When I wrote my first book, The Goose Girl, I didn't know I was writing a children's book. I thought I was writing a fantasy novel with a young protagonist, completely ignorant of the whole young adult category of books that had spread while I was in my 20s. I remember the first time I visited The King's English, my local indie bookstore, as a newly minted author and talked to bookseller Margaret about doing a possible event.
"Do you do school visits?" she asked.
"Sure, I do anything," I said, eager to be accommodating and to promote my baby any way I could.
But I was thinking, School visit? What does that even mean?
There were no author school visits when I was growing up. I had no idea that children's authors were expected to go around doing assemblies and no idea what on earth I was supposed to talk about. But I was determined to figure it out before Margaret and everybody else discovered I was a fraud who didn't deserve to be a children's author.
Jump ahead ten years. I've done at least 100 school assemblies and classroom presentations, perhaps double that. I've seen other authors do presentations and talked to a lot of teachers, librarians, booksellers, and authors. I've learned a lot. Let me impart here my wisdom, grasshopper. Please ask any school visit related questions in the comments, and I'll answer what I can next post. (Note: I'm not writing this to solicit school visits. With four small children at home, I'm not looking for anything extra for at least a couple more years.)
AUTHORS ARE PAID FOR DOING SCHOOL VISITS
I got an MFA in Creative Writing. Here's how MFA programs are staffed: excellent writers with MFAs of their own and professionally published (and usually award-winning) books teach in order to keep writing, because the royalties from their excellent literary and poetic works aren't enough to support them. In order to keep their jobs teaching, they must keep writing and publishing. In order to have enough money to support their writing, they must keep teaching. And students benefit by getting real working writers as their instructors.
This is basically the system with children's book authors. There isn't as much money in children's books as books for adults: smaller advances and smaller percentages of lower cover prices. In order to pay the bills, children's writers often do school visits. It's good for them to supplement their income, allowing them to keep writing, and it's good for the kids who get to hear from real working writers who sincerely care about kids and books.
FREE SCHOOL VISITS ARE THE EXCEPTION NOT THE NORM
Authors often do family's and neighborhood's schools for free. School visits for touring authors are usually free. When I'm on book tour, my publisher contacts the local bookstore where we'll be visiting. The bookstore arranges a couple of school visits with schools with whom they have a relationship, sending home fliers with the students so they can preorder any of my books. When I get to the school, I sign and personalize any preorders, then I do the assembly. Which is counter-intuitive, because after the assembly, after they know who I am and what my books are, they all want one, but unfortunately it's a tour so I won't be here tomorrow to sign any post-orders.
I like doing school visits on tour. I like getting to meet the kids and getting them excited about reading. And I have every intention of continuing to do them. I'm in their town, I'd rather talk with kids than just sit in my hotel. But those visits are often not perfect, partly because they're unpaid.
PAID VISITS ALWAYS GO BETTER
This is my observation: 95% of paid school visits go topnotchfantastic, 30% of unpaid school visits go topnotchfantastic. There are problems with the free school visit. There's less motivation for educators to prepare the kids for the visit. It's free, after all.
And sometimes they just don't go down at all. I cannot count how many times I've showed up for a free school visit arranged through a bookstore for my tour or through a book festival to discover that no one at the school remembered I was coming. Either they apologize and turn me away or else hastily gather a dozen kids from some class to meet me in the library. Often, I've had 4-5 hours of sleep, gotten up at dawn to catch a flight to that town in order to get there in time for the morning school visit that no one remembered or cared about. Why didn't they? Because they weren't paying for it. Truth I've learned: we value what we pay for.
PAID OR UNPAID, A SCHOOL'S PREPARATION IS WHAT MAKES A SCHOOL VISIT ROCK
Imagine you're a kid. Your teacher says, "Put away your notebooks, we're going to an assembly." You shuffle into the gym, not knowing what to expect. The librarian takes the microphone and says, "We have a special event today! Mrs. Blah-blah-blah (who you've never heard of) is here to talk to you about writing books!" And then Mrs. Blah-blah-blah, yet another adult who wants to talk at you, does just that for an excruciating 45 minutes while your bum gets sore sitting on the gym floor.
Now imagine instead that a week before the assembly, the librarian visits your classroom and does a 5 minute talk about the visiting author. And your teacher reads one of the author's books to your class. And the PTA gets involved helping students do projects to prepare for the author's visit. And by the time the assembly comes, you are so excited. You are more excited to meet this author than that uber-famous scantily clad singer or youtube star. You read her book! And visited her website! And she's actually coming to talk to you IN YOUR SCHOOL! Imagine how thrilling when the author comes on stage, shows you photos, talks about storytelling, calls on you to answer a question, chooses you to come up and help with a storytelling activity. How you can't wait to go home and tell your parents the most amazing things that happened in school today! And hey, can we go to the library and check out a book, because I know you usually have to pull my teeth to read but that one book the author talked about looks SO GOOD.
PREPARATION. I CANNOT EMPHASIZE ENOUGH. PREPARATION.
Some schools have so much fun with the preparation, the creativity blows my mind. Awesome, awesome educators. Schools where the educators prepared the students for my visit, the assemblies went 1000x better, and students were still buzzing about the assembly and reading my books and other books I recommended for months after.
YES, ULTIMATELY SCHOOL VISITS ARE ABOUT SELLING BOOKS
Many educators and parents are rightly wary of bringing in an author to essentially tout their wares for a captive young audience. I've seen school visits that were no more than a long advertisement for the author's books. I don't approve of that, but it happens. But other visits are hands-down the best assemblies I've ever seen and everyone leaves so jazzed about reading and writing, feeling great about themselves and excited about stories and learning. And you know what books those kids most want to read next? That author's books of course. And that's great! As long as that author's books are great and worth of those kids' time.
BEFORE BOOKING AN AUTHOR, READ THAT AUTHOR'S BOOK(S)
A school visit is a combination of two things: how good that author is as a presenter, and how worthy that author's books are of being read. Just the fact that someone wrote a book is not enough to qualify him/her of doing a school visit (paid or unpaid) just as the fact of someone publishing any book is enough to qualify him/her of teaching in an MFA program. So first, read one of the books. You know quality. What about the presentation itself?
GET RECOMMENDATIONS FROM EDUCATORS
Educators who have had that author in the school can tell you if it was worth the students' time. I wouldn't trust anyone else's recommendation.
SCHOOL VISITS AREN'T ONLY ABOUT SELLING BOOKS
For authors, they're also about giving back, and reaching the kids, and spreading the love of reading and learning. It's an awesome part of this profession.
I was shy about talking about my books for a long time. That's kind of an understatement. I'd say for the first 4-5 years I did school visits, I never mentioned any of my books unless someone happened to ask me a direct question during the Q&A portion. I didn't want to seem like I was hawking my wares, I didn't want to be petty and self-interested. But I realize now (after much feedback from others) that that was silly. Kids sometimes need a hook to get interested enough to ready any book. Sometimes that hook is meeting the author. I don't only talk about my books, of course, but I've learned that people actually do want to hear something about them.
When kids are prepared for an assembly, and the author presentation is a good one, those kids never forget. They remember that author, that assembly, those books years later. And for so many of them, that moment is the one that made them want to be a reader after all.