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MAKING THE MOST OF AN AUTHOR'S VISIT

The author of ABCs of An Author/Illustrator Visit -- a book on author visits shares a few of her guidelines for rewarding events.

IF YOU HAVE EVER ARRANGED A visit, you know how much planning and preparation it takes. To make the most of your efforts--and the author's--use the weeks preceding the visit to focus on the author's work, weaving the appropriate readings and activities into larger curriculum or program goals. Through such a focus, students gain respect for a writer's or illustrator's work. They begin to discern connections among the author's works and to identify universal themes shared by different writers. They may search the library for more of the author's work and for other books with connecting themes. These are opportunities for significant learning. An author's visit, and the weeks leading up to it, can be a time of heightened interest in the library and in learning.

Making the Arrangements

Authors, illustrators, and publishing houses work in a variety of ways. Some authors prefer that you contact their publishers; others book their own appearances. Some publishing houses prefer to have all requests in writing; others prefer a phone call.

The first author I arranged to have visit was Marilyn Sachs. I obtained the phone number of her latest publishing house from information and called the publicist, who didn't know whom I was talking about. (Sachs was not a Newbery winner; still, the publicist should have known her.)

Not to be deterred, I checked the flaps of her books for biographical information. I learned her husband's name and that they lived in San Francisco. In a San Francisco phone directory at the public library I found no entries under her name, but I did locate three under her husband's. I reached Marilyn Sachs' daughter on my first try.

"Oh," she said, "that's my Mom. She's at the library but will be home in a half hour or so. If you'd like to leave your name and number I'll ask her to call."

That conversation took place 17 years ago, and times have not changed. I still find publicists are often unaware of authors or illustrators whom I'm interested in locating. If I cannot make the right connections at a publishing house, I may at least get a home address and subsequently a phone number. If the author or illustrator prefers that I contact a publicist, he or she will give me the name and number of the contact person.

Children's illustrator Patricia Polacco has a message on her answering service that begins, "If you are calling about a personal appearance, please call ...." Patricia and Frederick McKissack prefer to schedule through a publicist at one of their publishing houses. After the initial arrangements are made, the McKissacks correspond directly. Their schedules are so full that one must often arrange for their visit more than a year in advance. Some authors prefer not to make commitments that far in advance.

The best general advice I can give is to call the publicist at the appropriate publishing house, ascertain that person's role, and then proceed. Sometimes I have called a publicist to request a specific author only to find out that the author's honorarium is far above our budget. However, the publicist may be able to suggest other authors. That is how I came to arrange for a visit by Nicholasa Mohr. At the time, she was just beginning to be recognized for her accounts of life in Spanish Harlem. Her visit was a major success.

Some publicists are helpful, but there is so much turnover in the publishing industry that a publicist at one house may not be there two months from now. That, incidentally, is why it is so important to follow any oral agreements with written confirmation. Get everything in writing.

Before I begin to search out an author or illustrator for a specific appearance I make a list of dates being considered and the amount of funding available. Honorariums range from $200 to $1,500 per day. In addition, you will need to cover transportation costs and expenses. And you will probably need $150 to $200 for promotional activities, such as author pictures, duplicating student book marks in honor of the visit, and other miscellany.

Check the dates you are considering against the school's calendar so you are not in conflict with some other activity. As soon as initial arrangements are made, get your event on the calendar so others will not schedule a major event on the same day. In large school districts you may wish to send a notice to those in charge of scheduling potentially conflicting activities.

Getting It in Writing

As soon as you make arrangements for the visit, follow up with a letter of confirmation to the author or publicist, covering

Date of the visit;

Agreed-upon honorarium and expenses to be reimbursed;

Whether the author or the sponsoring organization will make transportation arrangements;

Expectations for the visit (whether presentations will be to students, staff, parent organization, or librarians);

Any special requests, such as autographing sessions, receptions, and dinners;

Location of the visit; and

Any requests you have for publicity photo, speech title, and the like.

Arranging for Books

Part of the excitement of an author visit is having the author autograph one of his books. This means you must have copies available for sale to the students. I make arrangements at least three months before the author's visit to obtain books, either from the publisher or through a local book distributor.

Obtaining the books yourself will give you a larger discount to pass on to your organization or to those who purchase the books. However, you will be the one who has to pack and send back unsold books and pay the postage if you overestimate the number needed.

Book distributors know the procedures of providing books for special events and can offer guidance to you, such as estimating the number of books to order. Expect some type of discount from the book dealer (usually 20 to 25%). YOU can handle the actual sale of the books much like a book fair.

Sending book order forms to parents prior to the visit will help you estimate how many books to order; it will also build anticipation for the visit. Tell the book dealer you will need to have the books at your school two to three weeks before the author's visit. Arrange for booktalks to each class prior to the books' arrival, highlighting each of the books and explaining that the author will visit and autograph the books. Ask for payment of the books at the time of the order and deliver the books as soon as they arrive.

When Robert Burch visited our school, each student purchased a paperback copy of one of his titles. We used the books as common readings prior to his visit, and he autographed students' copies while he was here. Having the books available prior to the visit increased their exposure and heightened anticipation for the visit. Advance orders helped the book dealer know how many to order. We ordered additional books for purchase on the day of the visit.

Focusing on the Author

Build a community of readers who will focus on the visiting author's work by involving as many teachers as possible in the planning stages. A core committee should plan classroom activities. The first might be an introductory unit to be used at each grade level. The introductory activity will most often include the reading of one of the books and some type of extension activity--an art experience, comparisons with other books, creating a play, or a reader's theater. Develop and share suggestions for using the other books so that students will be exposed to as many experiences as possible.

