Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Don: How to give a successful school visit and survive to tell about it
It was about twenty years ago when I began to present my books to children at schools. My first presentation was at my daughter's second-grade Career Day event. She'd bragged to her friends that her "daddy made books," but they didn't believe her.
My daughter was excited, but I was ill. Thinking about standing in front of a room full of children, teachers and parents gave me vertigo. I didn't have a restful night of sleep for weeks leading up to the big day.
To prepare I purchased a book on public speaking. Then I practiced my presentation in front of a mirror every day, memorizing it word for word. Still, when I got up in front of the crowd, I could barley speak. I was sweating so profusely and breathing so heavily, I probably looked more like the bogeyman than a children's book illustrator.
That was a long time ago, so I can laugh about it now. I survived those first few school visits with only minor abrasions to my self confidence. And with each succeeding visit, my confidence grew. I no longer fear school visits. I love meeting the kids, sharing my art, telling my story. It energizes me and hopefully inspires the kids, too.
Here are a few things I've learned along the way that will help you survive:
Plan your visit down to the last detail. What do you want the children to remember about you and your books or about literature in general? When I give a presentation, I write a point-by-point agenda on a small 3 x 5 index card and slip it in my shirt pocket. Things will happen — an unexpected announcement over the intercom, a cap falls off your tooth (this really happened to me) — so I like to have my list handy to be sure I've covered everything in case of distractions.
Charge for your visit
This may sound like a no-brainer, but I've heard about authors and illustrators who visit schools for free. This is OK . . . occasionally. Sometimes I give free readings at Career Day events or during storytimes at libraries or bookstores. I view these shorter presentations as promotional. But full-fledged school visits require preparation and time. Being a professional means you get paid. According to the Houghton Mifflin website, going rates for school visits are between $300 to $2000 per day. Check with other authors and illustrators in your market to get an idea about what you can charge realistically.
As organized as you may be, the day of your visit will not go exactly as planned. A few years ago, I participated in a literary festival where I was scheduled to present to three groups of children of about 350 each. It didn't happen that way. At the last minute the event organizers changed the program to where I ended up making about 30 ten-minute presentations to groups of about twenty kids each.
Needless to say I wasn't happy. And by the end of the day, neither was my voice. But this kind of extreme won’t happen often, so keep your cool and roll with the punches. Inflexibility won’t benefit you or the children during a school visit.
Design a flier or postcard (see mine: front, back), or hire a graphic designer to create one for you. Check with your post office to be sure your design doesn’t conflict with postal regulations. You don’t want your fliers returned to you because the post office mail reader couldn't read through your beautiful logo.
Use the flier to introduce yourself and your books to teachers and librarians. They'll be excited to know there’s a local author or illustrator in their community. Describe your program. Include your contact information, website and prices (include more details about your visit on your website: see mine). Compile a list of school librarians through your school district's website, or contact the school district about acquiring a list (which may not be possible; this may require some leg work). Address your mailer directly to a librarian or a teacher. You may want to follow up with a second postcard.
Look for opportunities to pitch your school visit program at district librarian meetings.
Prepare an author/illustrator contract
Again, you have to be flexible. But you can avoid misunderstandings — like not getting paid on the day of the visit — if you create a simple contract. Some school districts will require a mound of paperwork, but it's in your best interest to fill it out thoroughly and well in advance of the visit.
Your contract can be as simple or as complex as you like, but at the very least you’ll want to include the following:
-The date and location of the visit, the number of presentations agreed upon by both parties, the size of the groups.
-The approximate time for each presentation, and a general description of your program.
-The amount of the honorarium agreed upon. Specify to be paid on the day of the visit (in bold letters).
-Hotel and travel arrangements (ask for a map), reimbursement for food (not always included, but on visits that last over several days, this is especially good)
I include text in my contract that asks event organizers not to video tape my presentation without my permission.
Be known before you get there
Want rock star treatment? Have the librarian introduce your books to the children prior to your arrival. Have them do some related activities — writing exercises, drawings, skits. Unless your name is Hannah Montana, chances are, the children will not be familiar with you.
Create a promotional poster featuring a photo of you and your books (see one of mine). Send it as a .pdf or .jpg file that can be easily downloaded and printed. The librarian can post it around the school weeks before your arrival.
Find the big-people restrooms
There's nothing more awkward — and I'm especially talking to guys — than taking care of your business at an ankle-high urinal out in the open, while a group of star struck kindergarten boys lob questions at you. As soon as I arrive at a school, especially if I'm doing a full-day visit, I ask about the locations of the adult restrooms or teacher's lounges.
Never pass up an opportunity to increase sales. However, you'll need to talk to the teacher or librarian about pre-ordering and then having the children purchase the books before the day of your visit. School visits, of course, will take place during the day when parents (and their check books) aren't there.
For larger groups — 50 or more kids, and especially if you're speaking in an auditorium or large open area —you'll need a microphone and amplification.
No more than 3, please
I advise no more than 3 presentations in one day. Possibly four, if you absolutely have to. Again, be flexible. But three is exhausting and by four, you'll be dragging.
One time I presented to a large group of kids at a Career Day event. My presentation followed a dog and pony act, literally. The children hooted and hollered and doubled over in stitches as a guy dressed as a cowboy played a guitar and sang to a horse. Dogs howled and jumped through hoops and walked on their hind legs. How was I supposed to follow that act?
I considered changing my program. Maybe I’d sing or dance, or gyrate a hula hoop while balancing books on my head. Nope, that ain’t me. I just presented my program as I always do — with high energy and enthusiasm. I'm excited about children's literature so that energy shined through. Believe it or not, the kids liked my presentation just as well as the cowboy and pony act. So be yourself.
Give 'em something to take home
Create a bookmark or coloring page (see one I used recently). These are great for autographing sessions, but you might also include your preprinted John Henry just in case there isn't time for individual autographs.
Keep it interactive
Punctuate your presentation with questions. Give the children an opportunity to offer feedback and participate (works better with smaller groups).
Relax. You're the star!