Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Top 10 Rules For Children's Writers (visiting schools) - Simon Cheshire


Me at a school
Talking to classrooms full of schoolkids is part and parcel of being a children's writer these days. I've no idea how this came about - in my day, the very concept of an author coming into school would have seemed bizarre. Anyway, a lot of children's writers visit a lot of classrooms.
For me, it's a joy. Truly. I should think 90% or more of visits to schools absolutely make my day, gladden my heart and restore my faith in humanity. School visits make it worthwhile putting up with all the practical, emotional and financial rigours that the jobbing writer endures.
As the end of the school year rapidly approaches, here are my personal thoughts on the subject, as distilled from loads and loads of schlepping around the country and trying to hold 10-year-olds spellbound for 45 minutes...
  1. It does get easier. When I started going to schools, I wasn't terribly good at the whole keeping-'em-spellbound stuff. Er, OK, to be brutally honest, I bombed. Big time. But now, though I say so myself, I'm a pretty good public speaker. After a while, all that stuff actor luvvies say about 'reading an audience' stops sounding like pretentious drivel and starts making sense. You really can play it on-the-fly and adjust your performance as it goes. And it is a performance.
  2. OMG, RELAX! Even if you're terrified, you must come across as entirely confident and at ease. Nothing loses a classroom full of kids quicker than nerves. Nothing.
  3. Find your natural habitat. Personally, I much prefer larger groups of kids, the bigger the better. I know others like the smallest groups possible. Stick to what you're comfortable with. If you don't like talking to more than one class at a time, don't be persuaded to address the entire school at Assembly. With that in mind...
  4. Learn to say 'no'. For example, I'm not a teacher. Never have been. I thoroughly enjoy talking to an audience and hearing their ideas, but I simply can't do the full 'workshop' thing and replace what a teacher would do during a lesson. I've learned from bitter experience that if a school says something like "we'd like you to lead a story-writing session and help grade their efforts" I must say (gently!) that my skills don't stretch that far. After all, they wouldn't expect a visiting firefighter to do that, would they? And with that in mind...
  5. Be clear and up-front. Have it right there on your website what you can do in schools. I try to make my Teacher's Page as comprehensive as possible. Go through the National Curriculum and see if you can tie what you talk about into something specific that children will have been learning about in class. Teachers really appreciate that.
  6. Me at another school
  7. Help schools help you. Do whatever you can to save teacher-time. Give them a flyer they can put up around the school, for instance; if books are going to be on sale, order the stock and do the fetching and carrying (see note below); email the school some free chapters - or send them a free copy or two, if you can afford it - that the children can read before the event.
  8. Do it yourself. Never let a third party organise a school visit for you, unless it's someone you know and trust (a personal contact at a publisher, for instance). If you're standing in front of a large group of kids, and they don't know who you are, or why you're there, and you're clearly wasting your time, you can bet there's a third party involved. I hate to say it, but public libraries are the worst offenders here. Not all of them, by any means. I've been doing some visits through Birmingham Central Library recently, and they're totally wonderful. But many aren't. Sad, but true.
  9. Charge a fee. I've done freebies in the past, and I'll very occasionally do them now, but the rule of thumb is: invoice 'em! Schools do expect to pay visiting speakers. You're a professional giving up your time. Of course, the million dollar question is: how much? A safe bet is to go by standard Society Of Authors suggestions, around £300 a pop, but I know quite a few writers charge more. I'd say, be flexible but don't undervalue yourself.
  10. Yes, it's World Book Day, and
    yes, I'm the twit in the
    Sherlock Holmes outfit
  11. Giveaways are nice. If your budget will allow, take along a supply a bookmarks or pencils - pre-printed with info about your books, of course - which every pupil can have. Even these days, you'll find the occasional school that gets jittery about the 'if one kid can't afford a book, no kid shall buy a book' idea. A giveaway helps reassure them that you're not some slavering greedy Bob Diamond figure.
  12. Whatever happens, smile. It's rare, but sometimes things do go wrong. I've been left alone with a class of baying maniacs; I've been berated in a crowded Staff Room for writing a book which included the word 'witch'; I've had teachers yattering and marking homework all through my talk; I've had secondary pupils tell me just how boring they thought my book was; I've talked to kids while the council rat catcher has laid bait behind me... At all times, smile sweetly. Never criticise, never walk out, and never lose your cool (well, cases of full-scale assault excepted, I suppose). Because, unfortunately, the only person it'll reflect badly on is you. All anyone will remember about you is your purple expression of rage. Not fair, but there it is.
As I said above, these are personal thoughts. If your own ideas or experiences contradict mine, feel free to say so. I once went to a (very prominent!) school whose pupils had, I later found out, chewed up and spat out more than one visiting writer, but which I found to be perfectly OK. 'Go figure' as they say.

