the bill) so I do them to be in touch with my readers and encourage a sense of fun and adventure in reading. Reflecting on this, I probably in the end get more back than I give even though I always come home feeling totally exhausted and filled with respect for teachers. Also, if reports that the reading habit is dying are to be believed, we should be out there planting the seeds in the new generation.