I used to Speak in Schools

8_26I 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 8_26Kittenwhere 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!

 

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21 thoughts on “I used to Speak in Schools

  1. writersideup

    Marion, I’m not published so have yet to do a school visit (which I have very mixed feelings about), but I can relate because I used to do clown work. There’s a similarity in much of what you said, so I get it. I said I’d never do it again, but I can tell you—for a million bucks? They’d get more than one show! lol

    Reply
  2. Sheila Kelly Welch

    Thanks, Marion, for such an honest account of school visits. I loved doing presentations at schools (when the staff and kids were prepared) but can’t do them any more due to health issues. But I hope I encouraged a few children to write their own stories.

    When I was about five years old, my big sister was a devoted fan of Walter Farley, and because she wrote and told him about her own writing, he invited us to visit him. I was so impressed to meet this author of the books on our shelves. I’m sure that meeting this kind and generous author helped me decide to write for children.

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  3. Scotti Cohn

    “The best of them make you feel like royalty from the moment you walk in the front door…” I have done many school visits since the publication of my first children’s book back in 2009, but have never had the “celebrity author” experience. I have always just assumed it was because I am an “unknown author” (i.e., not famous). I remember one child raising his hand and asking, “Are you any good?” Fair question (plus it made me laugh). I don’t really know what I expected when I started out, but over time I have decided that the only author visits that teachers get excited about are those done by young male authors, who put on a show and charm everybody to pieces. Middle-aged female authors can’t hope to compete with that!

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    1. mdanebauer

      I’m with you Scotti. I have long wondered why some male authors I know can do schools for years and years and years and not burn out. I finally figured out, as you have, that they learn how to protect themselves. They create a show and often a good one. We women go out there and share our hearts to gymns packed full of strangers and after a time it’s no surprise that we feel depleted.

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  4. Norma Gaffron

    Ah, yes, Marion! And they pile on the kids, stuff them all into one classroom to get their money’s worth. Then there’s the teacher who sat in the back correcting papers. At least she wasn’t picking her nose…
    It was the kids who pursued me down the hall because they wanted to tell me something personal that I remember most.

    Interacting with kids is just one of the things I, too, miss as I age.

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    1. Cheryl Harness

      Oh my gosh, those paper-correcting [over-scheduled, burnouts-in-the-making] teachers, letting their kids know JUST how worthless this visiting author is! And the you’re-not-impressing-me masks on the kids infested w/ Coolness – and the poorer the school’s neighborhood, the earlier the children’s faces go flat: their best defense, bless their hearts. But man oh man, over these past 25 years of visiting elementary schools around the country – what a blast it’s been! All in all. And what a talked-out flat tire I am at the end of a day of four – as much as EIGHT presentations in a day! That only happened one unforgettable once. How could I have known, getting to be a children’s book person, that I’d be going into vaudeville? But you’re so, so right, Marion: Nothing is more disheartening then going to a school where the staff knows & cares NOTHING about us or our books and cares even less about whether their students do or not. As if any warm body will do. No. Wait. There is something even sadder. Schools whose students would get a bang out of a ‘real live author’ but the funding’s fizzling out.

      Bumbling onward!
      Cheryl H

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  5. Kerry O'Malley Cerra

    Interesting and timely article. My first book comes out one week from today, and I already have one school visit scheduled. I am–admittedly–very nervous. Okay, more like terrified.

    If any of you authors who posted here are on Twitter, my Fearless Fifteeners debut group is chatting about this very topic this Thursday night, August 28 at 8PM. Use the hashtag #15chat. We’re inviting fellow authors with school visit experience, as well as teachers and librarians to join us. I, for one, will be taking notes.

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    1. mdanebauer

      Good luck, Kerry! I’m glad you’ll have your Thursday night gathering. There is much to learn from one another.

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  6. Cristina ORTOLANI

    As a teacher of prek I appreciate so when other professionals like yourself come visit. I listened to an interview of an author describe his experience and roared with laughter– he too said he won’t visit schools because he won’t be the reason to torture children. Thank you for writing your books, if we write you a letter, maybe you can answer our questions- I promise to weed out the meaning of life and reproduction ones– maybe in this new age we could even skype– less intrusive… But thank you thank you thank you!

    Reply
    1. mdanebauer

      Thank you, Cristina. I always respond to letters from my readers. If I get letters from a whole class, I respond with a single letter to all, but I’m very glad to do that. I don’t Skype because I wear hearing aids and, the one time I tried talking to a class that way I found I couldn’t hear the kids well enough, which was frustrating for everyone.

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  7. Rebecca Nolen

    Thank you Marion, I’ve worked with special ed children for nine years, and went on to long-term sub from grades K – 12 (My favorite grades? 2 and 11) I had just taken over a 2nd grade class from a teacher who had “lost it” and quit, on 9/11. To this day when I see those children now almost grown, they remember me. There’s nothing quite like it. I have always enjoyed author visits during those years. Now, that it’s my turn, I look forward to the opportunity. I eventually quit teaching because terrible parents were becoming a more frequent occurance, and because my children had gone on to college. I do miss those bright eyes.

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    1. mdanebauer

      I wish you well experiencing the classroom from the new perspective of a visiting author. Having been a classroom teacher first will give you lots of skills.

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  8. mdanebauer

    It is a lovely experience, Carleen, hearing that said, and one of the almost inevitable consequences of such visits, whether it’s spoken or not. When I was growing up, I had no idea that real people actually wrote books. (I’m not sure where I thought they came from.) Hearing an author talk about writing would have opened worlds for me! There will always be writers out there, and our mere physicality is heartening to them.

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  9. evie robillard

    After my first picture book was published I was invited to speak in my son’s classroom. Somehow we got talking about Stuart Little. And a child’s hand went up and he? she? said to me: “But you haven’t finished the book! Margalo hasn’t come back.” And I hastily informed the child that I (alas) was not the author of Stuart Little.

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    1. mdanebauer

      Your story reminds me of my youngest grandson. When he was a toddler he was certain that Nonny (aka Marion Dane Bauer) had written every one of his books!

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  10. Sheri Sinykin

    I got such a thrill when Jesse Klausmeier, author of OPEN THIS LITTLE BOOK, told me my talk MANY years ago to her second grade class inspired her to believe maybe she too could write books for children. We never know what seeds we’ve planted or how long it will take them to grow.

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    1. mdanebauer

      I’ve not had the experience of having a published writer tell me that, based on a grade school visit. How wonderful, Sheri!

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  11. Carleen M. Tjader

    You have most likely described school visits completely accurately.
    I would, however, love to have a child say they wanted to be a writer someday, just like me!

    Reply

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