Wednesday 1 March 2023


This week is Book Week so there must be plenty of authors travelling to schools near and far, ready to share their love of books and writing with all sorts of children in all sorts of schools. 

After days working alone at home, I loved doing school visits. I welcomed being inside buildings bright with childrens art works and filled with friendly, cheerful voices. I enjoyed the buzz of the children's energy, their pleasure in the sessions and all their suggestions. I admired the dedication of so many inspirational teachers and teaching assistants and Head Teachers who clearly led with both heart and mind, despite the constant pressures of Ofsted and budget management. I appreciated the fact that the school - or a particular teacher or librarian - had chosen me as their "Book Week Visitor", knowing that my visit would have involved them in extra work. 

So much about school visits was great and my thanks go out to them all. So many happy memories!

                                      File:03270001 Welsh Daffodils.jpg - Wikipedia

However, in truth, some moments weren't quite as rosy or pleasant and I must say that I needed to tighten my imaginary "Author" iron corset whenever I heard any of the following:

1.  "Yes, the school gates are locked now. The caretaker goes off for his breakfast between 8.30 and 9.30 and takes the key with him. You won't be able to get into that car park. You'll have to park up the road. Did you bring much stuff with you?"

2."Agh! Give me strength! It's only Wednesday and I've already had enough of this . . . .  Book Week."

 3. "As you can see, it's Dressing Up Day today and we always make a big thing of it in our school. The children get so excited and they love seeing all their teachers in fancy dress too. Just wait till you see  Miss Y dressed as Cruella de Vil. And as for Mr  Z? He's just hilarious. We were in stitches in the staff room. And will you help with the judging? What did you say your name was?"

 4. "Just to say that the school photographer is here today too so children will be going in and out of your sessions quite a lot. "

5. "Books? We've had the Mega-Stock Book Fair in all week and the children can go during breaks and bring the parents in after school. We could put a small table up  in the corridor and you could sell your books there? Though I'm not sure what we'll do about the money."

6. "Him? He was great, wasn't he, last year? I loved how he played his his guitar and made up songs and told jokes and made all the children and teachers laugh. Sigh. We couldn't afford him this year."

7. "Now, children, this lady . . . erm? Ah, Penny Dolan. She's an author and she's come here to teach you all about how to use wow words and make your writing better, so button those lips. Its time to listen very very carefully."

8.  "We've been so busy finishing . . . insert famous book title . . . that we haven't had time to read your book. We did show them the cover, didn't we? Well, I know some of us did."

9. "Sorry you've had to wait. I did ask Mr H to come and set up the IT, but he's busy with something down the other end of the school. I'm sure he'll be here soon. Anyway, here come all the children."

10. "Are you sure you're meant to be here today? I'll go and check . . ."

None of the above are really so very terrible. The words were spoken in the busy moment, often to explain one situation among many going on in the school that day. The speakers were usually trying to be helpful. Yet, on a tiring day, after a bad night's sleep and a long journey through traffic, not totally encouraging. Never mind. Tighten the iron corset. Onwards. Smile. It's showtime!

Of course, these moments were in the past, before the pandemic and zoom visits and so on. Things have probably changed for Visiting Authors now and, besides, there are useful, helpful agencies like Authors Aloud who make you feel someone is in your corner. 

Happy Book Week and Happy St  David's Day too!

                                     File:03270001 Welsh Daffodils.jpg - Wikipedia

  Penny Dolan


Lynne Benton said...

Love these, Penny! Especially "The photographer's in today, so the children will be in and out of your sessions quite a lot...!" Ah yes, I remember that well!

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks, Lynne. Thankfully, there wasn't a day when all of these came at once!

Sue Purkiss said...

All so horribly familiar! Thanks, Penny - this made me smile!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Penny - I loved this!

Susan Price said...

Oh lord, yes, Penny! I could tick off all of them. I tried to keep in mind who was paying the piper and that I could be in a noisy factory, turning screws on a lathe all day, like my aunt, and then digging bits of metal out of my fingers with a needle in my spare time. I tried to remember that being paid to be mildly insulted in a school was a much better deal... But still, yes, had to grit the teeth in a snarl/smile many times.

Penny Dolan said...

I have been thinking about why all these moments lodged in my mind when there were so many happy and good moments and such great, empathetic teachers about who did all they could to make their author welcome and the visit a success for all.

I ownder if one is so sensitive to these comments because of the conflicts within the "Visiting Author" role itself?

The author, usually something of an introvert and used to working in a fairly solitary way and social situation, is suddenly faced by the full "machine" of the school's organisation: meeting all its own professional & non-professional heirarchies and practices and quirks. (Having been a teacher before can make school visits less of an onslaught.) So very many of them and only one of you!

However, the "Book Week Author" does seem to be expected (both for the children's education and to justify the finance) to Have A Presence and Make an Impact. The school wants the children to believe that Writing Is A Good Thing, a positive aspirational activity, not just the work the children do every day in class,and give them some useful talks and tips and lead worthwhile workshops.

Although as a Visiting Author, one can learns to meet much of this expectation, to enjoy the fun of the sessions and to contribute to the sense of occasion as best one can, sometimes there's the sense of an underlying current of gentle - or stronger - hostility. It can be an understandable annoyance that a timetable has had to be changed and your (hopefully entertaining) sessions are taking up the actual, irreplaceble minutes and hours out of their day. There's a shadow of this when some teachers sit marking during a session, too busy to be able to join in, or even come into the session.

There was also, occasionally, a "money for old rope" resentment: the sense of a grudge borne because what you do seems so easy-peasy that Any Fule Could Do It if only they had the luxury & privilege of spare time. Besides, didn't they write and/or put on the whole school show last term and it was the best ever? Who does this woman - sadly, it often seemed to me to be a gender issue - think she is?

Also, schools are so poorly financed that there can be a genuine concern about the "waste" of money, when staff feel the school - or their class or school team - has other needs and they cannot yet see the good things that can come out of an Author Visit.

It often seemed to me - the Visiting Author could be both WANTED and NOT WANTED at the same time. Welcomed and resented. A pleasure or an annoyance. A welcome addition to the week or an inconvenience. Oh, one could definitely wish for a thicker skin at times.

All one can do is quietly shrug, smile and continue, no matter how you felt the set-back or interruption, telling yourself that you are Worth It - and Being Worth It too, of course. And being glad when you were and everything was fine and grateful for the people in schools who were there to help.

Apologies. My additional comment seems to have turned into an essay. Or rant.
Good wishes, and may all your own Author Visits be happy and go easily.

Steve Way said...

Penny, like Lynne I relate to all of the statements and situations, having experienced similar versions of all of them. Several schools seemed to like to put me in a room next to the kitchen where the bashing about of pots and pans meant even I couldn't hear myself. Also half way through the session, just at a significant point in the proceedings, the dividing wall would be removed and the kitchen staff would force us out of the room. Later the head would complain that the session wasn't as successful as she'd hoped, which of course it wasn't having ended far sooner than intended.
However, as for you, most of the visits were a joy! :)