Thursday, 23 June 2011

School Visits: It's Not all Wizards and Cake

by Addy Farmer

You know how it is. The Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry rings you up (again) and says please can you come and do your spellbinding session on muggle stories.

They'll pay a hefty 1000 galleons, a complimentary set of Gryffindor robes and as many packets of Hob Nobs as a house elf can carry.


Well, maybe you arrive un-noticed at a school and find that you're doing a free workshop on the fun of physics for 453 children while the staff drink strong liquor and plan a train robbery.

Not exactly?

So what is the Truth about school visits? I asked a few uber authors for their views.

Now, these writers - Linda Newbery, Penny Dolan, Katherine Langrish, Jane Clarke - LIKE school visits. They recognise the importance of them.

Jane Clarke writes Dinosaur Cove and Puddle the Naughtiest Puppy.
Photo: Dennis Oberg

Jane puts it succinctly:

On paper, school vists account for around15% of my income as a writer - but in real terms this is likely to be more as school visits keep me in touch with my target market and promote sales of my books. They're great fun, too!

But anyone with an inner Trunchbull may find them ... a challenge.

Linda Newbery says:

Not everyone likes school visits, and it's a bit odd, really, that someone who's written a novel should be expected to stand up in front of year 9 for an hour and keep them interested.

Linda Newbery, award-winning author of LOB

Do it 'cos you get paid, you get out of the house and you love it. As Katherine says:

I get such a kick out of it, every time. I love doing it. I love telling stories.

But let's first hear what Linda has to say about having cake and not eating it ...

(No Cake sticker from Red Bubble)
I've been doing school visits for about twenty years, and have had a huge range of experiences: bad, funny and wonderful. Visits can vary tremendously, depending on the enthusiasm of the librarian or teacher in charge.

Most visiting authors have a fund of anecdotes about being ignored and belittled. My favourite (many years ago, but I'll never forget it) is the time I was sitting in a primary staff-room at break-time, apparently invisible - no one spoke to me, asked what I was doing, or offered me coffee.

It was someone's birthday, and three home-made cakes had been brought in. These cakes were cut up and passed round on plates, someone actually reaching across me to the person on my other side. It wasn't that I wanted cake ... but I did get up to make myself a coffee (still ignored).

Shame on them! But Linda goes on to say that:

But I mustn't get side-tracked from the wonderful visits ... Really enthusiastic staff ... eager children ... great preparation ... loads of questions - the sort of visit that makes me appreciate the privilege of working with children. Book sales were good, too, though that is a bonus and not something I necessarily expect on a visit.

Katherine Langrish. Photo: Helen Giles

Katherine Langrish of Troll Fell fame, gives her take on school visits:

I usually talk to Years 6, 7, and occasionally 8: but from Year 7 on, kids tend to be less well-organised: their parents and teachers are beginning to try and get them to organise themselves, so the all-important letter home ('Visiting Author; bring money for books!') often gets left in the bottom of the bag.

Plus, peer pressure and coolness points make it less likely that they'll arrive at my sessions /expecting/ to want to buy books. So I may not sell all that many.

But by the end of my sessions the kids usually wish they'd brought their money. My priority for a school visit is that it has to be fun.

I'm not there to teach them, I'm there to entertain them. If they don't have fun, why on earth would they want to read my books anyway? I write historical fantasy based on folklore and legends - rural and urban myths which have been passed down the centuries because people enjoy them!

So that's what I do - tell stories, throw some riddles and a bit of drama, do anything to get them interested in the stories shut up between the front and back covers of not only MY books, but any books.
Penny Dolan
Penny Dolan says it's important to find your own school visit way of doing things
Why do I do school visits? I meet children as they are now and not as I remember them from my earlier teaching life or my own childhood, which is useful when I'm working on a story.

I also love interesting the children in reading and in books, both mine and in general.

I try to show them that writing is a kind of making, an art form not a worksheet exercise.

My sessions are fairly fluid. Although I might use some of the same books, I will talk about the material differently for each age group. Over a long session, it’s important to vary the pace. My pattern might include telling stories, using the occasional prop, making up story with the children and being a bit funny at times, because that ‘s what suits my style. When I’m doing writing workshops, I use a much more serious approach.

I feel it’s important to become confident in your own type of "visitor" personality. It can be off-putting to hear that so and so is a really great performer, or comes with bells and whistles.

Go and see authors in action if you can, but learn to work to your own strengths. A quieter, reflective style can have long-term impact too!

And please forget fame and recognition! Schools are busy places. I don't even expect the children to know my name when I arrive. However, by the time I go, I hope they’ll remember it."

Let's not forget that we love to write. As Penny says:

The money has often been essential, but school visiting absorbs writing time. physical and creative energy. One can complete a busy “out there” year only to discover no books in the pipeline. It’s important to get the right balance in your life.

And A final word from Cliff McNish :

The secret is keeping them down to one or two a month, then they're fine.

Cliff winning the Salford Book Award in 2007 with Breathe

No, Cliff, I'm not jealous, not jealous at all. Write long and prosper.


  1. I love the comment about entertaining not teaching. Author visits should be about energizing and inspiring. After a good author visit, we see the children suddenly leap forward in their written work, and it's because very often the visit is what helps them suddenly see the point and joy of it all. And if it's a REALLY good visist the effects will carry them through the year.

    And by the way, any author visiting my school will be plied with MUCH cake and tea!

  2. ... authors will do anything for cake!

  3. What if I were a genuine hewed out of stone troll?
    Anyway - worthwhile post. As a teacher turned writer ( think poachers and gamekeepers) great author visits are an absolute highlight for most children.
    You need to be yourself , be prepared and be enthusiastic. Leave the shameless self-promotion behind and gag the inner editor/critic. You'll have a great time - and if the staff aren't supportive? Their loss. Tell other authors though!

  4. That comment about entertaining, not teaching: in a different context, that is how I approach the Chatterbooks groups I run. They've been in school all day already: coming to the library should be all about fun. In fact, they have so much fun I have trouble making them leave at the end. And most of them leave with an armload of books.

  5. p.s. in my experience, authors will do anything for jam doughnuts

  6. ... and sweet and sour pork hong kong style.

  7. Not sure the Society of Authors would approve of these rates, Candy

  8. I definitely think you're there to inspire the children generally but hopefully the teachers too. I still remember a local poet (Gillian Allnutt) who came in and worked with my class over a few sessions. She left me with so many ideas to pass on to other members of staff. And, she was worth every penny - we had a parents evening based on her visit, made and sold a poetry book of all the children's work and we sold videos (this shows how long ago!)of the evening. We covered the cost of her visit and had money left over to buy books for the class.
    It was excellent.

  9. Great post! So true that author visits are a varied experience. I've had a range of experiences so far and haven't been doing them long. I agree that you're not there to teach, but to let them in on the process of writing and meeting a writer. It enhances the curriculum and often teachers ask me to emphasis what they've been teaching as the kids will hear it better from the author. I'll add a good strong cup of tea to your list, especially if the visit is in the morning!

  10. I absolutely believe that inspirational is the way to be. There's such a difference between being a teacher (I supply teach) and a visiting writer. I find it freeing and fun - i can only hope the children do as well.

    I think biscuit/cake requirements should be part of any writer database. For the record I'm partial to custard creams.

  11. I must admit the words school and visit in the same sentence gives me the heebie jeebies. But stick a bottle of wine in there, it makes me feel a bit better (as long as I get to drink it just before the visit)

  12. Would it be incredibly rude to specify white wine on my school visits page? i don't drink red!

  13. Great article, Addy,
    I'm currently preparing for my first tour of duty, so these words of wisdom and warning are most welcome.


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