Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tips and tricks for school visits - interview with TBA authors

Today on the blog, I've interviewed my clients Mo O'Hara, Sam Watkins, Ruth Fitzgerald and Sam Hay about school visits. If you are a debut author thinking about planning school visits, we hope you find this helpful. If you have additional questions please reply in the comments - Gemma

How did you get started - say you've never done a school visit before, and you don't know any teachers or have any school connections, how do you make that first appearance happen?

Mo O’Hara: Before I was published I set myself a mission to learn as much about events as I could. I wanted to be prepared. I was lucky in that I had kids at two different schools nearby. I went to teachers at both the schools and asked to sit in on the author visits that they had coming up. Then I went to all the author talks at  my local bookshops for a few months. I stalked fellow SCBWI authors and illustrator at their events. I basically saw lots and lots of other people doing it and thought about what worked and what didn’t in the events I saw. It was extremely helpful. After I’d seen a lot and planned a lot I offered my events for free for a couple months to schools in my area, friend’s kid’s school’s,  SCBWI connections, Bookshop connections etc.  I just used all the connections I could to get different school, library and bookshop experiences.

Sam Watkins: I emailed a handful of schools in my area. I think I was expecting to get a fairly big response, because I’m currently offering to do them for free, so I didn’t email that many because I didn’t want to over-stretch myself! I was quite surprised to only get one response from that batch. So my advice would be to email as many as you can, and also get a named contact to email. Otherwise you’ve got no idea if the email got to the relevant person, or whether it went straight to the junk mail folder.

Ruth Fitzgerald: My first school visits were to schools I had connections with  - where my children went or where I had friends who were teachers. I then sent out an email to about 50 local schools offering to do free visits. I got about 15 visits directly from that and then schools would tell each other. I also contacted the local branch of the Federation of Children's Book Groups and they publicised my visits. I have recently made contact with the School Library Service who are another useful contact as are local bookshops. I did the first two terms of visits free in order to publicise my book and gain a bit of experience. I'm now charging, although I still keep it quite reasonable.

Sam Hay: A: My first school visit was arranged via word of mouth - a neighbour worked in a local school and she invited me in. But if you have no school connections try dropping off a free copy of your book to a few local schools and then offer to pop in for free to talk about your writing. This way you can build up your own confidence and also gather a portfolio of teacher references to use to gain more work, or for your website. Also, start small. Work with a single class rather than a whole school assembly until you feel confident in front of children. 

Mo O'Hara at an event

What is the one piece of advice you would give to anyone planning a school visit?

Ruth: Be prepared! Have lots of material, a powerpoint presentation and pictures to show in case the powerpoint fails! Make sure it's lighthearted and fun. In primary leave time for lots of questions - in High School be prepared for no questions at all!

Sam H: Take lots of props and include your audience with lots of child participation. Not every child finds it easy to sit still and listen for 45 minutes, so get them interacting and playing games!

Mo: Plan, plan, plan. My main advice is have your event set up so that it easily breaks down into small 5 or 10 min chunks. Then if you have to do a shortened version on the day for any reason (and this will happen loads) then you can easily adapt. It’s less stress on you and less stress on the school.

Sam W: Make your presentation as interactive as possible. The kids just love being involved! I do an ‘interactive reading’ – as I read from the book I hold up flashcards with sound effects on them, which they then shout out. They totally love this – the next visit I do I plan to do much more interactive stuff. 

Sam Hay getting kids interacting!

What do you wish you had known before you started doing school visits?

Sam W: One thing I do wish I’d known was that I should have emailed a lot more schools to get a decent amount of responses. Apart from that I felt really prepared. I am kind of an over-prepper at the best of times!

Ruth: I wish I'd know how much fun they are because I wouldn't have worried so much!

Mo: That people don’t always appreciate ‘Free.’ 

Sam H: Try to engage with the whole room, not just the keen ones with their hands up, otherwise it can turn into a rabble! Also keep it brief. Leave them wanting more. I also think it’s really important to empower kids, so that they feel that becoming a writer or an illustrator is an obtainable goal.  Some authors go the other way - a friend’s child recently came home from a school author visit utterly deflated. The author had told the kids that she was a special person and that’s why she was a successful writer, and none of them were likely to achieve her greatness! Ridiculous! I always tell kids they can do it too. Also I remind them about the other ways to tell stories - I always talk about the amazing illustrators!   

Sam Hay with fan art!

What do you never go to a school visit without? 

Sam H: Props! Lots of props! Even if you want to use power point, have a plan B just in case it goes wrong! I also take stickers with me, so everyone leaves with something. Another good plan is to try and get some publicity giveaways from your publisher - book marks, badges etc.  

