January, 2011. With the New Year comes reflection, some nostalgia, and a few “If I’d only known.” Since my calendar is sprinkled with school visits, I’m reminded of some early experiences from my checkered past on the road.
When my first novel A Season In-Between came out in 1979, I was invited to a school that shall remain nameless in Southern Missouri. There was no way to get there other than driving from St. Louis for three hours. But I’d been promised a book signing, lodging, and a $100 honorarium. I arrived at the Day’s End Motel around 7 PM, as promised, to join some of the faculty for dinner. There I was met by the Marian the librarian (not her real name. Actually the real Marian the librarian is wonderful!!), who informed me that the restaurant there was closed, but she had soup and a sandwich for me at her house and “wouldn’t it be fun to spend the night?” The guest room was waiting. No heat. I woke up freezing and sneezing in the middle of the night with her cat sleeping on my head. The next day on the way to the school, she handed me my schedule. Eight presentations and an after school meeting with the local library association. Sorry, no books to sign, except the one copy in the library. I did not get home until after midnight.
It was a good lesson in setting up the next school visits. But somehow even with damage control, there is always the unexpected. Once a few years and books ago, when I arrived at a school, I was informed that the middle graders had gone on a field trip to a pumpkin farm. The receptionist had no idea who I was or why I was there. A group of first graders was hastily assembled. The little girl in the front row told me I looked more like a lawyer than a real writer. ( Note to myself: Don’t wear a gray pants suit to make school visits.) No one, including the baffled teachers, had read or even heard of my books. I did manage to temporarily stop the squirming with a knock knock joke and a clapping game. Thank goodness for small children at home.
And last and definitely least….Some years ago I went for a week to a state that shall remain nameless to speak at five middle schools. My novel No Dragons to Slay had made the state list that year. When I arrived at the first school, I was told that, at the request of a parent, who objected to several four letter words, they had removed the book from the shelves. The novel tells the story of a teenager battling bone cancer. His hair had fallen out and chemo made him nauseous. Might he have said something stronger than “Gosh, it’s been a bad day”? Out of respect for the very apologetic librarian, I spoke about my other books, rather cheerfully, considering No Dragons To Slay, the only book they’d ordered, had been shipped back.
I spent the night at the guest house on a nearby college campus. In the middle of the night, I felt strange tickling sensations. An infestation of ladybugs! At least they weren’t bedbugs.
There are more stories, many shared with me by other writers. But lest you think I’m a whiner and complainer, I will say that I’ve been to dozens of schools where I’ve had great times and met librarians and teachers who are friends for life.
Here is my a list of do’s (instead of don’ts) for school visits. I’m sure all of you can add to the list. Either have a written contract with the school or send them a note/ e mail ahead of time with requests and expectations. Nothing outrageous like one of our fellow writers who insists on suites at hotels, first class airfare, and a driver/escort at all times. We all know about shrinking budgets and the difficulties many schools have being able to afford author visits. In St. Louis, I often volunteer to visit schools, especially in low income areas. My favorite presentations include a writing workshop. I will even provide paper and pencils.
a. Your own nonsmoking room (if you don’t smoke) at a motel/hotel, especially if you are a light sleeper or snorer.
b. Three presentations a day for 50 minutes unless special arrangements are made with the school ahead of time.
c. Meals should be provided or available at appropriate times. Coffee or water, please.
d. Transportation to the school/schools or, at the very least, a detailed map.
e. Students should be familiar with your books and the books should be available at the library (or for sale) before your arrival.
f. Send promotional materials to the school before the visit. Now my website and other publication info are on line.
g. Information from the school ahead of time about the availability of power point or slide machines.
h. If possible, the honorarium should be given to the visiting author at the end of the visit.
It has been a long time since I’ve had an unpleasant school visit. Now that my daughters are grown up and grandchildren live far away, I love having a chance to meet my readers Up Close!!! I treasure the e mail messages and letters I receive afterwards (at least most of them).
Many thanks to those of you who sent such supportive messages about Ballet for Martha: Making Appalachian Spring’s Sibert Honor at ALA and the Orbis Pictus Award for Excellence in Non-fiction for children from NCTE. Sandra Jordan, Brian Floca, and I are deeply grateful for the wonderful response our book has received. By the way did you know that the name Orbis Pictus, commemorates the work of Johannes Amos Comenius, Orbis Pictus—The World in Pictures (1657), considered to be the first book actually planned for children.