Wednesday, 7 January 2015

On school visits....a school librarian's perspective from Dawn Finch

When I first started doing author visits as a published author, it wasn't really new to me. I’d been doing them for a very long time, but it had always been from the other side of the table (so to speak) as I spent ten years as a school librarian. During that time I’d learned a lot from the good visits, and even more from the bad ones. One day I'll blog about those, but only if I'm so rich and famous that the people concerned won't be able to afford to come after me!
 I’m the Vice President of CILIP, but was previously the vice-chair of the London and South East School Libraries Group committee, and early in 2014, we had our annual LibMeet. Part of this day was taken up with a workshop about author visits. Money is tight in schools and, even though librarians know how inspiring an author visit can be, they find it hard to convince their leadership team to stump up the costs. One of the key things that came out of this discussion is that whilst a freebie is great, it’s genuinely not the deciding factor. All of the librarians said that they had turned down free offers from authors that they felt had little or no merit or who looked “poor quality”. It was very reassuring to discover that they are looking for quality and will pay if they can convince their head teachers and business managers that it is worth it.
When librarians gather....not a "ssshh" in the house!

So, what are they looking for? All of the librarians agreed that they were looking for pretty much the same things from an author visit. Some of these points will probably seem completely obvious to you, but I hope that you find at least a couple of useful things!
Before the visit and from the first approach….
·         An author who knows the school and has taken the time to find out the librarian’s name.  
It sounds like a minor point but every librarian liked it when an author emailed them in person, and mentioned something about the school.
·         A package.
It sounds obvious but a clear package for your visits can make you stand out. School librarians get dozens of emails and flyers each year offering author visits and most are clearly sent out as a bulk email and are ignored. Please put the price on, and include your expenses in the amount. All of the librarians said that they prefer seeing a clear package and would be far less likely to follow up an author who is cagey about the price as it creates awkwardness all round!
·         An author who offers something to contribute to lesson plans.
Time is short in schools and they don’t know your books as well as you do. If you can offer some ideas for lessons relating to your books then they are more likely to invite you in. Think about the key curriculum areas and refer to them in your plans. If your books don’t tie in to specific curriculum areas then look at PSHE (personal, social, health and emotional) issues instead.
·         A pre-visit pack
Librarians are very keen to have the children prepared for author visits and appreciate linked materials in advance. If you can spring for a copy of your latest book as well as some publicity material that can often be the clincher for a booking. If you are not able to send a copy of your book, extracts are appreciated. (Don’t forget to check with the librarian which extract they have read so that you don’t repeat it on the day!) Offer this material in both disc and email format. Include a pre-order form for your books in this pack so that the librarian can tweak, add school branding, and send it straight out.
·         Competitions
As part of your visit offer a competition – a free signed copy of your book for a story competition is usually the favoured one among both children and teachers. Offer to host the winning story on your blog or website, and interview the winner. If you include the details of the competition as part of your package the librarian can start that off with the English department long before you arrive.
On the day…
Feel the fear...and do it anyway!

During the visit the librarians and literacy coordinators are looking for key things that will make them consider the visit useful and purposeful (“purposeful” being one of Ofsted’s favourite words!)
They are looking for an author who…
  • ·         relates to students the importance of good and accurate research and how they accomplish it
  • ·         communicates with the students well and in an unpatronising way
  • ·         talks about the work of other authors, and about books that were an influence in their lives
  • ·         is able to show that they got where they are by working hard, and that working hard is enjoyable and rewarding
  • ·         is able to do a presentation with or without technology (not all schools can afford it)
  • ·         gives a presentation that is lively, engaging and witty (even for more serious books they are still looking for lively performances)
  • ·         shares the hardships of their lives with the pupils in an appropriate way (I won’t write here about the author I once booked who shared way too much….!)
  • ·         talks about other media and not just books. They like you to talk about comics, movies, plays, blogs, social media – not all children want to talk about books
  • ·         gives the same level of performance to ten children as to a hundred...or more.

Things that the librarians found helped the visit along…
A little bit of bribery helps! Authors who had badges, bookmarks or little treats as rewards for asking a “good” question, coaxed much better questions out of the pupils and were remembered for longer.
Bribes (ahem..sorry) incentives.
Repeat the question. Most children are a bit mumbly and confused when asking a question and often can’t be heard by the rest of the room. If you repeat their question loud enough for the other children to hear you can tidy it up a bit, and make sure that no one else is sitting with their hand up and the same question in their head!
Trying to be cool does not help at all! The “cringe factor” can be the death knell of an author visit. Children have an expectation of mild eccentricity (ahem – speak for yourselves!) with authors and the ones who are a little like that are generally better received.
Keep moving. Make use of the stage or the area that you are presenting in and keep moving about. Young people drift off easily and if you keep moving, you are more likely to keep them engaged. Nothing wrong with being a little bit of a windmill at times!
Involve the pupils. Get them up to demonstrate something, or to be dressed up, or to wear a hat or hold a sign – anything that makes them part of the show will get all of the others sitting up and paying close attention. (I have a monk’s habit and pick a child to dress up, they love it, even very surly teens)
It's a bad habit, and I've no one to blame but myself.

