I've been doing a lot of author visits to various elementary schools lately. Last week I was at Eugene Field Elementary School in Maryville, Missouri; this week I'm off to Fairfax County, Virginia, to speak at several schools there; next month I have a gig in La Junta, Colorado, on the eastern plains.
School visits are an extremely wonderful opportunity for authors in just about every way.
1. We make money. Many children's book authors earn more in a year from speaking at schools than we do from our writing.
2. We sell books. Schools typically give students a chance to buy our books and have us sign them, so we increase our sales in addition to broadening our fan base for future releases.
3. We get material for future books. Now that I no longer have school-aged children living in my house bringing home delicious stories daily, it's crucial that I spend time in actual schools with actual kids, wandering the halls to see what kinds of assignments they're working on, spotting possible future characters in my audience. My favorite moment: when the kids are coming in to the library for one of my assemblies, and the teacher monitors where they sit: "No. You two are NOT sitting together." There's a story there, for sure!
4. Finally, we have fun. We get to be a celebrity for a day, with kids pointing at us as we walk into the office: "Is that her? Is that Claudia Mills?" We make new friends of teachers and librarians, sometimes friendships that endure for life.
The only negative about school visits is that it can become wearisome to spend all day talking about the same subject over and over and over again: me, me, me, ME! How I came to be an author, how I write my books, my writing process. Like many authors, I have a standard author speech and give it, word for word the same, four times in a day, knowing exactly where the students will laugh, or gasp, or groan.
Sometimes I've considered changing things up a bit, but I have to say that when I go to hear an author talk, I do want to hear the author talk about herself. I've heard authors who are trying to be less egotistical and more generous to their fellow authors, and so they read aloud from other people's books and talk about other people's stories. I come away disappointed: "But I came to hear YOU. What about YOU?" And if I vary my talk just to keep myself from being bored, that means that some group gets my second- or third-tier stories instead of the ones I know from past experience that kids love best. That doesn't seem fair.
So tomorrow, in Virginia, I'll tell the kids about the autobiographical book I wrote in eighth grade, T Is for Tarzan (my nickname that year was Tarzan). I'll tell them that if they remember they can ask me at the very end of the presentation why my nickname was Tarzan, and I'll tell them, but that I hope they forget, because it's embarrassing. (They never forget, ever.). I'll tell them my first attempt at a published book, a picture book called Campbell the Tomato, and how I submitted it to the publishing house where I was working at the time, Scholastic in NYC, and had to type my own rejection letter. I'll vary things a tiny bit by talking about how I got the ideas for my most recent books: that is the one part of my speech that does change from year to year. I'll show them my favorite pen: a Pilot Razor Point fine-tipped black marker pen. I'll tell them how I love to drink Swiss Miss hot chocolate while I write.
I'll say these things four times in a row on Tuesday, and then again on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
And the kids will come up to me afterward to give me hugs, and ask me to autograph their hands or foreheads (I refuse, invoking my standing policy against signing any body parts); later they'll write me letters saying how much they loved Campbull the Tomatoe.
Yay for school visits!