Everything you need to know about School 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.

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.

Bouncing Back

I’ve just finished putting together a giant hand-made book, using artwork made by children at the Evelina Hospital School in Lambeth, south London. It’s the fourth year in a row I’ve done this very rewarding project, working one-to-one with children on the ward in hospital beds and in the classroom. I am always delighted with what they come up with and in awe of their creativity in very difficult circumstances. The age range of the children who took part went from around 5 to 16, and each of them created something really distinctive and beautiful using a mixture of collage and drawing.

The theme was wildlife in London, particularly focusing on endangered species. Researching the subject, I found that some species which have been at risk are making a comeback – such as peregrine falcons which like to nest on concrete towers. The children wrote poems as well, and I particularly liked “I live up on tall hard trees” for the falcon…

It’s sad to learn that sparrows are in rapid decline (it seems due to avian malaria), but I do love the page of sparrows and think it would make an excellent wallpaper design. Look at the silver tower block with its triple satellite dishes – a lot of research went into the yellow warning signs. The one at the bottom is for the boiler room.

And the pink-eared dormouse is another favourite!

Window Wanderland

Something amazing has been happening in the darkest winter months here in Southfields – for one weekend a year, local people decorate their windows with coloured paper to create an outdoor, night-time free art gallery. Window Wanderland started in Bristol, and has been gradually spreading further afield. It’s an absolute pleasure to walk around the chilly streets admiring the inventiveness of your neighbours, and enjoying a bit of a party atmosphere (this year one house was Ghostbusters themed, upstairs and downstairs, and was blasting out the theme tune, and last year someone set up a karaoke in their front garden).

This year I went for a tropical birds theme, and as storm Ciara was set to arrive on the Sunday I put speech bubbles for the birds to say ‘Storm?’ ‘What storm?’…and last year’s was a bird-eating monster.

The year before that I was rather overambitious and created a kraken that extended from downstairs to upstairs – but it took an awful lot of planning to get the legs to match up. And the first year we had Window Wanderland in Southfields, I chose a Moby Dick theme but added disco lights to jazz it up.

I usually like to make the window with things I have in the house (I have a stack of plain tissue paper, but it needs to be joined in sections to fill a window pane. Next year I’ll buy some that’s big enough so the seams don’t show. This was also the first year I created my own coloured tissue by painting sheets with acrylic in advance, and drying them on the clothes airer so they didn’t stick to the floor. I was pleased with the results.

Here’s a few highlights from my friends and neighbours this year: look at the beautiful ‘Make Every Day Count’ by Tracey English! And I love the all day breakfast from Salt and Pepper. Looking forward to next year already…

The Boy Who Loved Everyone

I’m so proud to have collaborated with super-talented illustrator Maisie Paradise Shearring on our new book, The Boy Who Loved Everyone, out on November 7th with Walker Books.

The story is inspired by a real boy, who used to attend my weekly under-5s art class at a local nursery. He had the most touching habit of telling everyone he loved them – the other children, the nursery staff, and me. It was utterly charming but I noticed that often people wouldn’t quite know how to respond – although you could tell they were secretly pleased.

This was happening around the time of the Brexit referendum, and the week after the result there was a tangible sense of sadness from the wonderful nursery staff, who are from all over Europe. But that melted away when the real ‘Dimitri’ called out ‘I love you’ to one of them. His words also emboldened me to say what needed to be said – that these lovely people were welcome and we wanted them to stay.

The story came together quickly after that. It occurred to me that it could take the shape of the classic 1940s Frank Capra movie, It’s A Wonderful Life, where a generous-hearted character comes to doubt his worth but is redeemed when shown the difference he has made to other people’s lives.

I was thrilled when Maisie agreed to illustrate the book – I had admired her artwork for a while and I knew that she would be the right person to show visually the tenderness and vulnerability that the story needed. Maisie came to the nursery for two days to sketch in the early stages of making the book, and she has captured beautifully the life and heart of the nursery, from the ladybird cushions to the children’s pictures hanging from pegs on a clothesline. The teacher in the book is exactly like the real teacher!

My favourite spread in the book is the deliciously blue-toned bedtime scene, with the warm light falling on Dimitri’s bed from the landing as his mum tucks him in. “You’re my best, best boy,” she tells him – this line came from my son when he was little and told me I was his “best, best Mummy”!

The book is also published in Italy by La Margherita Edizioni as Io Ti Voglio Tanto Bene, and will be published in the US in 2020 by Candlewick Press.

All hail King Otter!

My new picture book, King Otter, is published this week by Simon & Schuster. It’s the story of an otter who finds a box of fine clothes, puts them on and decides to declare himself king. Power goes to his head and he issues wilder and wilder demands before a muddy downfall and a realisation that river swimming and friendship are a good deal more rewarding than bossing people about.