Mo: Tech back up for my presentation and a non tech alternative if both plan A and plan B fail. (and my felt Frankie and Fang plushies that Gemma made me)

Sam W: Assuming an assembly: PowerPoint presentation, all visuals printed out in case of technical failure, spare copies of the book to sell in case of bookshop failure, free stuff like bookmarks, badges etc.

Ruth: I never go without a bottle of water as it's non-stop talking!

Frankie and Fang plushies

Any favourite stories from successful events? 

Sam H: I was once mobbed at an event by Undead Pets fans - they’d even choreographed an Undead Pets tribute dance! I felt like I was in a boy band. I came away feeling ten foot tall. There can be a few wobbly moments in writing, but meeting kids who enjoy your work, makes it all worthwhile.    

Sam W: At the end of an assembly I said “Anyone got any questions?” and there was a nervous silence. A few hands went up but it wasn’t a massive response. So I said, “Okay, anyone who asks a question gets a badge!” Every single hand in the room shot up. I ran out of badges!

Kids can ask some funny questions. Best questions I’ve had were: Does your hand ache after you’ve written a book? And … Where do you get all the paper from?!

Ruth: I did an event where I did four classes and an assembly in one day  - it was completely exhausting but almost every child in those classes bought a book - I signed over 70 books  - I felt like Jacqueline Wilson!

Mo: I think one of my favourite events happened on tour in California this Spring. There was a school that was having State testing so the kids weren’t allowed to be out of class for more than 20 minutes at a time. They had booked two hour long assemblies. The kids were stressed from the testing, the teachers were stressed from the testing and my publicist and I were stressed from the tour. When we arrived and were told that the kids wouldn’t be able to come out we were all disappointed and it could have easily meant that the whole thing got cancelled. Instead the librarian suggested that we just do drop in sessions in her library for smaller groups of kids to come in a chat for 15 min each.  That way the kids would all get to meet me and chat. It would be a break from their testing and no one would have to be disappointed. It turned out to be one of the best afternoons I had.  We hung out in the library and every 20 min a new class would come in. We chatted about books, I told them about bringing my goldfish back to life and we played guessing ‘What if’ games about stories. They had a blast and so did I. I think of that as a huge success because it could have been a huge failure for everyone. 

The popular Creature Teacher badges (thanks David O'Connell)

Any disaster stories or funny things that have gone wrong? 

Mo: I was booked in a big Victorian school that had two halls. One on top of the other.

I did my presentation upstairs while downstairs another group had a demonstration with puppies training to be guide dogs. We could hear the barking and yelping and clapping up the stairwells. I was basically looking out at a room full of kids who knew that just below them were noble and cute little Andrex puppies doing noble and cute things. The look of disappointment on their faces was epic! The moral of this story is you can never compete with puppies.

Sam W: I managed to persuade the headteacher to let me use his treasured remote control for the overhead projector, which apparently only he gets to use. Halfway through my presentation I pressed the wrong button and the screen died. The kids found this hysterical. The headteacher came over, gave me a slightly disapproving look, and switched it back on again. It wasn’t really a disaster, but I felt a bit silly!

Sam H: I recently did a giant workshop with hundreds of kids. Generally I don’t use power point, I prefer props. But on this occasion, because I knew I’d be addressing such a huge audience I decided to give it a go. I got up to begin my talk and my first slide jammed. Ha! I was stuck with an enormous picture of a rhino behind me for ten minutes, and there’s only so much you can say about a rhino! I had a brief moment of panic but then realised it was just me up there and I’d have to keep going. Thankfully I had props! Ten minutes later the power point started working again and I was back on track. Later, a teacher told me it was the best talk she’d been to - so even disasters don’t matter so long as you’re enthusiastic and have a clear idea of what you want to say!    

Ruth: Fortunately, I haven't had any real disasters although I did once turn up to a World Book Day event dressed up as a character in one of my books. I was surprised the children didn't know who I was until I realised that book hadn't come out yet! . The worst events are when the school treats you like a free supply teacher and doesn't order in any books either - I had a few of those.

Ruth dressed up as Emily Sparkes' Mum

What is your favourite thing about doing school visits?

Ruth: You can't beat the feeling when a little kid comes up to you and says, 'You're my favourite writer in the whole world!'

Mo: Making kids laugh.

Sam H: The feedback! Kids are honest. They will tell you what they like - and don’t like. It’s the best forum for understanding what they want to read and why! 

Sam W: It’s just the most fantastic buzz meeting the people who are actually reading your books! It gives me a real buzz to talk to children about reading and writing because they are genuinely excited and happy to meet you and talk to you. After every event I’ve done I’ve gone home oozing with inspiration and ideas for my writing, and more than anything wanting to do more school visits. Hopefully I will, soon!

Sam Watkins and David O'Connell at a school visit

Thanks Mo, Sam, Ruth and Sam for some great tips and insights! All authors are availiable for school visits, and you can follow them on twitter here: