Friday 15 June 2018

Author School Visits - Tip 1

by Em Lynas

I haven't done many school visits yet as my books You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School and Get Me Out of Witch School haven't even been out a year yet and I've been busy writing Help! I'm Trapped At Witch School! until this month.

But I have done a few and I'm learning what works and what doesn't work for me and so I thought I'd share because it might be helpful to all you authors out there who aren't ex-teachers and are feeling the fear of the school visit.

I've just been appearing at the West End Festival in Glasgow as part of their schools programme and it's got me thinking about the importance of dialogue to establish character from the outset for mg readers and how that helps in the creation of events.

Pre-published misconception - children coming along with their school to talks/workshops/performances will be familiar with the book.

The truth - This is unlikely. If there's been time, an organised teacher, and an available book then, yes they may have read some but mostly - not. They're coming along for many reasons, it might be a free visit organised by a festival, it might be they've picked me at random or because I'm local. Or because they need to tick the - we've seen an author box. Or it may be they are huge fans and can't wait to hear what I have to say. I just don't know what situation I'm walking in to.

So, as I'm planning I'm thinking - How do I engage the children (and teachers) and interact with them about a book they probably know nothing about? How do I talk about it without giving away any spoilers? How do I make that fun?

Well, luckily, You Can't make me Go To Witch School has illustrations by the fabulous Jamie Littler and so I based my event around them and talked about character creation with the aid of a simple Power Point slide show. This has a become even simpler with each event. I think I started at 25 slides and now I'm down to 8. It was also interactive for the first event - Noooooooo!

The slideshow is a sort of Who's Who at Toadspit Towers.
Here's a few characters with the relevant dialogue I read from the book.

Copyright Jamie Littler, You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School, Middle Grade book
Daisy Wart

Reluctant Witch and Awesome Actress.

“Granny.” I say it with firmness. This is definitely a hands-on-hips moment, so I put them there. “Chocolate, currently in my backpack, is a birthday treat. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare with pictures, also currently in my backpack, is a birthday treat. Money, in the backpack, is a birthday treat. Dumping me at witch school is NOT a birthday treat. I absolutely refuse to enter a dilapidated building named Toadspit Towers because I am NOT a witch!”
Copyright Jamie Littler, You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School, Middle Grade book

Ms Thorn

Lover of Strictness and Conformity

“Is you the headmistress?” asks Granny. “Is you Ms Toadspit?”
“I am not,” says the woman. “I am Ms Constance Thorn. Senior Teacher of Toadspit Towers. You may speak.”

Dominique Laffitte 
Copyright Jamie Littler, You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School, Middle Grade book

Thinks She Is The Best and Brightest Witch at Toadspit Towers
“Ms Thorn has appointed I dormitory monitor for I am the Best and Brightest Witch.” She points at the rosette on her cauldron as proof. “I have knowledge of everything in this school. If there is anything you want to know then ask I. And if there is anything you should know then I shall tell you. And if there is anything you do wrong, I shall tell you that too. You are lucky to be sharing the dormitory of the youngest Best and Brightest Witch in the history of Toadspit Towers.

Copyright Jamie Littler, You Can't Make Me Go To Witch School, Middle Grade book

Jessica Moss
Feeling The Fun And Loving Her Life!

“What’s happen— Hey, a new girl,” she says, spotting me. Her eyes light up at the sight of the cake. “Ooh, cake. My mam can’t bake cakes. They go flat in the middle and come out like biscuits. But that’s OK because I like biscuits. And pie.”

Once the children had been introduced to the characters we chatted about who was going to be for or against Daisy. Who was going to help her to escape from Witch School and who was going to get in the way.

That's when I realised how important first impressions are to children in mg and why the first words spoken are so important. They completely 'got' each character from the way they spoke, the words they used and the attitude. It was a light bulb moment even though I really should have known that all along but as I was writing the books I was just writing for me, creating individuals who I wanted to spend time with. I wasn't always thinking about the reader and how quickly I need to establish personality. I will now though.

We were able to go  deeper into the characters but I'll blog about that another time. This could end up being a series.

So I learned something on that visit as well as having a ball with the kids making up new characters. I'm already trimming and adjusting ready for the next one and I'm sure I'll learn something on that too.

If you don't have illustrations you can still use images. You could find three images for each character and ask the children to choose the one that was the most likely to say the dialogue. That could be fun!


@emlynas on twitter - follow me!

Em is published by Nosy Crow and rep'd by Amber Caraveo


  1. Very wise not to assume your audience have read your book! If you can get them interested, they will be borrowing your book immediately after the talk, or buying it if it’s a festival. I know this, as a recently-retired teacher librarian. I had a book club and always made sure at least one or two kids had read the book before the talk, but the writers whose books were borrowed afterwards were always those who, like you, didn’t assume the kids knew it.

    1. It is great if some have read even a couple of chapters, the discussion is exciting and the children have strong opinions about the characters. But either is fun!

    2. Yes, I now always assume they haven't read my books. So when it turns out they have - I'm delighted! But I also have to be prepared to make quick adjustments to my presentation.

  2. Wouldn't presume to tell you anything, you're so good and also a teacher!! Lovely idea there and I thought your characters and their way of talking are superb btw. Just suggesting you could also pick some major problems in the book (obviously not the solutions!) and (in a class situation) get some kids to hold up the placards in a random line and other kids suggest how they should be moved into the order they think works for 'problems getting ever worse' - no right or wrong, just engendering discussion about rising tension after talking about beginnings, middles and ends. This too makes them buy the book as they are hooked! Roll on number 3!

    1. I love that idea! We do discuss each person's key word e.g, determination and problem e.g escaping. But I think your idea would be great to model escalation and then as the first step in them planning their own witch story. Thanks!


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