Note on point 6: How many books should you take to a school? I've found that, on average, around 15%-20% of the children you talk to will buy a book. Ask the school exactly how many kids you'll be seeing and judge accordingly.


Simon Cheshire is a children's writer who'll be your bestest friend ever if you buy his ebooks. 
His website is at http://www.simoncheshire.co.uk/ 
And his blog about literary history is at http://bookhistorystudies.blogspot.com/



11 comments:

Sheridan Winn said...

Excellent advice, clearly laid out. Thank you, Simon! Dig that hat ...

Simon Cheshire said...

Dig it? Yeh, I'd like to bury it...

Jan Needle said...

great stuff. simon. i used to do it a lot, but go into schools very rarely now. my favourite 'unruly class' occurrence was when jan mark and i were in the same school in south london. i was sitting in the back of a very attentive class listening to her, when she suddenly stopped, and fixed two of the denizens with her amazing steely gaze (remember that gaze everyone?)

"If you're going to talk instead of listen, go outside and do it in the corridor," she said. "In fact I want to to lesve. Now."

The two teachers had no option, really. And the children didn't even dare to cheer!

madwippitt said...

Sounds like some good tips.
Although personally I shan't be venturing into any classrooms until they admit wippitts as well.
Of course no-one has ever asked me anyway!

Lynne Garner said...

Some great advice and although I knew I had to sort my school visit page out on my website - seeing yours I REALLY have to sort my school visit page.

CallyPhillips said...

Hi, Sound advice. Like mad whippet though, I work on the basis these days that if my dogs can't go, I don't go. And I also have medication which tells me to 'keep out of the sight of children' so I try to obey this as well! But good on you kiddy friendly people. They are the future after all (hmm?) Glass half full? Usually. Not in that respect. Hell in a handcart and all that - how can I be such a grumpy old git when I'm not even that odl? Maybe I AMD that old and forgot?.... Anyway, interesting post none the less. Reminded me of all kinds of HORRID experiences in schools. Though come to think of it, many adult groups could be just as bad. Glad I've retired from 'visits'.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

All wonderfully useful stuff - although I must admit I hardly ever do schools visits these days. I go to a school in Dumfries and Galloway once a year, to talk to sixth year drama students about a particular play but that's mainly because I know the teacher, who is lovely, and her students are always well prepared and chatty. I realised, with a sigh of relief, not too long ago that I could say 'I don't do workshops' and the sky wouldn't fall on my head. I'll do talks and question and answer sessions and discussions, but nevermore the dreaded 'workshop'. I'm a much happier person! I hated school so much when I was there myself that I can't now go into one without a terrible sinking feeling.

Simon Cheshire said...

I agree, Catherine, the word 'workshop' makes me cringe.

Schools are much nicer now than they were years ago. The ones I attended made Dotheboys Hall look like an episode of In The Night Garden, but today's primaries are (mostly) lovely places full of clearly contented kids.

Pauline Fisk said...

As someone who does do author visits in schools, an interesting post. And a great website too. I'll return to take another look at it when I'm not feeling so tired [end of day, am falling asleep as I type]!

julia jones said...

Really useful thanks very much indeed. But I like workshops and activities and knot-tying and signalling and floating magnetised needles so they turn into compasses. I suppose I'll grow up one day

Emma Barnes said...

Really enjoyed this, Simon - and lots of good advice. Number 10 especially important! Funnily enough I recently wrote about school visits over at the ABBA blog, where I mentioned that one of the more unexpected things that happened to me was being the subject of school prayers. "Please make us more like this author, may we too write with her wonderful imagination..."

Flattering, in a way, but I nearly collapsed with shock!