Monday, April 11, 2011

Back to School

I’ve been teaching English at the junior high level for twelve years.  With an eye on who my students are as readers, I realized I had some insight to share with my Project Mayhem friends. And that insight is: If you aren’t already doing it, start scheduling school visits. NOW! It’s your first step to building a loyal audience and becoming a “rock star” in the eyes of your primary demographic.

Let’s face it, young children are impressionable (witness the gazillion commercials for kids’ products during the holiday season). Add to that the fact that most parents and teachers stress the value of reading to young children, and this translates into an early interest in reading for many kids. True, that early interest wanes if the child can’t find anything of interest to read, but the point is that young readers are there for the proverbial plucking, and this is why school visits can serve as a great way to market your work and build an audience. Besides the fact that you’ll get paid for your school visit, I’d like to submit two pieces of evidence in the case of “Take Me to School vs. Heck No, I Won’t Go.” *I’m not a lawyer, but I play one on a blog.*

Exhibit “A” is the million-dollar basketball. My first two years as a teacher took place in a tiny school district and I taught in a grade 7-12 building. During a study hall, I had this seventh grader walk in holding a basketball. I asked him what he was doing with a basketball in study hall, and he responded with, “This ball is going to be worth millions.” I asked him why he thought that, holding back some laughter, and he said, “Because I just had every player on the team sign it.” I asked what team he was talking about, and he replied, “The varsity team. They’re undefeated.” I held in more laughter when I realized he really believed what he was saying. His young mind saw the school’s varsity basketball players as rock stars, capable of transforming an ordinary basketball into a million-dollar piece of memorabilia with mere signatures. Like I said, kids are impressionable.

Exhibit “B” is the Ben Mikaelsen book. A few years back, a seventh grader came up to me with a copy of Ben Mikaelsen’s Touching Spirit Bear and asked if I had read the book. I told him I hadn’t but I’d heard it was good (a common response when a student asks me about a book I haven’t read). The student quickly opened the book, pointed, and said, “Look, I got him to sign it when he came to my elementary school. He even addressed it to me! This is the best book I’ve ever read.” I was psyched to hear him say this. I mean, this was a book, not a signed basketball. It was refreshing to hear that Mikaelsen’s signature and his school visit had meant so much to my student. I actually borrowed this student’s signed copy and read it, and I really loved the book (highly recommended). The student and I talked about it many times afterwards, and all because the author had decided to visit an elementary school. Mikaelsen was a rock star to this kid.

I urge all authors to schedule school visits, especially new authors. It serves you well to do so, and if you’re looking for some tips on things you can do to make your visits productive and worthwhile, I recommend you take a look at Dan Gutman’s advice. Or, how about my fellow Mayhemers? Anyone care to share some insight? Heck, we like to be all-inclusive here at PM, so we’ll take non-Mayhemers too. What say you, people?  


  1. Interact and fool around (connect and get to know the kids just a bit), then read a section of your book, and stop at an inopportune moment. Let them guess either verbally or through a short writing session what happens next. They then have to go get your book to find out. Better yet, sell preordered copies beforehand through the school so you can hand them their already paid for copy and sign it right there. And they can read it the rest of the day. At least, that's what the authors that have visited my son's school do. We have several signed picture books from author visits that were bought ahead of time through a school flyer in anticipation of the writer's visit.

  2. Good post, Michael! Your stories about real kids'reactions have inspired me to try to schedule some more visits. I've really enjoyed the ones I've done, though it's tiring for the introverted writer-type. Something I've found that's really fun is to have anudience participation in creating a character. I pick six or seven kids from the audience, then ask each one a question-What are you most scared of? What are you good doingat? What are you bad at doing? What's your favorite hobby or sport? Etc. Another kid writes down all the answers and then I talk about how it could be a character profile.

  3. I couldn't agree more about the importance of school visits. It is one of the best ways to connect with your audience. Blogging and social media is great but it rarely touches your book buyers: kids, parents, and librarians.

    I recently went to a writing conference and one of the classes was all about school visits. The author was self-published but making a great living because he does several school visits each month which he swears is uber fabulous marketing.

  4. Great post!

    In my years as a student and as a teacher, we only had one author visit. I can't imagine the way something like this would have impacted my seventh-grade life.

    Having taught middle school English and social studies, I developed an assignment called Where in the World Are We Reading that I used in both classrooms. With my English students, each term they had to "journey" to a different part of the world and keep a "travel log" of all they learned. With my social studies classes, I altered the assignment to focus on settings (the time and place a story takes place) so students could read any historical fiction, biography, non-fiction, or contemporary fiction set outside of the US.

    Now that I write historical fiction and am looking toward school visits of my own, I can draw on these inter-disciplinary lessons for ideas.

    For anyone interested in downloading Where in the World Are We Reading and the accompanying Travel Log, stop by my website:

  5. Patricia: Yes, those are good ideas. Selling advance copies prior to the visit is a good thing, and I know some authors have that as a requirement prior to a visit.

    Dee: Schedule visits, please. Especially with your book, I can see many ways to make your visit interactive. And as far as the introversion, we have to take ourselves out of our comfort zone, right? Hey, you could use that as a teachable moment when you visit, and discuss it.

    bfav: I know authors who make a pretty penny through school visits too, and some speakers (non-authors) who do as well. It's a good way to connect with kids, and authors really need to do that. We need to let the gatekeepers (like you said) see that we are worthy of their money and then the kids can ask for parents to buy our books (no commercial needed during the holiday season).

    Caroline: That sounds like a cool assignment. I'll hop over to your blog and check it out. And you're right, this is EXACTLY what I wish more authors would do: make the visit interactive. Today's student needs to be actively engaged, so MG books have so much possibility in that regard.

  6. Great post! This is one of the things I'm most excited about - talking with kids about books, reading, and the writing process.

    Last year I visited a class of 6th grade students and talked about the path from writing to publishing. The students were so excited about having a "real author" in the classroom, even though they knew my book wouldn't be on the shelves for ages.

    They were super interested in the behind-the-scenes look about querying agents, being on submission, and (of course) advances and royalties. And afterward we had a little writing practicum where I handed out scenic photographs and they wrote stories based on the setting. Then we all had a reading of our work. It was fabulous!

  7. Mike, this is great. As a past librarian who scheduled and saw many author visits, a children's author who visits schools, and a creativity coach who partners with authors to help them create school author visit presentations, this is a topic that means a lot to me.

    I'd love to have you and your insightful commenters here share your expertise, questions, and thoughts on a free online event about school author visits this coming Wednesday! It's simple to participate, and all you need is your computer.

    This invitation will tell you more about it.

    Please contact me with any questions. I hope you can join us...


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!