I took part last week in a semi-academic, semi-professional conference, organised by the University of Lyon, on author visits in schools, and I thought I'd sum up my paper here.
school visit by children's authors has never really been (as far as I
know) theorised, even though there are plenty of practical texts on the
matter, as well as many testimonies by authors, children and
practitioners. One interesting thing about school visits from a theoretical perspective is what
the norms and expectations surrounding the 'usual' author visit can
tell us about perceptions of reading, book-consumption, the status of
the author, or the space of the school in a given context.
My talk was about the 'typical' British school
visit - a very weird format from a French perspective, just as the
French format is very weird from a British perspective.
Here are the main differences between school visits normally in
Britain and in France (I insist on 'normally': there are, of course,
many exceptions in both countries, but there are norms in both
countries, and they more or less coherently construct and frame the
'genre' of the school visit). So, normally:
I'm sure you can already see what each configuration tells us about
the radically different ways in which author, reader, book and school
are positioned in those two national and cultural contexts.
The author in Britain is placed in the position of an actor and a promoter: s/he generates most of the content of the visit and is in the centre of a spectacular situation in the etymological sense of the word:
Meanwhile, the author is France is very much in the position of an authority, whose secret knowledge has to be 'unlocked', for the whole hour, by the children's questions:
The reader is placed in a different situation, too, in each context.
In the British context, the reader is always also addressed as a consumer, or potential consumer, of the book, which
is ready in the room somewhere to be bought; spatially as well as
temporally, the school visit is oriented at least to some degree towards
the book sale.
In France, conversely, the reader is always also addressed as a student of the book. Since
selling anything in the school, or doing any kind of advertising is
strictly forbidden in France, there is no space or time for the act of
buying the book during the visit. Instead, the child reader must show
that they have read and studied the book well, and the teachers'
preparation in this respect is crucial.
This means, too, very different implications as to why the book is good, or what it is good for. The British school visit sets up the book as a product to be acquired for the pleasure of the child, should the child's choice be to acquire it after being convinced by the author visit.
In France, there's no such emphasis on either the child's choice, or indeed pleasure; it's the teacher whose choice it is to
make the class study this book rather than another, with pedagogical
considerations at stake (which doesn't mean that it's not pleasurable).
this may seem a 'good' thing for the British school visit - and indeed,
reading for pleasure is hugely valued in Britain in a way that it isn't
in France - it also means that in Britain the book is very much positioned by the event of the school visit as a commercial product. And the pressure to buy it is strong for parents, which isn't unproblematic from a sociological perspective.
the space of the school is invested differently by the two types of
author visit. In the British context, the author visit can be understood
as partaking in the use of the school space as, on the one hand, a place of discovery, pleasure, fulfillment, creativity
- values much more developed on this side of the Channel than in
France. But, on the other hand, the author visit also partakes in the use of the school as a place where the values of consumerism are transmitted, in a more or less tangible manner, and cultural goods are treated as products almost like any others.
In France, the author visit is inscribed within the rather unitary use of the school as a space for learning, pedagogy and the glorification of a certain type of culture, chosen by established wardens of that culture: teachers.
I'll stop here (I'll probably write it up as an academic paper soon). It's worth mentioning that there are yet other models of school visits in the world;
as another paper by French academic and author Bernard Friot showed,
the German author visit generally consists of a long reading, followed by a Q&A, for instance - not a norm for either the Brits or the French.