It's finally here, the date that's been on our calendars for close to a year. We've emailed each other dozens of times about group size, technology needs, food allergies, and what I take in my coffee. We have a relationship, although we haven't officially met. But we will…today…author visit day.
I imagine you might be anxious. While your students love my books, you haven't heard me speak. And, this is a big investment of student time and school money. If I'm a total flop, you could catch the blame. So before I step into the library or multi-purpose room or wherever our assemblies are about to be held, let me reassure you. I'm a professional. And I've come prepared.
That preparation began years ago, when I first considered visiting schools. Did I really want to go out and talk to kids? I asked myself. And if I did, what was my purpose? It wasn't just to increase readership or boost book sales. If it were about that, I'd rather stay home. So why take valuable time away from my own writing?
Because, I realized, I want kids to experience that same wild, trembly, feeling I get when I first put pen to paper. Who knows what story will come tumbling out? I want to encourage them to write about the things they care about and to ramble around in their imaginations and create new worlds. I want them to know if they're feeling invisible, writing will help them feel heard; if they're confused, writing will help them see more clearly. I wanted them to write, not as an assignment, but for life.
But, how in the world could I express all that in a forty-five minute presentation?
The same way I express myself in books, by carefully crafting stories. The difference, of course, is these stories will be performed.
I start by asking the obvious question: who is my audience? One presentation does not suit all. It is essential that I understand developmental ages and stages. This not only determines content, but method of delivery as well. Preschool kids love pretending to be elephants. Middle-school students, not so much. Fifth graders go crazy playing "Candy's Primary Source Game!" But show Amelia Earhart's sixth-grade report card to a group of kindergarteners, and they'll go turtle on me, rolling onto their back and waving their arms and legs in the air.
Once, very early in my author visit career, I began a presentation to a gym full of seventh graders by asking for volunteers to try on my many hats. Literally. I brought hats—a top hat, a beret, one that looked like a carrot. First graders always leaped at the chance. But these seventh graders just stared at their shoes. Then one of them said, "Lice, man," and that was it. Not only did I reconsider my middle school talk, I jettisoned those hats. Forever.
Since I want to avoid lice and turtles, I think hard about the interests and skill levels of the kids for whom I'm creating a particular presentation. Have eighth graders ever heard of Charles Lindbergh? What do fourth graders carry in their backpacks? How many times can I legitimately squeeze the word "underpants" into my first-grade talk? And why do first graders think that word is so funny?
I consider curriculum, too. I understand that every hour is precious in this age of standards-driven education. And so I've done my homework. I've read and understand the standards. Wanting to support teachers, I've incorporated them into my presentation. Depending on the grade, I might talk about "story seeds" and rough drafts or evaluating sources and piecing research into an interesting article.
Fear not, lest you worry my presentation will be as deathly dull as reading those standards. I know the best presentations have a beginning, middle, and end. They have movement, as well as moments of humor and poignancy. Above all, they are anchored with stories. Kids are wired for story. So to connect with them, I'll weave anecdotes throughout my presentation. Some are nuggets from my life. Others are from historic lives. All are told with the hope that listeners will identify with them and derive meaning from them. And, if I'm hanging with first graders, you can bet one of them will have the word "underpants" in it.
Visuals, too, are important. What best illustrates a point? What will spark a kid's curiosity? What will make them laugh? I might show rotten first drafts, editorial letters, a handwritten invitation to Willie Lincoln's eighth birthday party, photographs of my family trip to Borneo (seriously, we went there), a video clip of a giant squid in deep ocean, or a picture of a cat dressed as sushi.
When I first began visiting schools, I had four age-distinct talks. Over the years, however, these presentations have been beefed up and retooled. I learn what works and what doesn't (like hats). And as new books come out, I create new presentations. The result? I now have dozens to choose from. Preparation has made me versatile.
It's also made me flexible. Not long ago, I arrived at a school to talk with fourth graders. I'd planned on modeling the nonfiction writing process using my experiences with Giant Squid. But when I arrived, the librarian begged me to talk about The Fabled Fourth Graders of Aesop Elementary School because it was the students' favorite book. "No problem," I said. I had a presentation for that.
Having put in so much effort, I want students I visit to be as excited, enthusiastic, and prepared as I am. Immersion and enthusiasm make for a wonderful author visit day. But I know you're pressed. I understand curricular requirements, testing pressures, and the lack of time to get it all done. So I've done some of the prep work for you by posting on my website plenty of simple activities you can do with students before and after my visit. There are links to online interviews and other resources. My favorite? Instructions for making a life-size, forty-six foot giant squid. I'm telling you, nothing looks better in a library than a giant squid. I know this from experience.
I've come prepared in a multitude of other ways, too:
I arrive early in case of technology problems. I also bring a variety of adapters, as well as a thumb-drive with all my presentations on it—in both PowerPoint and Keynote—just in case. And if technology fails (and it has) I'm ready for that too. You didn't think I'd arrive at your school without Plan B…C…and D, did you?
I arrive rested (if possible!). I use lots of energy during my presentations. I laugh and make kids laugh. I'm dramatic, exciting, inspirational. I act out scenes. I imitate animals. I give it my all, and it's hard work. I know to prepare for that.
I arrive with a reusable water bottle (it's earth-friendly), Sharpie fine-point markers (hard to find in schools), throat lozenges (for obvious reasons), and hand sanitizer (for even more obvious reasons).
I am prepared for things to wrong. Crazy wrong. I've had a tornado warning send me into the girls' room with a group of wailing kindergartners; a second-grade, domino-effect vomit fest; a skunk that stunk up the school (true!); and much more. No matter. I'm prepared to give it my best, even in less-than-best circumstances. Laughing beats crying. I'll save that for the ride home.
I'm prepared to fall in love with your students. All this preparation has, after all, been for them. As I focus on the kids—talking and sharing and listening—I am charmed, delighted, surprised, and constantly reminded that school visits are the best part of my job.
Not long ago, the school librarian warned me about a quirky third grader who had checked out only one book for the past four weeks: Giant Squid. He was, she explained, "ready to explode with curiosity."
She wasn't kidding. The kid's hand constantly shot into the air. He shouted out facts. He howled with excitement when I showed a squid video. And at one point, unable to contain his excitement, he leaped to his feet and did a squidly dance—his arms writhing like tentacles, head and hips waving.
After school, that third grader found me in the library. I braced myself for more cephalopod enthusiasm. But the kid just pulled out a wad of folded paper and earnestly handed it over. I asked him what it was.
"It's my squid book. For you." Then before I could say another word, he darted in to give me a quick hug. "I never thought I'd meet another squid lover."
I was not prepared to cry.