Saturday, March 21, 2015

Author visits - the good, the bad, and the ugly

Author visits are big business. There are companies that make money organising them, there are festivals arranged around them and schools pay quite a bit of money to host them, and of course the authors themselves are paid to do them. It seems that almost everyone who writes a childrens book is on the circuit, and just like the rock bands, much income comes from live performances rather than sales of their creations. There are a few reasons to go on tour: to increase readers of their books as it has been 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.


Anonymous said...

Good suggestions for authors! As an author, I'd love to underscore how much better these events go when kids are already familiar with an author's work -- you can get into the meaty stuff so much more quickly and the day's presentations feel more relevant for kids.

My best events are the ones where the school has prepped, where the host and I have communicated our expectations and plans effectively, and where students enter the room just as excited and eager to talk as I am.

In those situations, we all have fun, real learning happens (for all of us!), and the day is both a culmination of learning that has gone before and a springboard for more reading and writing in the classroom.


Dianne McKenzie said...

Thanks Linda for your comments. Your comment about communicating expectations with the parties concerned is very important. This allows for planning and understanding to occur before the event and allows the author to get a feel for the expectations, and, for the host to be more prepared without too many 'surprises'.

I also agree that having prepped students before the author arrives makes a difference, particularly if the books are being studied as part of the curriculum. However, I have also seen as much learning and engagement with an author when the students are not as familiar with the author's work. Jack Gantos did a brilliant job under these circumstances.

Authors are primary sources in the creative process. They may be the only external speaker students have access to over the year, so it does need to be a positive one.

Thank you for taking the time to comment. Best wishes for your author visits!

Kelsey H said...

I've certainly seen some profanity in author visits. Lemony Snicket was one of the most intense (though also quite entertaining) version of this. It's a great point to bring up, since many authors seem to forget that they are talking to children in schools.

Anonymous said...

It is very frustrating when authors give the same talk to both audiences, and then complain about the younger children's behaviour, when obviously it was too difficult for them to follow!

In Bahrain we had a visit from South African author and illustrator Paul Geraghty. His presentation was very high energy, entertaining and funny. (although sometimes he talked a little fast). He did talks for three different age groups, and showed students how he draws animals. He completed a dinosaur, an elephant and a penguin. He donated the pictures to the school which we had framed and put in the library. The students were talking about it for weeks! It was the best author visit I've seen.


Mrs. ReaderPants said...

I am a seasoned school librarian who has taught at all levels, PreK-12, in two different countries. I have paid many pennies for fantastic author visits and for painful trainwrecks. I wanted to underscore the interactive nature of author visits. There should always be visuals and interaction with the students. If the author asks students a question, he/she should allow for wait time (they will answer, but give the students a chance to think). If the students ask the author a question, the author should repeat the question before answering so everyone knows what was asked. The presentation should be well-planned and tailored to the audience. PLEASE do not just stand up there and talk about whatever comes to mind right then.

I will add AJ Betts and Matthew Holm to the list of fantastic author visits. Both were fantastic for varied ages, came very prepared with visuals, spoke passionately, and engaged the audience really well. Our students are still talking about these two visits many months later. Jason Henderson was also excellent for middle school, and Jan Peck/David Davis duo was very engaging for elementary school.