When you’re an author for children and teens, school visits are an inescapable part of your year. Sometimes they come singly, most often in clumps at various key times: here in Australia, Children’s Book Week in August sees a little army of writers banging the drum for books and writing in classrooms and libraries all around the nation. But there are plenty of other times too when school visits dominate your time, and last week was one of those for me, when I had to visit eight schools in three days, turning myself from quiet writer at her desk with a head full of mind-adventures into extrovert entertainer persuading a class of rowdy kids that hey, reading is actually, y’know, cool!
And though a heavy program like the one I had last week makes me feel that rather than banging the drum for books, I’m actually turning my own poor aching head into a drum, and my throat is packing up as though it’s staging a protest against the sound of my own voice, and the whole ‘isn’t reading fun, folks?’ thing is beginning to pall just a little, the fun stories I’ve prepared feeling like some kind of irritating recorded message to my ears, still I enjoy it. It’s not just getting the chance to connect with your actual readership, and to spin stories to a generally appreciative audience who unlike me has never heard those stories before and just laps them up. It’s not just the pleasure of having it confirmed that despite what many adults believe, children read just as much as ever they did, and in pretty much the same patterns as when I was a child.
That is, a minority read heaps; a majority read sometimes; a minority never read unless they’re forced to. But it’s especially question time which to me is the best, most enjoyable and unpredictable part of a school visit. Sure, those old stalwarts Where do you get your ideas from or How long does it take to write a book always get first launch, but that’s the icebreaker for a fleet of wonderfully, weirdly assorted others, of the sort adults would never ask. I’ve had everything ranging from the unblinkingly plodding How many pages was your longest book, to the breathtakingly lyrical, How did you know what it was like to be me; from the strictly practical How much money do you make to the startlingly moving, Are your parents proud of you; from the social-climbing Are you famous, to the hilariously random, What sort of birthday cake did you have? Last week I had some unforgettable ones, from the very focussed: How old do you have to be before you can become a publisher? (not an author, mind you, a publisher, now there’s ambition!) to the stumper Who do you idolise? One little boy came running after me after I finished one session, with a piece of paper clutched in his hand. Miss, I want to give you titles of books, in case you need some, he said. They’re mine, because I’m going to write lots of books, but you can have them. And there they were, in spidery writing at the very bottom of his scrap of paper (with their original spelling): horor fest. husky scream of the banshee. rise of nightmares. I thanked him very much, feeling so touched and honoured, and he nodded, equably, one writer to the other.
They are not always writing-related questions or comments, either: one child at a school last week, who’d been listening with big eyes to my stories of being brought up in France, came out with this puzzler: Do they have hot water in France? When, baffled, I said that, yes, they did, he sighed and said, Oh, I thought it was one of those poor countries. Where they eat rice.
Because I’ve done so many school visits over the years, I’ve pretty much got to know what works and what doesn’t, and I thought I’d pass on a few tips here, for those authors starting out on what can seem like a daunting prospect.
- Tell stories about your childhood–funny ones, dramatic ones, etc. Even for non-readers, who are going to be bored listening to too much talk about books or writing, that works.
- Have a ghost story or two up your sleeve–especially ones ‘that are true,’ that have ‘happened to me or people I know.’ A sure-fire winner!
- Talk about the inspiration of books, kids are fascinated by ideas, by how you got the idea. They aren’t so interested in the writing process, though teachers often like you to talk about it, so I always mention it, the editing, etc, but briefly.
- Kids are fascinated by covers and how they come to be chosen. Show kids how covers get chosen: I often bring along different versions of covers and ask them to guess which one we went with. Works every time!
- In difficult schools where kids are very restless, only briefly show your books. Tell stories, jokes, if you have book trailer clips those will go down well(though only one or two, they lose interest quickly even in video). If all else fails, try the French trick: I always tell them I speak French and very often they want me to speak in French, tell them versions of their names, etc, and roar with laughter. Any language you know bits of can be used in that way. It’s a real face-saver for rowdy situations!
- Try and make sure you engage and entertain the teachers too! Kids will often take their cues from teachers, and how they react to you. If a teacher is excited by your visit, the kids will be. If they’re not(and very often that’s not your fault, simply that the teacher is not really interested) then it’s much harder work to get a class going.
- Primary schools work very differently to high schools. First year of high school generally is quite similar to primary, especially at the beginning of the year, but afterwards high school students react very differently. ‘Cool’ and the group reign, especially in the middle years, and in all-class groups where there’s been no attempt to separate those who have come because they’re interested, and those who are just getting out of Math class! They usually sit there staring at you, and rarely ask questions while they’re in the group (all those questions I quoted above came from primary-school classes to whom I spoke) but teens may well come to you afterwards, individually, to ask diffidently about how you might become a writer. It’s important to keep your nerve in a high-school talk, not to speak to them like a buddy or in their slang (they despise such attempts), but just be yourself. The older years are much more responsive, and will ask questions even in public, but rarely any of those unpredictable sorts younger kids ask, much more practically-focussed on actual writing issues. Workshops with small groups, I find, work better with the older high school age group than large-scale talks.
Image by ~Anoko.