Picture this: Everyone is expecting you. Your name is up in lights on the reader board. Students are treating you like a rock star as you walk up to the building. There is a stack of books for you to sign that hides the volunteer sitting at the autograph table …
I didn’t invent that dream scenario - Carol Berry of The Literacy Connection did. But many schools do prepare their students well. Announce the visiting author months in advance. Make sure ample copies of the author’s books are in the media center. Talk to teachers about making sure each class reads at least one. Bringing the children into preparing for the role so that they, too, become participants.
If that kind of thing happens when you visit a school, you can happily move ahead with your planned presentation. Here are a few suggestions:
* Consider telling the back story about a specific book. What led you to write it.
• Talk about the number of rejection letters you got before you sold it. Kids love to hear stuff like that. (In my most recent visits, I showed them a close up of the F+ I’d received in writing on my second grade report card. The audience gasped. “What’s with the plus?” I said to them. “That was supposed to make me feel better?” We all laughed.)
• If there’s something hidden in a particular book, talk about that. Carol Berry said one successful visiting author they had told the children about a “secret” hidden in her book. It had something to do with the numbers she used on the houses, I think. The kids really went for it. If you don’t have a secret, consider coming up with one. (You know: The character’s name is really the name of your first cat’s second cousin that was killed by a school bus and if you spell it backwards, you get the name of the school the kid goes to. Something like that.)
The things you talk about should aim to bring the children into your narrative. By that I mean that if you use examples from your life that will make them identify with you, not as an author, but as a person who used to be a kid, you’ll go a long way toward gaining their empathy. And so they’ll listen. Tell them you were a kid who got into trouble. Who did funny things. Who had big ideas that back-fired. Who moved too much or fought with your siblings or always believed your mother loved your older sister more than she loved you.
Who failed writing in the 2nd grade but went on to become an author.
If you can hit upon those universal truths that made you who you are, and make you write the kinds of books you write, they’ll understand. Because they’re living those universal truths themselves and if you can get heads shaking in agreement as you talk, you’ll have established a real connection.
I also think it helps to have some sort of concept to your presentation. Something beyond, “I did this, and then I did that.” If you can somehow give it a hook that the children can hang on to, it’ll resonate with them more. A hook that, hopefully, takes them back to the excitement of books, or shows them how their own lives are worth writing about when it comes time to write in class. Instead of simply presenting a linear display of your life as it happened, and your books as they were published, give it a central theme, if you can.
It will evolve as you do more visits, for sure. And the childrens’ reactions to what you talk about will give it further shape. But start somewhere.
I try to convince children that they need to keep their imaginations alive, and their eyes and ears open, because it’ll make their lives more interesting and make the writing they have to do more fun. While I was in Washington, for example, I told them several stories about the good-ideas-gone-wrong that my four siblings and I came up with. I have ample material. I ended each story by saying, “Then we heard loud footsteps … and my father’s booming voice … “WHAT’S GOING ON IN THERE?”
There was total silence in the audience when I said that. So I said, very quietly, “What do you say when your Mom or Dad ask, “What’s going on in there?” and in one voice, the audience in every school responded: “NOTHING!”
We shared another good laugh. Because some things never change.
I told them that’s exactly what my brothers and sisters and I had said. And went on to talk about how hearing that over and over as a kid had created a lifelong curiosity in my brain to know what was going on in there: why do kids do the things they do? Why did that boy think riding his skate board down the basement stairs was a good idea? Why would that girl wear those silly ribbons in her hair? Why would a kid try to ruin something another kid had built? …
These questions, and the answers you come up with, are the stuff of books, I told them.
I guess another way of saying it is try not to regard your school visits as simply you being on display. Try to unfurl a story about your life and experiences and books and writing that will pull the children in, so that by the end you’re all equally excited about ideas and imagination and the possibility of what writing can do and how exciting books can be.
And that F+ wasn’t my fault. But that’s another story.
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