Before my first children’s book was published, I hadn’t set foot in a fourth-grade classroom since I was a fourth-grader. I’d been to plenty of author visits in my time, but I’d always been the kid sitting cross-legged and wide-eyed on the floor, not the wise, adult author who (presumably) knew exactly what she was doing. I’d never been much of a public speaker, and the prospect of walking into an elementary school and talking to students about my writing was terrifying: What if I forgot what I was saying? What if I bored the kids? What if I offended the teachers? What if no one called my name in Red Rover, which is what happened the last time I was in fourth grade?
Two books and a bunch of school visits later, I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but I’m slightly less terrified and a little more knowledgeable about the ingredients that go into a successful school visit. There’s a wealth of excellent advice on the topic out there already, so I won’t attempt to cover the basics here. Instead, I thought I’d share a few of the more surprising and unorthodox tips I’ve picked up so far:
Embarrass yourself! There is no more suitable place to be publicly shamed than an elementary school. Kids love to laugh—with you, at you, they don’t much care which. Show photos of yourself as a youngster, but be sure to choose a picture that’s as cringeworthy as possible. Wear a penguin hat. Read aloud from your very worst draft of that picture book you wrote when you were six. If the topic of your talk presents an opportunity for you to sing or dance (terribly), so much the better.
Scare the children! Just like the rest of us, kids face adversity and disappointment on a daily basis. It can be encouraging for them to see that even you—a famous author!—were rejected and humiliated and forced to type draft after draft until your fingers wore down to nubbins, which is why you should proudly present to them the terrifying visual evidence of your hard work. I like to show kids the lengthy editorial letters I receive, the pages of writing covered with crossouts and changes, and the piles of revisions I print out en route from rough draft to final book. Shannon Hale has a long, laminated scroll of rejection letters from publishers that she unfurls to kids’ horror and delight.
Create a ruckus! For kids, an author visit is a really special part of the school day: it doesn’t happen very often, it’s much more exciting than their regular classes, and since you’re not their teacher, the normal rules of school behavior don’t quite apply. You’ll have to take the temperature of each group before you attempt to create a ruckus, but if you think the students (and teachers) can handle it and you’re confident in your crowd control techniques, let the kids take a quick break from sitting quietly and listening. Have volunteers join you for an interactive storytelling game or a readers’ theater. Write a Mad Libs-style summary of your book and have kids fill in the blanks; then read the hilarious results. Write serious or silly questions on index cards, put them in a bag, and have kids draw cards and ask you the questions. Ask them to vote for their favorite character. If there’s a chance for kids to clap, cheer, or scream their lungs out, take it! (And then challenge them to get super quiet.)
Be honest. This might be my most radical tip, though it’s not nearly as much fun as the others. Kids are great at asking questions, and some of those questions can be tough. Is writing hard? Do you ever get scared when you’re writing? What’s your least favorite part of being a writer? Why don’t you have kids? Are you rich? Were you cool when you were my age? Who’s your favorite member of One Direction? These sorts of questions might make you want to reach for your SCBWI-branded whiskey flask before answering. Be tactful, of course, and be vague if you’d like (“Um, the one with the hair? Is his name, um, Larry?”), but please don’t lie. You’re a role model for the students you speak to, and they can handle the truth, delivered in a kid-friendly and down-to-earth way.
What am I missing? What unconventional school visit techniques have worked best for you? Let me know in the comments!