Saturday, 7 March 2015

On School Visits - part two - an author's perspective...

With World Book Day just behind us it is a time for authors to look back on the wonderful events that we've done to celebrate books, school libraries and librarians. I've had two brilliant events in the last week at schools where superbly talented and knowledgeable librarians had set up extraordinary days. These were the kind of days that make you realise exactly why you do it. Over the last two days everything just went so smoothly and the librarians made sure that everyone taking part - from author, to children, to parent helpers - was involved, engaged and valued.
This is just another tiny part of the essential contribution that school librarians make to the literary life of the school. I love school visits because they allow us to connect with the people who really matter - the young people who read our work, and the librarians who support it. I'm a needy soul I think, and there really is nothing quite like hearing how much they love your book and how much they love reading. I was chatting to a young student today and she looked aghast when I told her that not all schools are lucky enough to have a school librarian.
"But that's so wrong," she said, "it's not a library if it hasn't got a librarian in it."
Thirteen years old.
I'd vote for her.
The only Shades were ghostly....

However.....Not all visits are this perfect (not all of them have librarians!) and so, as a follow-upto my post last month about what school librarians are looking for in schoolvisits, here is a (light-hearted) piece about what authors are looking for. Of course I've never had any of these happen, and my last two days were the exact opposite. (If anyone is looking for some super-cool librarians to visit, just ask!)

So what is the author wish-list for a perfect school visit?

Someone who knows that we are coming
As wonderful as surprises are, authors are not particularly keen on arriving at schools to discover that they are the surprise. Travel does indeed broaden the mind, but nothing broadens the gap between enjoyment and frustration like travelling all the way to a school only to be greeted not with open arms, but with blank faces and total confusion.

We’re not talking about some kind of backstage bonanza here. No one is suggesting that schools provide a  hand-wrought chalice of only green M&Ms, or a marble sink filled with hand-peeled grapes, but a cup of tea is nice. Small point of advice; cans of fizzy drink are guaranteed to make an author wary - anyone could have shaken that one up, these are children after all. Refreshments are always appreciated, with biscuits being high on the list. It’s worth noting here that nothing crumbly or flaky should be provided. Some of us know all too well the horror of looking down on the train home and discovering a liberal coating of crumbly foodstuff on your clothing, and knowing that it was there through the whole presentation.
Aaargh - coconut in the cleavage!

A place to do the presentation
Now, I like a school tour as much as the next person, but touring a school in a muddled attempt to find a suitable room to do a presentation is not exactly a fun way to spend an afternoon. Whilst it can be interesting to peer into full classrooms and interrupt lessons in an apparently vague attempt to collect disgruntled frowns from teachers, it’s no way to make a living.

Prepared children who know our work
As children’s authors we thrive on the open enthusiasm of our young readers, however the blank expressions of children who have never heard of you can be more than a little disconcerting. We do our best to enthuse, but it is not easy with a susurration of “who is that?” rippling through the assembled group.

Equipment that works
Aged rock bands may well be keen on toning down their later lives with unplugged sessions, and we are certainly capable of unplugging when the need arrives. However if we've made plans to use certain pieces of equipment, we’d like them to work. Let’s leave the unplugged sessions to arty Hipster bands shall we?
"I think it's one of worked yesterday....ummmm...."

Teachers who pay attention
Yes, teachers are busy and overworked and have very little time spare in the day, however it is hugely depressing to attempt to enthuse a crowd of young people whilst the room is flanked with the lowered heads of teachers doing their marking (or possibly praying, or sleeping, or quietly planning an escape tunnel - could be any of these). Authors who discover this should be encouraged to make teachers stand up with their hands on their heads, or give them after-school detention, or impromptu ballet lessons, or dress them up as Christian Grey - they love that.

Book sales
Believe it or not, authors need to do exotic things like pay bills and eat and we do this by selling things called “books” and therefore it is helpful if we can do this during school visits. We can't always, and we don't mind if there is a good reason, but it's handy. Sometimes schools even have someone to sell the books for the author. This allows the author to feel more like an author, and less like a shady street hawker with a suitcase full of saucy postcards and fake watches.

Someone to write the children’s names down
Children have such wonderful and creatively spelled names these days, and said children also have a gift for expressing surprise that you have never heard of the particular spelling of their name. If there is someone to write down the names for you when you are signing books then you can be absolutely sure that Aleksarnderr, Klowee, Bry-Anne and Kay-Tea go home with the rosy glow of a correctly spelled name in their book.

A thank you from the Head
Yeah, I admit it, this one might be a flight of fancy. It's worth a shot.
Okay, so we'll happily settle for lovely thank-yous and questions from the pupils. 

A short list of things that authors are looking for, and I'm sure that you can add your own to this list. Having said all of this, I've never met a touring author who didn't enjoy doing school visits, even when the going gets tough. Oh, actually, that’s not true...I can think of at least one who....oh, and there was the one I met who.... save that for a much more private post!

Written by Dawn Finch - author of Brotherhood of Shades
twitter @dawnafinch


Susan Price said...

Great post, Dawn, and I certainly recogise some of those minuses from my long, long string of school visits.

But this World Book Day (and week) I've been truly lucky - The Arthur Mellows College near Peterborough, Cardinal Griffin High in Cannock, and Godolphin School in Salisbury. Every single one with enthusiastic teachers and librarians, rooms and equipment ready and waiting - and I hope everyone involved had as good a time as I did.

Sue Bursztynski said...

I'm afraid I can't offer book sales. My students don 't often have the money to buy books. I do usually buy a few copies out of my own pocket to offer as prizes; needless to say, I do make sure we have copies already in the library and at least two or three students who have read them. And put up posters to let the rest know a special visitor is coming. And feed the author, lunch as well as a cuppa. And ask beforehand what equipment they might need.

Penny Dolan said...

Laughing as I read these points, Dawn, especially the buying of books. Very often, although there's no option for selling your books, hidden somewhere in the building school are those vast trolleys from the Book People etc, ready to be wheeled out after your sessions. I feel a sense of ambivalence about this, as money made by those sales often goes towards the author's fee. A strange situation.

"Letter from the Head"? They do arrive, sometimes, but even an email of thanks from the "organising" teacher is welcome - and three cheers for those people who, during the visit, tell you that they really did enjoy that session!

Emma Barnes said...

I've visited three schools this week. As they were primary schools, they didn't have full-time librarians to call on, which meant that all the set-up and rushing around on the day was done by class teachers, who have a lot of other demands on their time - which made me appreciate their organisation and the warm welcome all the more.

Dawn Finch said...

I was going for a lighter-touch with this one, but sadly I've been reading about some really chaotic school visits from the last few days. I think that a good amount of the trouble is caused by senior leadership teams still not seeing how important and useful an author visit is. Nothing motivates young writers better and I've seen first-hand how a well run visit can change lives.