Saturday, March 21, 2015
Author visits - the good, the bad, and the ugly
documented that author visits increase the short term sales and reading of books of the visiting author which may or may not spill over into further wider reading. (that site is from the Society of Authors, so may be a bit biased). If the visitor is a well known author, it is to keep young people reading their books and to fulfill the desire of their readers to personally connect with their favourite author. I did a very small action research on the effects of author visits in 2007, you can see the report here on this Prezi.
A very quick and informal survey of middle schools students want to meet John Green, A.S. King, Louise Rennison among others. Why? What is the appeal of meeting these authors? The students want to ask questions about the characters and reasons for creating the story the way it was created, they want that personal connection which makes the authors work come alive.
In many cases schools book an author visit unseen and go on the trust of other librarian and teacher recommendations. This can be problematic as we all have different expectations from an author visit. Sometimes author visits are a waste of money and time as they leave nothing behind and do not inspire anyone to do anything except be wary of author visits. In 2009 I tried to create a google doc to centralise information about authors and their strengths, contact information, but at that time there were limited options for sharing this information socially and widely. Maybe this will be something worth pursuing again on a better platform.
So what do I expect from an author visit? I have come up with a few ideas which you may agree with or not and may have further comment on ...
1. I expect an author to plan for and cater for their audience. I do not like it when they deliver the exact same scripted presentation to all age groups whether it is primary or secondary. Authors need to be aware of how to deliver to different age groups. If they don't know, it is important for them to learn. It is OK to go off the memorised script, it makes it real. I do not expect a slick show, I want some learning to happen.
2. If a school asks an author to focus on a particular curriculum element that is being learned then they need to include it. The author has been asked to the school for a reason, if they cannot fulfill this request it, they need to say so, or learn how to include it.
3. Be aware of and know your audience. A group of international school students is very different to a school in the middle of London or rural Australia. You cannot deliver the same presentation to all.
4. The students want to connect with the authors work so talk about it. I have found recently that authors seem to be going on a self promotion tour of all the fabulous things they have done in their life with a "take a look at me I am so good attitude". Leave plenty of time or include time for questions from the students, they want to connect with you.
5. Authors need to be flexible and not precious. Schools are busy places, you will be fed and watered, but sometimes you may not get it exactly when you want it, and stuff happens that will require change of plans. Go with the flow.
6. I do not expect the author to humiliate the students in any way. Authors are short term guests in our school, teachers work hard at building self and personal confidence over the years, and the authors do not know anything about these students. If there is a problem with a student, the teachers need to deal with it, not the author.
7. The presentations need to be engaging and involve the students. Sitting and quietly listening to someone talk for an hour is tough for adults, let alone children. Authors need to include engaging and meaningful activities that relate to the work of the author or to teach the process of creation in an active participatory way.
8. Reading their work the whole time is not acceptable. They can use excerpts and include a few readings, but they also need to include something of themselves in between.
9. Authors should not use profanity when delivering their presentation. No excuses. (Yes it has happened numerous times).
10. I would like to have an opportunity for feedback, real feedback, not polite feedback. We have paid much money for your time and delivery, we need to tell you what we think and the visit could have been better. You can use this to improve, or even as a promotional tool.
I have organised or been part of over 25 author visits in various schools, and the best authors I have had the privilege to introduce to students are below with what made them so good.... do you have others? Please leave a comment on best author visits and why.
Jack Gantos (USA the visit to HK was in 2012) - Jack had different presentations for different age groups (yrs 4 - 12), he focused on the writing process, brought with him his diary to show and left resources for the school to use. He was dynamic and focused on teaching the students.
Deborah Ellis (Canada the visit to HK was in 2010) - Deborah left a legacy of service. She is quiet, reserved but talks with passion about the locations, situations and the people she meets while researching her novels.
Mem Fox (Australia, the visit to HK was in 2001)- Dynamic, hilarious, personal and really connected with every child.
Darren Shan (Ireland the visit to HK was in 2007) - Pure genious where he had over 300 students eating out of his hand while he had a small group re-enact the firsat chapter of Circque du freak. He was funny and was very personable.
Elizabeth Honey (Australia the visit to HK was in 2002) - Elizabeth drew pictures and helped the students create stories similar to hers. Her presentations were high energy and very engaging and active.
Alan Gibbons (UK the visit to HK was in 2013) - high energy with engaging short writing/ creativity activities throughout his presentation time.