Activities may be based on reading and writing as well as on the actual content of the books. For example, the Western setting of Gloria Skurzynski's Caught in the Moving Mountains (Lothrop) and Dangerous Ground (Bradbury) could be the basis for studying that area of the country and for investigating the credibility of the survival methods she writes about. Her nonfiction books can provide motivation for more science reading.

Visits by illustrators are less common in secondary schools but can provide some interesting sessions focusing on careers and the expressive arts. Craig McFarland Brown, a book illustrator who uses a stippling technique, is an excellent resource for intermediate and secondary students. His art sessions with small groups of students are always well received. His large group presentation could be part of a career focus. As a child he dreamed of becoming an artist but let the dream go when he went into advertising to support a family. After 16 years he returned to his dream.

What Questions Will We Ask?

Most authors and illustrators who visit schools welcome questions from students and teachers. During the week or two prior to the visit help students formulate questions to ask the guest. For instance, you might suggest that students:

Listen to questions being asked as well as the answers so that you don't repeat questions that have already been answered.

Think about what you have already learned about the visiting artist and ask questions based on that information. For example, not all authors and illustrators both write and illustrate their books. Ask a question like, "How long did it take you to draw the illustrations? Only of an illustrator.

Scheduling the Day

Formulate the schedule a week or two prior to the visit. In general, four presentations of 40 to 60 minutes each are the maximum for any one-day school visit. The sessions are simply too energy-consuming for more sessions to be effective. Some authors and illustrators request the sessions be limited to three.

Build in time to set up equipment such as slide or overhead projectors. Allow time for breaks, lunch, and autographing sessions. Distribute the schedule to staff early enough to reconcile any conflicts before the day of the visit.

Arrange for welcoming banners to be put in place. Display student work relating to the visitor in hallways and the library. If you plan to photograph the event, you may want to take pictures of some of the displays prior to the day of the visit.

The Day of the Visit

Arrange to meet the author at the airport or point of arrival. A host or hostess should be with the author throughout the day to escort him or her to the scheduled locations, introduce him or her at presentations, and signal when it's time to conclude a session. Having water or other beverages available during the presentations, arranging for lunch, and facilitating the autographing sessions are all part of the host's duties. In general, the host makes the author as comfortable as possible throughout the day and attends to details.

Do arrange for an "official" photograph. This might be an opportunity to involve a talented student or a parent.

Autographing

Handle staff requests for autographs during a special welcoming reception or staff autographing session. The day's schedule should include times when students can come to the library or other designated location to have their books signed. When you schedule time for this activity, be sure to consider the number of books to be autographed.

Discourage requests for autographs on pieces of paper or in notebooks. Discuss this point with students prior to the visit. If students do request autographs on something other than the author's books, the host must remind them that the guest is autographing books only. Don't put the author in the uncomfortable position of having to refuse student requests.

Do, however, recognize that all students will not be able to afford a book and that some will want autographs nevertheless. Ask the author or illustrator to pen an autographed message on a piece of school stationery and duplicate this message for students who are unable to purchase a book but still want an autograph.

Having students wait in line for an autographed book does two things -- it wastes classroom time; and rewards only those children who have been able to afford the purchase of a book.  An alternative we like better is to ask the author to autograph with two pre-selected "helpers" who will open books to the title page, for the autographing, on one side; and stack the books in classroom designations on the other side.  The helpers can be changed every 20-30 minutes and one set acquaint the next with the procedure.  At the end of the day, an announcement can be made for designated representatives, from each classroom, to come to the  LMC/library to pick up the books for their class.  At that time the momento of the day (a drawing or bookmark etc) can also be ready for each member of the class.  This procedure allows students to be "rewarded" with those extra few minutes with the author (as helpers or classroom representatives picking up the books/momento) based on their behavior and so forth rather than their financial situtation -- and provides an opportunity to inspire those students whose achievement may not always be stellar but whose effort is noteworthy.  Every child goes home with a tangible author momento.  For autographing we recommend the following procedure.

An alternative to having people wait in line to have their books autographed is to use an autographing slip.  Ask each person to fill out a request slip.  Links to the page with a  form is available on the McBookwords author visit page.   Click on this link "Resources & Background for Author Visits" if you prefer to go directly to the file (pdf).  The books will be autographed by the author while students are in class.  Later a representative may be summoned to  the library to pick up the books for their class -- and the keepsake message for each student.

After the Visit

Jim Aylesworth
Following the author's visit encourage students to write thank-you notes to discuss the events of the day. The planning committee should make sure honorarium payments and expense reimbursements are made promptly. Unless other arrangements are made, the honorarium should be given to the guest at the conclusion of the day and the paperwork for reimbursement of expenses initiated as soon as possible after his or her departure. It's a nice gesture to send the visiting artist a personal letter of thanks with a picture or two of the day's events enclosed. You may even want to enlarge a picture of the author during his or her visit and have it matted and framed and put into an "author's gallery" in the library as a lasting memento of a very special day.

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By Sharron L. McElmeel

Sharron L. McElmeel is the author of several reference books about authors and illustrators, including An Author a Month series and the Bookpeople series, both available from Libraries Unlimited, as well as the ABCs of an Author/Illustrator Visit (Linworth)

This article is reprinted by the permission of the author. The article's contents may not be copied or e-mailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv or any WWW site without the permission of the author. However, users may print and download this article for individual use or for use within a school or school district in conjunction with the preparation of an author/illustrator visit.   Originally published in Book Report, May/Jun94, Vol. 13 Issue 1.

 
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