Successful School Visits 101

Josie Leavitt - October 14, 2010

This fall we’ve been blessed with great authors doing school visits, so I thought I’d take a moment and talk about what makes great visits. School visits are a wonderful way for authors and students to really get to know each other. More students are exposed to an author at school than might come to the store for an author event. I’m going to list the things that have helped us have great visits, and plan better for our upcoming visits.
• If you’re working with the author directly, be very clear on the timing. When authors plan, they can often plan many months ahead, as Cynthia Lord did this September. She planned four to five months ahead for her school visits with us. This allowed us to really work with the teachers, before they left for the summer, on arranging her visit. Cynthia also sent out a detailed letter to the schools she’d be working with, detailing what she planned to do and what she needed. When an author is that prepared, there’s really nothing you need to except make sure she gets to the school on time.
• Know the publicist’s name and contact info. I keep a file for each author who’s visiting schools. I’ve got the author’s name, contact name at the publisher, titles of all the books, school contact and phone number, school address and the author’s audio/visual needs. I then email my school contacts several weeks before the event with the A/V needs to make sure they have what’s needed. I email the publicist a detailed itinerary for the day of the of the visit with the school contact name, phone number, address, and meeting area.
• If you escort the author, make sure you’re a little early for everything. I try to remember that the author’s whole day hinges on me getting her where she needs to be on time. I also try to give the author some down time. It can be very grueling to do a day of school visits and everyone needs to recharge their batteries, so I always give the option of some alone time where the author can have a cup of coffee in peace.
• Treats are always appreciated. Gifts of thanks go without saying. We try to give every author a gift of some sort as our way of saying how much we appreciate their hard work. Lunch is always on us. Again, folks need to eat, and who doesn’t enjoy a good lunch in the middle of a long day?
• Set a reasonable schedule. This is where communication is key. Listen to what the publicist or the author says about what they can/like to do. Most authors won’t do more than 2-3 visits a day, so don’t plan five without checking first. Allow room between schools or classrooms for a bathroom or snack break. No one likes to go all day without food. Always have bottled water handy.
• It’s really helpful to have several months to plan. Schools are less and less flexible with “curricular interruption” than they used to be, so as much advance planning as you can give really helps the teachers fit the book into the curriculum before the author comes. I’ve always tried to make sure the kids have read at least one book of the visiting author before he or she arrives. I think it’s important to the author to have an engaged group of students, and it makes the event more fun and meaningful for the students. Work with the teacher ahead of time to find ways to make the author’s books work within the curriculum.
• If the visit is on short notice you need to remember that all writers can speak about the writing process, so even if your visiting author’s book are fantasy, as was the case with Catherine Jinks, you can still get her to speak about writing. Catherine led a writing workshop with a group of eighth graders that had them creating their own story and building a really good plot. The kids were jazzed about it, and I’ve heard from the teacher that they are all still working on their versions of the story. Cynthia Lord taught fifth graders about using a writer’s notebook that the kids now use every day.
• Get books into the hands of the students before the visit. This can be a complex process. Making sure the school has allocated funds for each student to get at least one copy of the author’s books requires some fancy planning, as schools can’t just give 100 kids a book any more. If the school can’t fund a massive purchase of books then it’s in the bookseller’s best interest to generate an order form to send home with every child at least six weeks before the visit, so books can be ordered from the publisher in time to be delivered to the kids. Order forms are easy to generate and they take the pressure off the school to fund every book purchase.
• Ask the teachers if they need any support from the bookstore. Sometimes a teacher resource guide or even extra bookmarks can help give the teachers the tools they need to really make a great event.
• Reconfirm everything a week before the event. Make sure everyone is on the same page regarding times, length of presentation, A/V needs,etc. Keep your cell phone on the day of the event. The bookseller is the hub of the school event, and if anything goes wrong it’s usually your fault. Be available to pitch in where needed.
• Lastly, stay for as many presentations as you can. You’ll learn a lot, it’s fun for students to see you in their school, plus after 14 years of bookselling, I still get awestruck when I meet authors.

12 thoughts on “Successful School Visits 101

  1. Fred Bortz

    Excellent summary! Thanks.
    Most of my school visits have been great, but the few that were less than satisfying for me (and the school) were ones when the planning was haphazard.
    The absolute worst one was where the school, despite my insistence, did not follow this point from the article: “I’ve always tried to make sure the kids have read at least one book of the visiting author before he or she arrives. I think it’s important to the author to have an engaged group of students, and it makes the event more fun and meaningful for the students.”

  2. Alexis O'Neill

    Josie – Every author reading your post today is wishing to clone you! This is terrific advice from “the other side.” Advance preparation (by the author AND the school) is absolutely the key to the success fo a school visit. Kids deserve an event that is deep and meaningul – and preparation is essential!

  3. Pegi Deitz Shea

    Thanks for the pointers, almost all of which I put in my author contract when I visit schools. Believe it or not, sometimes it’s the teachers who don’t pay attention, who chitchat during the show, grade papers or even leave! How can they reinforce my writing advice when they don’t honor and absorb it themselves?

  4. Vivian Walsh

    Thank goodness for all of the thoughtful and organized teachers who have hosted me over the years. I am always flattered by the imaginative projects and curriculum that they have built around my books. One thing that very few of these people plan for (including myself) is LUNCH. Thank you for remembering the more base side of having an author inspire and entertain students!

  5. Ruth Spiro

    Excellent post!
    I’ve found most schools go out of their way to make my visits run smoothly, but it’s the little things like bathroom breaks (ok, that’s not a little thing!) and adhering to the schedule that help me get through what’s usually a very long day.
    Also, since each situation is different I don’t have specific rules in my contract regarding photographs, so if you do take them, please share them with me and let me know if and where they’ll be published.

  6. margie palatini

    Super tips for making a great author visit! And, yes, to make any author visit truly memorable have long-lasting inspirational staying power — it’s essential that students – and faculty — are prepared for the visit!


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