After the visit…
"sooooo excited!" I love this picture.
Stay engaged after the visit, offer to help with a short story competition, or be interviewed for the school website or magazine. A few days after the visit (or when you send your invoice in) email the head teacher and thank them for inviting you to the school. (You’d be amazed how few authors say thanks after an event. I know you were working, but if you enjoyed it, please say so!) This is also a good time to email the librarian and send them a “further reading” list of other authors who write in a similar field to you.  You might also like to create an A4 poster of the books that influenced you so that the librarian can print this and display it in the library. After a successful author visit the pupils want to know more about the author and a couple of posters of “what influenced me” and “my favourite books” always go down well.
If a visit doesn't go very well it can often be saved after the event by an author being lovely and by staying engaged. I remember one visit when the author was not very well and he was obviously exhausted and not properly engaged in the process, and the children just didn't click with him. After the event he apologised and we did some online interviews and he sent some hilarious photos of him reading the children’s stories and in the end it worked out rather well – despite a terribly awkward visit!
Now, I can hear some of you screaming from the back, “what?! I don’t have time for all that! You've lost your mind woman!” Well, that is your choice of course and, if you are getting masses of bookings and repeat visits, then clearly you are already giving what people want. If you are GREAT BIG NAME, then you will be booked anyway and are possibly drowning in offers, but not all of us can claim that.
The bottom line is that librarians talk to each other. Most school librarians work alone and so to survive (and stay sane!) they have an extensive virtual network. There are almost a thousand members of CILIP SLG, and that's only a fraction of the school librarians in the country – and they all connect through various closed forums. If you are giving a fun, engaging, lively and purposeful visit then it will come up on the networks – and the same goes for a visit that doesn't go as well! The forums are often buzzing with “I've had an email from Miss Doobery Whatsit, children’s and YA author, anyone know what she’s like before I book?”
If you pitch it well, and give the librarians and schools what they need then your ears will burn as the forums light up with positive comments about you, and your email will run hot with bookings, and everyone wants that!


Written by Dawn Finch - School Library Consultant and author of Brotherhood of Shades

28 comments:

Rosalind Adam said...

Thank you for these pointers. I find school visits daunting even though the children are usually receptive to my patter about my Children's Book of Richard III. The questions are often the best. My favourite question, "Was Richard III King when you were young?"

Tamsyn Murray said...

Thanks, Dawn, this is really helpful. Reassured to know I've been ticking a lot of those boxes but not all!

Emma Barnes said...
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Sue Purkiss said...

Great post. And I love the monk's costume!

Emma Barnes said...

Dawn, thanks for a great post. As I do most of my school visits in primaries, I'm also very aware that the schools I visit don't usually have a librarian, and the organisational burden falls on a class teacher. So it's a lot of extra work for them, and I'm grateful.

As for the visits themselves - they are exhausting, sometimes challenging (trying to find the school can be the first challenge - a little easier now in the days of Satnavs) and I've eaten some very dodgy school dinners, but they are nearly always uplifting and enormous fun. (I just wish I kept notes of the ideas children suggest for my characters...)

Lucy Coats said...

Wow, Dawn! What a fantastic piece. So helpful. I am ticking most but not all of the boxes so will rethink some things. I'm just putting together two new school events, so will bear your advice very much in mind.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Excellent post Dawn and welcome to ABBA. All of your points are well worth all of us considering. I do find secondary school visits more difficult to get going than primary school ones, let alone college and uni visits. They are so SILENT! The way I warm up the older ones is to write scripts of scenes from my books and get volunteers ( sometimes with serious cajoling!) to come up and read them out. All tips gratefully received. Happy 2015.

Alex English said...

This is so helpful, Dawn. I've just come back from a school visit yesterday, which I think went well. There's clearly lots more that I can do to make it even better though!

sophiabennett said...

Thanks, Dawn! This is essential reading, and I'll be recommending it! As an author who loves doing school visits, and has been doing them for years, I still learned a lot. It's a rare and wonderful treat to hear the honest truth from the school and librarian's perspective. Most are far too polite to say what could have worked better. I'm making notes ...

C.J.Busby said...

Thanks, Dawn - very interesting! And some good things to remember. I'd not thought of producing an order form but of course it's a lot easier than each school having to write their own letter to parents! And I've seen the 'rewards' thing work really well with another author, although I think it's more useful in secondary schools. In primary, they are all so keen, I'd hate to have to pick out only a small selection to reward!

Eve Ainsworth said...

Dawn, this is so so helpful. I debut this year and I'm investigating best ways to work with schools. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences.

Sarah said...
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Sarah Webb said...

