School visit tips and hints

Note: all this information refers to pre-Covid visits If you’re a children’s author and/or illustrator, school visits can be fun and a great way to connect with your audience. They are also really inspiring, as children always have such clever, interesting ideas. Visits are rewarding in so many ways but can also be daunting if you haven’t done one before, so I thought since I’ve just done a batch of visits I would compile some tips while it’s fresh in my mind. I hope it will be helpful to anyone who’s new to school visits – and it will be a good reminder to my future self! When I first started going to schools I used to be anxious about it beforehand – before I became an author and illustrator I spent a few years doing art projects with schools, including some lovely things like a lantern festival on the river Wandle  (you can scroll back through years’ worth of archive here). All of this was very useful experience when it came to going into schools with my own books to focus on. Anyway here goes with my tips and advice (and if you read to the end I have added some useful links too)… How do the visits come about, and what should you charge? Sometimes they come through word of mouth, sometimes via the publisher. There are a number of agencies that deal with visits: Contact an Author lists your details for an annual fee, while Authors Aloud and Authorfy organise the visit for you but keep some of the fee. If you’re organising the visit yourself, be clear about the fee from the outset. The Society of Authors recommends a fee of a minimum of £350, and this guide outlines why. I have a PDF of information that I send to schools when they first get in touch, outlining everything they will need to know including prices. Before the visit Preparation is EVERYTHING. Step one is to make a contact at the school and get a timetable, and between you work out exactly where you’ll be at each point of the day, and what you’ll be doing with how many children and what age. Print the timetable out and keep it in your pocket so you know where to be when on the day. This is the point where you need to make sure that the school’s expectations are something you can meet – if not, negotiate now! A successful visit might include one whole school assembly plus three workshops, or two workshops and two storytimes for the littlest ones. Understandably schools like to get as many children to meet the author as possible, but sometimes it can become too much of a tight squeeze. Once I went to a school where on a single day I did THREE assemblies and countless workshops, each of which was for three classes simultaneously so I had to run between rooms. That was not good for anyone, least of all the children who barely saw me! And one of the assemblies was right next to the music room where someone was practising the drums throughout – not ideal… (Note to myself: a good idea for the future might be a written contract with the school). If you’re using a Powerpoint for a whole school assembly, send it in advance so the school can put it on their server. Have it on a memory stick too, just in case. I have a Powerpoint presentation for schools which is around 12 slides long, and it takes 20-25 mins to deliver. I can speed it up if needed. Most assemblies are half an hour, which allows a bit of time for questions at the end. My PPT includes images prompting me to talk about the process of making a book, from where ideas come from, to developing the story, then making the artwork. I include pictures from my comic diary showing how slow the process can be, plus a section about interesting materials like my home-made ink. I end by emphasising the importance and pleasure of reading. Ask the school in advance about opportunities to sell books. Often schools have a good relationship with a local bookseller who will come and set up a stall at the end of the day. This is the ideal! Some schools will send a letter home in advance to get orders, which you can sign on the day. Another option is to take books yourself to sell, but this gives you a lot of extra carrying to do (a card reader would be useful for this as a lot of parents don’t carry cash any more). Ask if you can have a table in the playground after school – you need to be somewhere prominent. And hope it doesn’t rain. Don’t forget to bring a pen for signing with. On the day Take a packed lunch (unless the school has specifically offered you lunch), a bottle of water, a clean handkerchief, cough sweets if your throat is likely to be at all tickly as you will be talking A LOT! Hand sanitiser is not a bad idea too. Pack your bag the night before with everything you need for the workshops – in my case this is interesting collage scraps plus an example of what to do with them, my books, and either King Otter or Pink Lion usually comes with me too… Double check the timing of your journey. Assembly can feel daunting but take a deep breath, speak clearly and use your Powerpoint as a prompt if your mind goes blank. And it does get much easier – recently I went to a school where the IT didn’t work, so I did an assembly WITHOUT the Powerpoint – and it was fine!
Q&A time can raise some funny questions – and often children will just want to tell you things (see extract from my comic diary below). Be prepared to say what your favourite book is. You might also get asked how old you are – have a witty riposte if you don’t want to answer! I don’t mind at all saying I am 55 – I am very happy to be in my 50s and don’t feel it’s anything to be embarrassed about. Children also often ask: are you famous? I think the correct answer is yes! I find the main problem is not being able to hear the questions, but teachers usually help out here.
In my workshops I usually start by reading a story (or two), then have a bit of discussion about what makes a good story. Next I get the children to help me make up a new one collectively which I draw out on the flipchart (make sure there will be one). They LOVE doing this and have endless brilliant ideas. Then I set them a project: it might be to make a mini-book, or to create a new character using collage for inspiration. Depending on how much time they have, they can then start writing a story based on this character. (Note: make sure you tell them there is just one rule: the characters have to be ORIGINAL and their own unique creation, so no Minions, Super Mario or Spiderman!)
In future I am going to develop a sheet to leave with teachers afterwards with some tips about how to keep developing these stories, and what to do next (for example to work in pairs to develop tensions between their two characters). Make sure you find out from the teacher what the class system is to get everyone to listen – a tambourine, a ‘5-4-3-2-1’, a clapping pattern etc. They all have different methods but it is a very useful thing to know. And it’s good to keep everyone on track by announcing extra tips now and again, or sharing the work of a child who is making a particularly good job of it. Often there will be children with special educational needs in the class (SEN). Sometimes the teacher or teaching assistant will tell you about them, sometimes not. I always try to make these children feel included and they often have very interesting things to say. I was very touched on a recent school visit when two children sat separately for the session at the back of the room, engaged in a different activity. But at the end, one of them came up to me and presented a beautiful drawing of a snake! So I think they must have been much more involved in what I was doing than was immediately apparent. What to wear? Schools can be very hot so layers are important. Try to wear something that makes you look a little bit different or arty. Sarah McIntyre has some marvellous outfits and hats. I often wear my embroidered cowboy boots, which inspired my story King Otter. Afterwards Plan a quiet evening – you will be very tired! Make notes on what went well/could be improved. Don’t forget to send an invoice, and also ask for a testimonial. Teachers are very busy people so don’t always get the chance to do this, but it is definitely worth asking. Good luck with your visit! Thankyou to Tanya Efthymiou, Librarian at Chestnuts Primary in Turnpike Lane, for some of the photos, and to all the children in Year 2 at St Matthias Primary, Bethnal Green for their lovely welcome cards including the beautiful heart-filled school drawing above.
Useful links The Scottish Book Trust has a marvellous archive of films of authors and illustrators talking to school-children at Edinburgh Festival – it’s the perfect place to have a look at how other people approach it. Have a look at their Authors Live On Demand. There’s also lots of useful information at Words and Pictures, the SCWBI online magazine. Author Chitra Soundar has a very useful roundup on her website here. Check out World Book Day’s ‘Guide to Organising An Author or Illustrator Visit’ here. …and author and illustrator Helen Stephens has lots of useful info here.