Three Things Every Author Should Know about School Visits

This many! (Fun fact: This photo shoot took A LOT longer than it should have.)

Have you ever been on the move for so long that once you finally stop moving, you don’t know what to do with yourself?

I feel that way now. For the past several weeks I had gotten into the habit of running from one place to another, talking about my book, coming home, and then collapsing in a heap. It was exhausting. It was also exciting and new and it made me feel very, very important. I really did love it. I loved it more than I thought I would.

Now that it’s all over, I’m suffering a little from promo withdrawal.

But my schedule, exciting as it was, didn’t allow me to write at all. So I am very eager to reacquaint myself with my first love. I missed writing much more than I liked feeling important.

During the tour I visited lots of schools. That is par for the course for a picture book – especially a nonfiction one. Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect on those visits, I’d like to share three takeaways:

1. Kids love to take you down rabbit holes.  

During one class visit I told a group of 40 third graders that my fondest childhood Thanksgiving memory was watching Big Ape Movies on the local TV station. Every single year the station aired Mighty Joe Young, King Kong, and Son of Kong. “Six straight hours of simian mayhem!” I announced. “I have no idea what giant gorillas have to do with Thanksgiving, but, hey, who cares? It’s wonderful!”

And by opening that door, I invited in a long string of ape-related questions. Clearly I was the King Kong expert these kids had been waiting for their whole lives. “How big was he?” one asked. (I guessed about 50 feet tall.) “Did that big building get damaged bad?” (No, they just needed to patch up some bullet holes.) Would King Kong win a fight with Godzilla? (If Americans made the movie, I replied, then yes.)

It was a blast. And, because I indulged this line of questioning, the kids loved me. Oh, and my “simian mayhem” line made one teacher to do a spit take; this is perhaps my proudest achievement ever.

2. There’s one teacher in every school who assumes you don’t know what you’re doing.

This teacher is the wet blankie who tries to calm down the children after you have invested so much time and energy revving them up. Not. Cool.

This teacher is either very, very young and well-meaning or one of those old law and order types who is one year away from retirement. (Teachers with tenure and more than a few years of full time work left in them are happy to sit back, drink coffee, and let you do your thing.)

I find it important to address the interrupting teacher directly. Doing so is a bit of a tightrope walk, however, for I have to communicate two messages at the same time. My first message is for the kids: “Your teacher is the boss. Your teacher is even MY boss and it is important to always do what she says.” My second message is for the teacher and is rich with subtext: “Why don’t you follow the fine example of your peers and drink some coffee?”

At one of my recent visits, a young teacher, trying to be helpful, inserted herself into my presentation to “calm things down, a bit.”

In front of the crowd I told the teacher she made an excellent point. Then I thanked her. Then, before the teacher could say anything else, I called on an earnest little girl who  could be counted on to ask a question that was “appropriate.” As the girl asked her question, the teacher and I chatted to each other with our eyes.

“I got this,” my eyes told her.

“You sure?” her eyes asked back, concerned.

“Your coffee is getting cold,” my eyes replied. “And that chair waaaay over there looks hella comfortable.”

3. Controlling a Q&A session is a lot easier than you might think. 

Kids wear their personalities on their sleeves. Even if they say nothing, their body language makes it easy to differentiate the silly from the studious. You don’t need talent to figure out who’s who. You just need eyes. Anyone can do this. Really. Anyone.

By using this information, I became a Q&A conductor of sorts; I called on the sillies when I wanted to dial up the energy in the room and the studiers when I wanted to dial it back.

And because I love and respect teachers and don’t wanna make their jobs any more difficult than they already are, I wrapped up all my Q&A sessions by calling on three studious students in a row. You’re welcome, teachers. Here’s hoping I’ll see you again next year!

42 Replies to “Three Things Every Author Should Know about School Visits”

  1. Oh how funny and interesting. I could have done with your help years ago with the bongo playing italians lol.

      1. I used to teach English as a foreign language and when they are only over for a week learning English in a fun informal style it’s hard to discipline them. One class I took they listened but one kid read a newspaper and another played the bongos. These days I’d probably have played a tune on the bongos to get their attention 🙂

  2. I think I would have loved your Q&A sessions as a kid. Teachers always seemed pretty uptight to me. Wild and crazy presenters were THE BEST. Especially ones who enjoyed simian mayhem.

