Dear Teacher: An Author’s Take on School Visits

I have been enjoying school visits for the past 15 years. I’ve played a role in great successes and I’ve had visits that have felt flat and, for me at least, unrealized.

Same guy. What was the difference?

Which is another way of asking, “What makes a successful author visit?”

Here’s a clue: I don’t think it’s the author. I’ve given talks when teachers have walked into the room enthusiastic and eager — curious to meet me, to hear my talk — and I’ve seen teachers arrive late, who appear put-upon and vaguely annoyed. They flip through papers, check their watches, see it all as an inconvenience rather than something germane to their mission as teachers. Students feed directly off those attitudes; it’s what they are taught. I’ve seen kids enter a room bubbling with excitement. I’ve seen it in their eyes. They were going to meet a real, live author. Someone whose books they’ve talked about and read. Other times, other groups: it’s more like, “Why are we here again?” They may not even be sure.

Here’s what I’ve concluded: A school visitĀ isn’t something that happens to a school. It is something that a school does.

Let me put that another way:

Authors don’t “do” school visits.

Schools “do” author visits.

It’s an important distinction. An author visit is not passive for the school. It’s active. And it requires a lot of work, with a lot of different people pulling on the same oar. Schools make these visits happen — and by “schools” I mean the principal, librarian, teachers, service workers, and PTA/PTO. The author showing up? That’s after most of the real work’s been done.

At least 85% of what transpires for a visit is up the school, not the author. In fact, it’s not that much about “the event” itself, which happens in a flash and is soon over. A small part of a given day. The author comes and goes. Then it’s P.E. and lunch and recess and the math quiz. What endures is what happens in the school before and after the visit.

For an author visit to make sense, it has to be part of some greater context, a school’s emphasis on literacy, it’s fundamental belief in the value of reading and writing. The author is part of something much larger. Or else, seriously, don’t bother. Save the money.

Schools should think of a visiting author as a distant uncle they’ve invited over for Thanksgiving dinner. They’ve been preparing, shopping, cleaning, and cooking long before Uncle Jimmy ever shows up. Sure, he’s funny and nice and will add to the festivities, might even help make it a wonderful afternoon. But without all your work — if there’s no turkey! — then it’s not going to be much of a visit. And guess what? Uncle Jimmy isn’t going to hang around to do dishes. He won’t be eating the leftovers either.

What you get out of an author visit is in direct proportion to what you put into it — just like everything else in life.

There’s a wealth of practical “how to” information out there addressing every aspect of the successful visit. For some easy tips, try starting at these sites:

* How To Have Great Author Visits — from Pamela Curtis Swallow and Deborah Heiligman

* Planning, Fundraising, & Tips — from Scholastic

* Terri’s Tips for Terrific Author/Illustrator Visits — from Theresa Finch, Librarian

* Visiting Authors Dot Com — lots of good stuff here, start digging.

6 comments

  1. Kurtis says:

    This is terrific stuff. Thanks.

  2. Eric Luper says:

    Great post, Jim! What you say is so true. Hope our paths cross again soon!

  3. Douglas Rees says:

    You encapsulate it perfectly. I will never do a school visit again if I can help it.

  4. Jimmy says:

    Oh, Douglas, I don’t know you, but your comment bummed me out a little. I can only guess that you’ve had some disappointing experiences. Your books trend older than mine, so I’m guessing that you don’t spend much time in the elementary schools.

    To be clear, if I wasn’t before: I enjoy doing school visits, I’m grateful for them, and many have been great experiences for me and (I think) many of the students and teachers.

    At the same time, there’s a fundamental conflict to the author visit. We’re good at being alone — so let’s invite him to speak to hundreds of kids! It requires a totally different skill set. And it’s definitely exhausting.

  5. Jordan Hunter Smith says:

    hey james preller this is jordan the kid you saw in the hallway 3/25/11 in richard rice elementry school hey your book bystander bye email me. so geuss what i am righting a book inspired by you

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