CHILDREN’S BOOK WEEK 2011: The author’s perspective
Today, I am very chuffed to welcome Joe Craig, author of the Jimmy Coates series, to Library Mice. Joe was kind enough to agree to write a piece for me about his experience of school author visits.
I’ve been doing events at schools since my first ‘Jimmy Coates’ book came out in 2005. There was a crazy time when I was doing more than 100 schools a year (and I know some authors do many more even than this). These days I limit myself to about 20 or 30 so that I have some time to actually write and so that each school feels a bit more special, not just part of an endless, exhausted blur.
Over the course of these hundreds of school visits I’ve had some great experiences, some not so great. On the whole, it’s been incredibly positive and enjoyable. I’ve learned a huge amount, met some inspiring people (students and staff alike) and I plan to continue visiting schools as long as they’ll have me.
I thought it would be instructive to paint a picture of two hypothetical school visits. One is perfect, containing everything from the best-organised, most-inspiring events I’ve done. The other will be a cautionary tale. It will feature all the mistakes that people make (including me) in putting together a school visit.
Some of these things (good and bad) happen all the time. Some of them have only happened once. But everything set out here has happened.
At The Heavenly School of Perfection, where their motto is ‘Everything perfect, all the time’, there’s a parking space reserved for me at the front door. The Head Teacher is at reception to welcome me. Perhaps there’s bunting, but let’s not push the fantasy too far. There’s also a group of three or four students in the welcome party and they’ve been put in charge of looking after me for the day.
Now, I know it’s not always possible for the Head to greet me at the door, but at some point during the day I do expect him or her to seek me out and say hello. It’s not that I’m so full of myself I insist on seeing the boss, it’s about sending a message. When the Head cares, the students notice. So is this a school that cares about reading, writing and creativity? Or is this… Hellsville Towers?
At Hellsville Towers, the receptionist ignores me. There’s no sign of the Head and there was no parking space, even though I’d asked for one. Apparently it wasn’t possible because parking is ‘at a premium’. I know parking is at a premium. That’s why I ask for a reserved space.
Eventually the librarian appears. Now, what’s the first thing she does? Does she offer me a cup of tea? Does she show me where the loo is? Does she suggest we have a quick look at the hall to make sure everything is set up OK? No. She forces upon me the most dreaded fate awaiting any visiting author: a tour of the school.
Do you have an aquarium? Is the school dragon kept in the basement? No? Then why on earth would I want a tour of your school? Trust me, however remarkable you think your school is, I’ve seen one just like it, and it didn’t interest me the first time. All I want to do is sit down, preferably with that hot drink you haven’t offered yet.
That’s what I’ve been allowed to do at The Heavenly School of Perfection. There is even a biscuit. And now that the Head has left to get on with the day, the heavenly librarian introduces me to the English department, who are all very excited about my visit because, get this: they’ve been told I’m coming! Amazing! They’ve also prepared themselves, and their students. There’s even a display all about me, me, me.
So now do we all sit around and have a good chat? Well, possibly. But if this really is going to be the perfect school visit, the staff will chat to or at me, but they won’t ask me any questions.
Because back at Hellsville Towers, when (if) I finally sit down, the first thing the librarian does is lean over me and say, “So, what’s your inspiration?” or “So, how did you get into writing?”
Inside, I die a little. By all means tell me all about yourself, but I will be sitting quietly, saving my voice and my energy for my audience. For them, I will answer those questions before they’re even asked. The students will always get the best of me. I’m afraid everybody else gets the energy-saving, voice-conserving me.
The Heavenly School of Perfection has sent me an itinerary for the day beforehand, so I know exactly who I’m talking to and when. Amazingly, the numbers and ages of the students in my audience are exactly as promised! Even better (and this one might surprise you), because of the buzz around the school that the teachers and librarians have generated about my visit, a 6th Form English group has asked whether they can sit in on one of my sessions. Do I mind? Of course I don’t mind! This is brilliant! Squeeze in at the back. Let me entertain you…
Meanwhile, at Hellsville Towers, my session has been chopped and changed a little. Turns out half the year actually have a school trip today. Some of the rest of them haven’t been allowed out of a geography lesson and some of the others have an exam. Oh, and that exam is in the next room, so can I keep my session fairly quiet?
In the end, I have a more ‘intimate’ group of students who cover the full age span of the school. Despite the age-range, they’ve all been lumped together. Within a few minutes I realise why these particular students are in front of me. They’ve been specially selected. Not selected because they particularly need a boost in their reading and writing, not selected because they are particularly interested, and not selected because they are particularly talented… I’ve been given the docile ones. The students who can be relied upon not to ‘embarrass’ the school.
The result is a session where nobody puts up their hand, nobody shouts out an idea and everybody gradually drifts into a light coma.
At the Heavenly School of Perfection, all are welcome. Usually, the students whose behaviour has been a problem are the ones who end up most engaged. Mix everyone together. It makes for a day that’s more fun, far more educational and, if I do my bit right, unforgettable.