The story started to take root when I was given a pair of cowboy boots for my birthday, something I’d always wanted (see photo above for my boots and King Otter’s). As soon as I put them on I developed a bit of a swagger, which set me thinking about how clothes can have quite an impact… added together with my passion for river swimming and all I had to do was fill in the gaps! (Well, it wasn’t quite that easy…).

I always like to make a toy of my characters, and King Otter was the most fun of all to make because I got to dress him as well. He’s just been on his first school visit and the children had a lovely time trying on his crown, taking turns to have him sit next to them and even asking him what he thought of their stories. And there was lots of scope for interesting discussions about how they would behave if they found a crown.

Huge thanks to everyone at Simon & Schuster and especially to my editor Alice Bartoskinski and designer Harriet Rogers who were a delightful team to work with and made the book WAY better than I ever would have managed without them.

And I’ve spotted some lovely reviews already!

“A great little fable about the importance of friendship, delightfully told and beautifully illustrated – 5 stars” – Books for Keeps

“The most perfect drawing of an otter ever” – Angels and Urchins

“A lovely, subtle story of friendship …The illustrations in their bright, clear colours are very appealing.” – Armadillo Magazine

Secret Rivers

I’m thrilled to have two pieces of work in the Museum of London Docklands’ current exhibition, Secret Rivers. My graphic novel, The Ghost Carp (inspired by fifteen years of river cleanups with the Wandle Trust) is in a glass case alongside Charles Dickens no less! And my Wandle Alphabet poster is also featured, together with an audio recording of me talking about the five-year process of finding all the letters. In the photo above, I am even wearing a necklace that came out of the river – you never know what you are going to find…

The exhibition is well worth a visit, and is on until 27th October. Admission is free.

Sheep on the beach!

I’ve been out on the road promoting Brian The Brave over the past few weeks – my new picture book with Paul Stewart, published in April by Otter Barry Books. I’ve done a couple of library visits, at Southfields and Northcote, where children really enjoyed participating with the sheep puppets. One girl got very attached to the wolf! I was sad to have to disappoint her…
Paul and I did a story time at The Book Nook in Paul’s hometown Hove, and afterwards took the sheep for a romp on the beach.

Brian the Brave

On April 4th my new book with Paul Stewart, Brian the Brave, will be published by Otter Barry Books. I’ve collaborated with Paul once before, on Wings!, and it was lovely to be asked to work with him again.

The new story is all about sheep – but it’s also about much more. Brian is a happy-go-lucky sheep munching grass, when he meets a new friend. All is well until more and more sheep arrive, and start forming cliques based on the colour of their wool and the shape of their horns – causing much sheep-based unhappiness all round.

Brian wanders off despondently, but a chance encounter with a wolf brings out the hero in him, and he persuades all the sheep to work together to defeat the fearsome predator.

All the illustrations are made from collage, using scraps that I painted and applied textures to – the scratchiness of the wolf comes from monoprint rubbed with a sticklebrick, and the colours range from gouache to household emulsion, ink and oil pastels. When I first saw the text, I asked Paul where he thought it should be set, and he said ‘Yorkshire’. I’m very fond of Yorkshire, so that was a good starting point for me, and I had fun sneaking in lots of wildlife such as lapwings, moths and red campion. You can read more about the process here.

It’s a great story to read out loud to young children – I’ve tested it on my under 5s art group and they were fascinated by which sheep was which. There’s a handy guide opposite the title page.

Brian The Brave will be published in the US later in the year by Flyaway Books, and is out now in Denmark as Marius den Modige!

New Hope

For the last few months I’ve been working on a very different sort of project – I’ve been illustrating a PhD. It’s part of the Creative Impacts programme at Kings College London, and I was very proud to be part of it through my collaboration with Dr Sharron Frood. We were paired up in October (one of 8 creative/academic pairings this year) and I made a concertina book as a visual interpretation of Sharron’s work on the plight of AIDS orphans in South Africa. Her research included lots of heartbreaking stories but also points the way forward for more joined-up care for these children, hence the title ‘New Hope’. An exhibition of all the Creative Impacts partnerships was held at Bush House in The Strand earlier in February – the subjects covered and means of interpretation are very diverse and inspiring. Thankyou Sharron for being so lovely to work with, and all the team at Kings for being so supportive.

Shed Job

This is a four page mini-comic I made about learning to play my great-grandfather’s fiddle. I’t been a very joyful process for me, although the story of the fiddle is a sad one. It feels appropriate to post this today, on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, since it was my grandfather’s brother’s sad death right at the end of the war that silenced the fiddle for almost a century.