  3. Aww, lookit that cutie in that photo! Totally worth the long photo shoot.

    I’m sure there are a lot of teachers like that, well-intentioned but overly controlling. To be fair, a lot of guests to their classrooms probably aren’t as cool and as savvy as you are. I bet they were pleasantly surprised by you. You must be awesome with kids.

    1. He is a cutie, isn’t he? 🙂

      I really do get where those teachers are coming from. I’m sure many of them have had to deal with class visitors who waltz in, make the kids reach a crazy point of no return, and then skip out without first bringing them back to a controllable level. And, well, that just irresponsible. Teachers have to deal with enough crap; they certainly don’t need me to give them more.

      And, yes, I do so love working with the little ones. This November has been quite a wonderful adventure.

  4. My favorite part of Q & A is the kid jumping, hopping and wriggling for attention until you finally call on them and you get: “Ummmm…………….(loooooong pause) Um……………I forget.”

  5. It sounds like you’re great with kids! I’m not surprised by that at all. It’s something that writers of kids’ books need to be prepared for isn’t it, I’m sure it would be a terrifying thought for many!

    Did King Kong have any hobbies?

  6. Your posts make me smile. I think you should have added a video of you showing some ‘simian mayhem.’
    Great writing about teaching. Have you considered joining that profession? You’d be great. Hope you sold lots of books this Thanksgiving season, but truly, your book is great for all year long.

    1. Thanks, Pam!

      I never seriously considered being a teacher, but I am surrounded by them. My wife, parents, and sister are all teachers. Once upon a time, however, I did teach bored high schoolers how to ace the SAT. And I work in a school today; I am the editor of The Lawrenceville School’s alumni magazine.

      The book sales have been incredible. The lovely marketing person at Albert Whitman & Co. told me that they have a 2,000-book backorder. So, yes, lots to be thankful for!

  7. I would give anything to see you in action in front of a cafeteria filled with amped-up school children. I bet you are a master of riling them, and their teachers, up to distraction.

  8. So, so true about the rabbit holes. Sounds like a fun experience in the classroom. The teachers hopefully enjoyed all that coffee.

    1. I did! And I had to reschedule a number of my appearances after Sandy hit. That was why my fall turned out to be busier than expected.

      And, scheduling! Yes! That might be a nice future post! Thanks for the idea!

  9. You are awesome. I’m scared that I will eventually have to (want to) go to my kids middle schools and high schools. I think that will be a different audience. I’d love to go to the grade school. But I don’t think I’ll ever finish that middle grade novel that I pantsed and didn’t know how to end.

    1. At one school visit I talked to a half-dozen high school creative writing students.

      In some ways I found the teenagers to be more fun than the younger kids. Little kids want to be entertained, but older ones want to sop up knowledge. When teens are engaged, they can initiate some marvelous discussions.

      Don’t worry about the visits. Just prep well, be flexible, and start small. You’ll have a blast.

      Oh, and don’t use PowerPoint. Just talk.

  10. Great post! I taught 3rd grade for 17 years and have to say that you pegged the teacher’s just right! Loved the silent “eye dialogue” and your way of handling kids…very effective! A good teacher knows when and how to get the kids excited and interested and when to bring them back into control. For gosh sakes, how does anyone ever expect kids to learn the love of reading if it is approached with a “library voice” atmosphere?

    Great way to promote a children’s books. Parents are weak when it comes to making their kids happy and most will buy anything a child begs them to buy, especially a book!

    1. Your words warmed my heart, Mrs. P! I am the black sheep in a family of teachers. My parents, sister, father-in-law, and wife have all made classrooms their homes away from home.

      So, when I visit a school, I am especially focused on making the teacher’s life as easy as possible. I know all too well how difficult the job can be.

      Thanks for visiting my blog — and MANY thanks for your years of service!

  11. Your comments almost make me want to write for a much younger audience. I love the smaller kids with their enthusiasm and energy and their crazy questions. Sometimes the older ones are a bit of a buzz-kill because they have to look cool in front of their peers and appear to be indifferent. You don’t get all the interesting questions from them, just from their teachers. Glad you had such a fun time with your school tours. 🙂

    1. It depends on your audience, I think. At one school, the administration asked me to chat with a high school creative writing class. I found it to be a very gratifying experience.

      These kids, for the most part, wanted to be writers, so the first words out of my mouth were, “You can do this. You can make a good living as a writer. It’s not easy, but it is possible.”

      That set the tone for the rest of the class. They picked my brain clean and I couldn’t have been happier.

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