How to make the most of a school author visit

Well, it’s the author visit season and I’ve barely had time to gather my thoughts as I’ve dashed from school to school across the country, trying to answer emails and even do a bit of writing in between. So many schools want an author in World Book Week and many are disappointed – there are only so many of us. Why not have an author in during another part of the year: we are just as good then!

It’s been very interesting visiting so many schools over the last few weeks, particularly as a former teacher. So much has changed. Most of the schools have been wonderful but in a few the visit has been, well, ‘interesting’ is being kind. This has me thinking: what makes a good author visit?

It’s all about the preparation: in the best schools the teachers get hold of the authors’ books and introduce the children to them; they look at the writer’s website and find out about him or her; they think of some good questions to ask. I know teachers are busy, but it’s worth it.

In the best schools there’s someone there to greet the arriving author (who has often got up very early and travelled a long way), maybe offering a heartwarming cup of tea. What a difference that makes. You get a little tour and see where you’ll be based, you’re shown the location of the loos and staffroom and maybe meet some of the teachers and head.

In other schools you’re left sitting in a lobby or shown to the hall and abandoned, perhaps to find a table to put some books on. In these schools the children will often walk in to the hall with no idea who they are meeting. I find it hard to believe that this still happens. It’s rare, but it does.

In the best schools the children enter assembly to classical music (in my view) – what has happened to this tradition? It used to take place in every school. I came to appreciate composers this way. Too many children shuffle into halls in awkward silence or chatter.

In the best schools the author is given a brief introduction by a teacher (not too long, so it reduces your time) although often I am left, awkwardly, to introduce myself – I don’t mind doing this but it would be nice to be given a warning.

In good schools children are encouraged to bring money to buy a signed book from the author. This frequently baffles me – on so many occasions in school I am surrounded by children looking longingly at the books saying, “Aw, we didn’t know we could bring money…” The flyer I sent has not gone out to parents… the children weren’t told or reminded… When authors come into school it gets children excited about books and reading: they want to read and if they can get a signed book from an author they’ve met they WILL read – this can be a significant moment in a child’s life. And yet so often I put my books away or only a tiny handful of children bring money. Don’t schools want to encourage reading? Sometimes I am left feeling that it’s somehow distasteful or wrong to sell books in school, to ask for money. That’s how authors (try to) make a living! And we are desperate to encourage reading too. Please, teachers, tell children and parents that the £5 is a great investment. And, yes, I know some families can’t afford books – so I always leave free copies in schools.

The thing that makes the greatest difference to a school author visit, however, is the ENTHUSIASM of the teachers. I have met some fantastic, keen, motivating teachers over the last few weeks – they’ve listened as intently as the kids, asking questions and modelling the interest of a reader. But I am sad to say that increasingly I come across the opposite: teachers who sit and mark books while I’m talking, or they chatter to a TA in the corner – what message does that give to the children? I met an all time low at one (nameless) school I recently visited where a male member of staff checked his phone while I told a story. I found this just downright rude and nearly said something.

But these are the exceptions; in most schools the children are fantastically responsive, the staff are warm and encouraging, the atmosphere is pro-books and reading. Ah, if only so many school halls weren’t noisy corridors…

How it should be!

News

  • I am very excited to become Patron of Reading at Heather Garth Primary School at Bolton-on Dearne in South Yorks – I can’t wait to visit and meet the children and staff. If you want to know what a Patron of Reading is, look here.
  • I am incredibly excited to announce that my first children’s novel has been bought and will be published in September: it’s a funny mystery story for 8-11s. More news about this to follow soon.
  • The Silly Book of Side-Splitting Stuff is published on 8th May – a collection of comical facts about all sorts of silly people, animals, inventions, ideas, names and more.
  • I am visiting a school in Milan in April: stupendo!
  • Tour de Schools, my show about the Tour de France is now fully booked and will be performed in 36 schools across Yorkshire from April to July. I am performing this with fellow writer Mike Barfield and it will be great fun. What’s more we have been lent a piece of Tour history: the yellow helmet worn by 2013 winner Chris Froome no less!
We have this very helmet!

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