Great post, Dawn. Like Sophia and other writers, I love doing school visits. In Ireland we have a Govt scheme which sends writers out into schools and libraries all over the country, even onto remote islands - it's a wonderful experience. Some great tips there and I totally agree re getting the children involved. I get them to act out a scene from one of my books, complete with wigs! They love that! Thanks again, Dawn.

Anonymous said...

Fascinating post! But like Lucy, I only tick some of the boxes and trying to tick the others would exhaust me.But I'm OLD! In the days when I did lots of school visits, I like to think I did a good job and people enjoyed the sessions....Signing this as have had trouble posting and may have to be Anonymous!
Adele Geras

Tracy Hager said...

Sophia- you do excellent events!

Tracy Hager said...

Hi Dawn, this is excellent and certainly relevant to public library author events as well, although we don't need quite so much in the way of curriculum material. The only don't that I would add to your list is for the author not to be a prima donna or to be too pushy. I worked with one author that was an absolute nightmare - and you're right, librarians and booksellers talk. There's no reason why it shouldn't be a win-win for everyone involved. That said, Malorie Blackman and a few other authors have some excellent guidelines for schools hosting events, but we all know it goes both ways.

Natalie Yates said...

Thanks Dawn, this is excellent! I have a school visit on world book day this year - lots of information here to help me.

Dawn Finch said...

Thanks everyone, I'm so glad you've enjoyed this.
One thing that really does come up a lot with school librarians (and others who book author events) is the price. They are not against paying it, but they do want a clear, up-front price right from the start. If they feel they have to go back and forth to pin down a price, they are more likely to not bother even sending a query.
Be bold - put your fee on there!

Cavan Scott said...

What a brilliant post, Dawn. Thank you!

Lydia Syson said...

Quite unbelievably useful. Huge thanks for going through everything so carefully.

Susan Price said...

Thank you, Dawn - a very readable and useful post.

But can someone please define 'trying to be cool' for me? My Head of Science brother-out-law warned me against 'trying to be cool' (when I was explaining what I was planning to do during a school visit: and he asked!) As far as I know, I have never in my life tried to be cool, though admittedly, I am not clear what it means, if anything.

What I was trying to be, BOL, was memorable, which I don't think is the same thing.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Nice to hear the librarian's viewpoint for once. At least when you do schools visits, you will know what you would want. I can't do school visits because I AM the librarian(and class teacher). As a matter of fact, I do some of those things as the librarian. I am the one who offers treats and signed copies of the book for good questions(I let the author choose). I make sure in advance that the library has some copies and encourage students to read them. I make sure that I have read at least one of the author's books. Mine is a secondary library. I find that while nobody wants to ask first, a bit of bribery will get one question, then the others follow.
One time we were lucky enough to get a visit from the State Library Student Booktalkers event. They hadn't had enough bookings to make the event worth running at the State Library, so I had a call asking me if I wanted the event. With only two weeks notice, they let us gave it for free(the Head Librarian at the State Library persuaded our local council to pay). The authors were great and one of them was a teacher himself who had had to take a day's leave without pay to come(hence the importance of his author payment).
I bought them all fresh rolls and fruit and cake for lunch - we don't gave a school dinner program here - and I think they enjoyed it as much as the students did. One of our visitors was a first time novelist who has since won several awards. She is also an artist and showed the kids her concept drawings of her characters. You can guess whose book most of the students wanted to borrow afterwards. :-)

Sue Bursztynski said...

BTW, good thought asking the author to repeat questions. I've found some who didn't.

kathryn evans said...

I think what 'trying to be cool' means is acting as if you're one of the kids, down with them, using their language if and when it clearly doesnt' belong to you - pretending to be something you're not - kids can sniff out a fake from a million miles away.

kathryn evans said...

This is a fantastic post - am printing out for when the time comes!

Dawn Finch said...

I am planning to write another one for librarians about what authors want!
Someone who is expecting them....
A spot of lunch.....
A cup of tea and a biscuit....
Equipment that works....
A clear plan for the day.....
Prepared children....
A promptly paid invoice....
I'm sure you can all add to that list!

Daniel Blythe said...

Excellent post, and a great idea to follow it up with one about writers' expectations.

Some of the time - indeed, most of the time for me recently - it's not been the librarian doing the booking, but rather the head of English, or if it's a primary school, the deputy head or the head of Literacy. This should not really matter, but it does in practice often mean that the school's agenda is driven not by a desire to get kids reading and interested in books, but by the need to get results up. And so you find yourself invited in to work with a group of "4a" kids (or whatever), to sprinkle your magic writer dust and achieve in an afternoon what the teachers have not managed to do in 2 or 3 terms. It's something of a misunderstanding of what writers are for! (Although I love most of the suggestions above, I am a bit dubious about tying activities that closely into the curriculum. Perhaps I have been burned too many times by being treated like, essentially, a supply teacher!)

Someone who is expecting us... Oh, yes. I hate being met by someone I've had no dealings with on the phone or by email, and who has been roped in at the last minute to look after me, and who has not got the foggiest what kind of thing I write!

Debbie Dadey said...

Thanks Dawn for the great advice!