I had a speaking engagement at an elementary school in Massachusetts today. It was my only school engagement this school year.
I had a fantastic time. The kids were great. They either liked me or put up a good show. Doesn't matter to me. They made me happy. The teachers were great, too. One teacher came back to see me in the library while her kids were out to recess to say that her class would be writing alien stories that afternoon. If you'd been there, you'd know why that was good news.
Some interesting things about school appearances:
When I first started talking to groups of kids, I had to struggle to keep myself from directing all my comments to the adult teachers with them. I'm over that now. I'm there for the kids.
School appearances are a marketing opportunity for children's authors. Authors of adult books rarely make appearances at schools. We get to go into a school and talk to maybe a couple of hundred kids over the course of the school day as well as their teachers and the school librarian. Those are all people who may truly be interested in our books and who will remember our names when they appear on new books. Two hundred readers rarely, rarely, rarely show up at appearances for children's authors. On top of all that, we get paid for being there. Sweet.
Some children's authors get very put out if the teachers haven't exposed the kids to their books before the day of the appearance. That absolutely does not bother me. As I said above, school visits are marketing opportunities. I am there to sell myself and to make kids want to read my books. That's my job. I don't expect the teachers to do it for me.
In addition to selling myself, I want to have something meaningful and substantial to talk about with these kids. If I do, it won't matter that the kids haven't read my books yet. I started making school appearances while my own children (who I don't like to mention here, but I do have some)were still in grade school. They had a great deal on their plates at school, and I think all children do. They have a lot of material they have to cover, a lot they have to learn. Under no circumstances do I want to waste children's time. I am there to support their efforts to write, to give them some writing assistance they can use right away, maybe even that same day. I use my books to illustrate what I'm talking about, which is how I try to get the kids interested in them.
Eating in the cafeteria with kids is terrific. Yes, it's mind-bogglingly noisy. No, I probably couldn't stand it if I were there every day. But I'm not. When I was a teenager, I probably thought the school cafeteria was a hellhole, much like the gym. But as a writer, it's a place for me to do fieldwork.
Today I learned that fourth graders like to watch The Animal Planet. Who knew? And I met kids who were into forming their own little clubs around their interests. A nature club. An art club. A reading club.
Yeah, I know kids have done the club thing in the past. But I need to know that they're doing it now.
These kids were third and fourth graders. They were little (or big) dolls. I sat at a table in the cafeteria talking with these angelic faces. I watched this pretty little girl turn to the boy next to her and chat away, appearing to have no agenda. All she wanted was to say whatever she was saying. And I thought, "Damn. Are these kids going to turn into those horrible beasts in The Gossip Girl?"
Except for that moment, I had a really good time.