Here I am at Westport North Primary School in Were-Nana accessories (thank you wonderful Fifi for sending me a set) talking to the children. Here I had my favourite bit of feedback. At the end of my talk and story reading one young man put his hand up to say that when he grew up he wanted to be a writer like me. I try my best to make my talks interesting and hopefully helpful for everyone in the audience but the thought that I might light a spark under some young person's creativity is overwhelmingly rewarding.
For all the people who lit a spark in my creativity: my parents, some of my teachers, other writers, I am beyond grateful - thank you. And now as I visit schools as a writer, thank you to the patient, attentive children who listen to me and my stories, thank you to theNZ Book council, the school principals, the teachers and the librarians who organise, fund, prepare visits and enthuse about writers and books. I guess these visits not only have the potential to inspire the children they also inspire and invigorate me. And i get to hear the sweetest words, 'read it again'.
Here are a few tips for making the most of (and surviving) a school visit/tour.
1) Do not try to cram too much in. Although each visit might be only half an hour to 45 minutes I always go over time and there is always travel time, set up time and the unexpected to be factored in. And no matter how interested and well behaved the children are, it is very energy sapping. Three sessions in a day is the upper limit for me although I recommend keeping to two sessions if you are doing several days of visits in a row.
2) Before you go try to find out if the organisers have anything in particular they want to achieve from your visit. Do they just want reading, or a more workshop style event? Do they have a particular outcome in mind? Is it book week or some other important event?
3) Find out the size of your audience. I don't use powerpoint or any other technological display tools, its just me and my books (and a few fun accessories - see above and below) so it is a bit more challenging to speak to larger groups. I've spoken to as many as several hundred at once but if possible I prefer smaller goups of 15 to 30 with a maximum of 100. Larger group sizes means it is hard to connect with individual members of the audience and make it more likely that children will get distracted and restless. It is harder for them to hear you reading (and see the pictures of the book for pbs) and ask questions. For a workshop 10 to 20 works better for me and such groups operate best if composed of children particularly interested in writing or books. Better to know what you are facing even if the group size is not your ideal one.
4) Have a think about how you will answer the audiences questions. Check this out to see how not to answer audience questions (although I laughed myself silly over these and wish I could use these responses - maybe in a parallel universe. This blog also makes a good point about acknowledging the contributions of both writer and illustrator in pb's) . Younger audiences in particular come up with some doozie questions that are totally unrelated to writing or books (how old are you? are you married? how much does your husband earn?). But seriously, you do want to have an answer for - where do you get your ideas? how long have you been writing? why did you become a writer? what are your favourite authors/books? Which of your own books/stories is your favourite?
5) Props are useful and sometimes life saving. I have a special decorated suitcase for all my material which serves as an icebreaker with audiences. I have a soft toy which travels with me and can be used to motivate children. I have books and other material which can be handed round and now of course I also have my fab Were-Nana accessories. I always include some of my sources for the viking information I used in my novel Jack the Viking and these can be useful to start discussions with older children. All children love little extras like bookmarks or postcards. I also have unpublished material which can be used as a basis for the children's own illustrations. Take everything you can think of. Every audience is different and what worked brilliantly with one group might be the kiss of death with another. Its good to be able to pull a rabbit out of the hat when the audience is getting restless.
6) Remember, while children can be exceedingly scary and can be merciless if they smell your fear, I believe they really do want you to succeed at your visit.
Remember also that none of the above are hard and fast rules. These are all things that I have discovered that work for me as I have gone about the business of school visits. I learn something new every time and my repertoire of talk topics grows which is useful because I have more options to chop and change if something isn't working. Most important, be brave and reward yourself with a nice coffee/wine/piece of cake/chocolate/all of the above, afterwards. You'll deserve it.