I used to speak in schools. Most who write books for young people do that, at least through the early years of their careers. It’s a crucial way of supplementing what is otherwise often a meager income and of making contact with our readers.
School visits are thrilling. The best of them make you feel like royalty from the moment you walk in the front door, colorful banners proclaiming your presence, principals greeting you, children in their Sunday best introducing you, enthusiasm buzzing through the halls, “There she is! There she is! There she is!”
School visits are instructive, a lesson written in fire about what it takes to hold the attention of your readers. I will never forget speaking to a gym/cafeteria full of kindergarteners, all of them seated on squeaky picnic-table-style benches. It was like talking to a room full of amplified crickets. From that same visit—we were talking about my picture book If You Were Born a Kitten—I also remember the child who raised his hand and asked, with great urgency, “But where do babies come from?” (That was the very last time I used that book for discussion in a school visit). If he’d been my child and I’d been talking to him alone, I wouldn’t have batted an eye. To some stranger’s child in a public setting I did the best I could, answered honestly but, I’ll admit, somewhat poetically. Inevitably, a few minutes later another little boy raised his hand. With doubled urgency he asked the same question.
School visits are demanding. Wherever the money comes from that pays you—bake sales, a meticulously compiled grant, the school library’s too-limited budget—they want every penny’s worth. Understandably. I’m tempted to say they want blood, because it feels that way sometimes. If you don’t set explicit guidelines, you’ll be asked to talk non-stop from the moment you walk in the door to the one when you stagger out. And even if you do set guidelines, you’ll be doing more talking in a day than you ordinarily do in a month, solitary creatures that most of us are.
School visits are exhausting. It’s not like teaching. Teaching is hard work, but a teacher puts something out and gets something back. She is rewarded through her relationship with her students. That’s why she keeps coming back, day after day. As a “celebratory author” on a one-time visit, the giving is, inevitably, all one way. You leave feeling like a mother bird who has been regurgitating for her babies. And you won’t even know whether the morsels you’ve offered have been received, especially if you’re talking to the age group where girls roll their eyes and boys sit sprawled in their seats wearing masks of boredom. (Later their teacher will, of course, tell you how excited the kids were about your presentation when they came back to their classroom. You’re left to decide whether she’s a good liar or the kids are simply trapped in the culture of “cool.”)
School visits are liberating. They teach you to field questions like “How old are you?” “How much money do you make?”—both of those inevitable—and “How can an old lady like you possibly think you can write for kids?” (No, I’ll admit that last wasn’t said in quite those words, but that’s exactly what he meant. I guarantee it.)
And we might as well go to the depths of honesty while we’re here. After a while, school visits are boring. Not the schools, not the teachers, certainly not the kids, but you. You have only so many books to talk about and you’ve heard yourself say everything you have to say about those books and about yourself a thousand times. You get to the point you don’t even want to ride in the same car with yourself. Even the questions, while much more interesting than hearing yourself talk, are repetitive after a while. So you have to be a good performer to keep it up, a really good performer.
Finally, not often, but occasionally, school visits can be utterly disheartening. The last school I ever visited—except for my grandchildren’s classrooms, completely different territory—was a posh private day school just outside a large east-coast city. The entire school, I was told, had a literature-based curriculum. Yet not one classroom I spoke to had read one of my books. (My single requirement for a visit.) Not even the youngest students, who could have had one of my picture books shared with them in the few minutes before I walked in the door. The teachers seemed bored or resentful . . . or both. One man sat in the back of the gym and picked his nose with gusto during my entire presentation. And watching him and the kids who didn’t know who I was or care because it’s the books that make them care, not a song-and-dance presentation from an author, I decided that I was done.
And I am. As I once heard a well-known author say, “My cleaning lady doesn’t do windows, and I don’t do schools.”
But oh . . . how I miss those eager faces, the hands waving in the air, the question that goes to the heart of what I meant when I wrote my story, the child who comes up afterwards and says, in the softest possible voice, “I want to be a writer someday, just like you,” the teacher who says to me as the students file out, “If you could know who it was who asked that question . . .” That followed by a description of a kid who isn’t letting himself be touched by anything in school, but who broke every rule of his existence to speak up because my story mattered so much to him.
I won’t do it again, not for a million bucks, but oh, how I miss visiting schools!