Ah, now, allow me to talk for a second about my incredibly demanding requirements for a school visit. It’s a huge list of technical kit and you might need a specialist team because you’ll need to provide:
Water and a microphone.
That’s it. These are the only two things I ask for. Seriously. Plenty of water to drink and, if it’s a group of more than about 100, a microphone. Two things. How hard can that be? And yes, I do always carry with me a spare bottle of water, but you didn’t know that, did you? And when I ask for ‘plenty’ of water, I don’t mean a single plastic cup, half-full, that I’ve usually downed before I even start.
The reason I need a microphone is because I like to get my audience excited. Yes, excited about books, reading and writing. I’ll get them shouting out ideas and, hopefully, laughing their heads off. The best events are interactive and high energy.
But there are some people who are not allowed to speak: the staff.
At Hellsville Towers, there are a couple of teachers at the back who’ve decided to use this time to do some marking. Usually, if I’m doing my job well, they’ll give up after a couple of minutes because they won’t be able to concentrate. So I’ll give them the chance to make that decision for themselves. If they keep marking, I always find a way to make them stop.
And then one or two of them might decide it’s time for a little chat. Hellsville Towers will remember this day. The last time any member of staff tried to chat in one of my sessions I went a little too far and they ended up so embarrassed I think they emigrated. I can’t promise I’ll never do that again.
Meanwhile, at the Heavenly School of Perfection the staff lead by example.
Meanwhile the photographer from the local paper snaps away, of course, and the librarian has also arranged for the students on the media course to take their own photos and even film a little interview with me for the school website. The most surprising thing about all of this is that somebody will actually remember to send me the photos and the interview afterwards.
Finally, I soak up the applause and settle in to sign some books.
Ah, books. Hellsville Towers has not been able to get any books in. Too difficult. The students aren’t allowed to get anything signed either. Too messy. They lumber away, heads bowed, some of them clutching money they’ve been forbidden to spend on a book, or a piece of paper they’ve been forbidden to get signed. What a waste.
At the Heavenly School of Perfection they’ve taken orders for books in advance. They’ve also got a system for kids who decide to buy a book there and then, but don’t have the money on them. No problem. They can handle it. And the friendly people from the local, independent bookshop are on hand to make sure it all runs smoothly.
The events are over, people are smiling, or weeping, or emigrating – depending on how things have gone.
At the Heavenly School of Perfection I’ve been served a lovely, simple lunch in the quiet of the library or staff room. There were a couple of student librarians there too who’ve been helping out and they got to know me a little better. Some sixth-formers were also invited; we chatted about writing, philosophy, creativity and life in general. Then, of course, I was given the privilege of meeting the reading group. We chatted some more, they asked me some amazing questions, I signed some books. What a great day.
Sadly, at Hellsville Towers, they’ve dragged me to the school canteen and left me to it. Once I’ve negotiated the queue, convinced the lunch staff I don’t need to pay for my food and found a seat, I’m surrounded by people shouting questions at me over the clatter of the hall. I think a piece of fish-finger just landed in my hair. I’m not even sure what I’m eating.
Oh well. In the weeks ahead I know I’ll forget all this. Hellsville Towers will sink into nothingness and survive only as a scribbled note in my diary not to return. Some time far into the future, a cheque will arrive from them (if I haven’t had to chase them) to cover my fee. I’ll get that little burst of emotion that mixes the joy of receiving money with the astonishment that anybody still uses cheques.
The Heavenly School of Perfection paid me electronically, on the day of the visit. They even gave me a little gift to remember them by, which they researched beforehand so they knew I’d like it. Perhaps it was a chilli plant. Perhaps it was a bottle of port or a bag of sweets.
It doesn’t matter. I will remember them with happiness for a long time.
This will be easy, because hundreds of their students will contact me on facebook or by email and keep in touch even years later. Eventually my relationship with the school will involve mentoring their creative writing groups, giving away awards, sending special prizes for their charity auction, helping to put together a book of the students’ stories… the only limit is the imagination.
Two quick final thoughts. First, my apologies for assuming earlier that the school librarian would be female, while the Head might be male or female. I found no way of writing it that combined equality and elegance.
Second: over the years, some of my school events have been arranged by my publisher. These have been, without exception, the worst organised, least rewarding, most frustrating days of my life. Now the only involvement my publisher is allowed in my school visits is to pass on enquiries to me.
So, writers: decide how you want a visit to go and help the school to organise it. It’s more time consuming but it’s more rewarding in the long run. Then make the school’s effort count – be outstanding. Be the greatest event in the school life of everybody you meet on the day. Nothing less will do.
Schools: the writer you invite to your school will probably only get to visit you once. Yes, there are several schools I’ve returned to, and some I go back to every year, but because of the demands of everybody’s schedule, they are the exception.
So ask yourself, if you’re only getting one day with this author, how can you really make it count?
What will create the biggest buzz, the most impact, so that this day influences the lives of all your students in a way that they will never forget?
All the effort and imagination you put in will be worth it.
Be sure to check out Joe’s website. Joe writes the Jimmy Coates books – action-thrillers for 8-13 year-olds. His new, short thriller, ‘Lifters’, is out now.