Making your author’s visit a wow!
School librarian Sal Flint is a veteran organiser of school visits by authors and illustrators. If you want to get the best out of your visitor – ask them what they need.
Ensuring a memorable visit
Inviting an author or illustrator to a school can be an event that leaves a lasting and positive impression on students, inspiring young people to read more and to love books. Ensuring it’s a memorable visit requires thought and in my experience the best way to ensure that nothing is overlooked is to listen to your visitor about what’s important to them.
Over the years I hosted many amazing visitors. I wondered if they were still willing to share their thoughts on the topic?
What then, in their view, makes the difference between an OK visit and a great experience? Reconnecting with authors and illustrators for whom I had personally planned visits over many years was a great pleasure and this is what they had to say.
Korky Paul, celebrated illustrator of the Winnie the Witch books got me off to a great start with some sound, practical advice when I spoke to him:
“Meeting the chief librarian or head/principal on arrival is important for me, to thank them for hosting my visit. In addition, having one room dedicated for the event makes a real difference, as it takes valuable time to set up for each workshop in different classrooms. Organising a sale and signing session at the end of the day for the visitor’s books will always be appreciated. Use a local bookseller, or order direct from the publisher and ask for a 30% discount.”
Janice is based in Bangkok and famous for writing about the celebrated tuk-tuks of Thailand. She reminded me of her visit to my library at Bangkok Patana School:
“I remember having lots of fun in my sessions with the students, due to the efforts you and your team made for the visit.”
Her fond recollection of reading “students’ online comments before my visit” shows the how important it is to get the pre-visit introduction to the author just right. But while expressing the importance of the children knowing her books in advance, she also mentioned her preference for allowing her space to introduce a specific book that a session was going to be based to keep the session fresh.
Harry Baker, whom I nostalgically remember as a young, enthusiastic spoken-word poet, was another author I was thrilled to get back in touch with. His reflections on school visits echoed what Janice had said:
“One of the things that makes the biggest difference for me in school visits is the students being made aware of my work/who I am before I arrive. Whether this is by being shown a video in advance or having displays put up in the library, it means they are excited to see you in the corridor before you have even begun, as opposed to being annoyed that they have been taken out of a PE lesson to see a random person they have no context for doing poems!
“As a visiting author, it can also be quite lonely being halfway around the world in a hotel room in a place you don’t know, so I always appreciate it if there is a chance to go out for a meal with the teachers while I am there, or even to have some recommendations of things to do.”
Good point, Harry!
Jack Gantos had been one of the first authors for whom I had arranged a visit. I remember being star-struck at hosting a Newbery Medal Award-winning author. When I contacted him he wrote a charming response in which he sketched out a blueprint for visits that encapsulated pre-author preparation at the heart of the visit and the ripple effect of post-visit arrangements. He emphasised the need not only to read the books with the students but to have them prepare questions and to focus on “writing elements to look for,” underscoring the importance of character development, setting, rising action and resolution. In anticipation of post-visit learning. Jack posed the question: “After I’m gone, and students and teachers are back in the classrooms, how can the teachers use what I’m teaching?”
Like Korky Paul, he emphasised technical basics:
“When I’m on a big stage,” he says, “I need a big drop-down screen, good stage lighting, and a powerful microphone. It is important for things to run smoothly.”
Since her visit to school. Gail Clarke, also became a great friend.
“What I always loved and still love, is the post I receive after a visit. I receive student letters that are golden! I want to open all their eyes to the possibilities—and sometimes I get a letter from a child who you just know is going to chase the dream.”
I absolutely loved Gail’s visits to my library. I remember my brilliant library team transforming the whole library into a jungle scene from which she could explore important environmental issues with the children!
Costa winner Linda Newbery was a wonderful visitor. When I spoke to her recently, she provided a candid perspective, emphasising the essence of genuine enthusiasm in organising visits.
“The key to a successful author visit is enthusiasm and interest from the librarian or teacher who’s organised it. That may sound obvious, but most authors can tell you of visits that feel more like ticking a box than an opportunity to engage with one particular writer and their ideas. (I was once introduced to Year 9 with ‘Well, I don’t know who you are or what you’ve come to talk about’ …)
“It makes a world of difference when preparation has been spot on, books displayed and circulated and students and staff have had a look at my website. This leads to solid engagement on the day, focused discussions, and a rewarding experience, I hope, for all involved.” I was quite relieved to hear that she felt my own preparations had been up-to-the mark!
It was great to be back in touch with Clive and exciting to hear that as well as telling tales in numerous international schools he has shared stories and run workshops in schools for street children in Indonesia and the Philippines and performed in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan.
“The one thing I found really helpful was to make sure tedious things like getting to the school from the hotel was organised. Also, while I understand schools need value for money it is important to provide us poor entertainers with a break or two. Teachers dread a full day with no free periods and whilst I wouldn’t expect a free period between shows a break is essential!”
Leigh was the Australian Children’s Laureate in 2016/2017 and for him the most important thing for a great visit means
“Teachers to be prepared and engaged and for the students to be aware of who is in fact going to be the presenter. Of course, it’s the responsibility of the presenter to get in touch in advance and state what the kids need and what the presenter will need for the session.”
Leigh had lots of great tips, but I was so taken with the notion that Australia now has a stamp of my favourite character, Mr Chicken, and Leigh himself, both legends in their right, that I could scarcely get them all down!
Sal’s’ 10 top tips for a fantastic author visit
From my chats with these fabulous people, it seems that the key ingredients to a great visit are careful planning and genuine warmth. Here are my top tips for a great author visit – just click ‘top tips’.
Sal Flint is the former Head of Libraries at Bangkok Patana School. Returning to the UK in 2020, she is now a specialist international school library consultant with Consilium Education.
You can catch up with Sal at the introductory training and networking event of the British Schools Library Network on November 23rd.
Reserve your free place here:
Many thanks to Sal and the authors for providing the images in this article!