Monday, October 26, 2009

Being a Kid Again: Doing School Visits

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Commenter Natalie asked... 
Can you do a post on what works well for a school visit at the middle school level?


Some of you aren't here yet, but it's always good to be prepared. School visits are different from  book signings, and I've found that knowing your audience helps a lot in knowing what to say.

Kids are used to people telling them things they're supposed to listen to, and I remember from my school days that this sometimes got pretty boring. I wanted to get them interacting right away and start having fun. This was as much for me as them, as I knew if I stood there talking while their eyes glazed over, I was doomed.

I started with questions. How many writers did we have? What did they like to write? What did they like to read? Things to get them interacting and help segue into my presentation, which started with why I like to write. Now, I said something I hoped would get a laugh (it did), but I think this would work with any kind of question you wanted to ask that connected to what you're book is about. Find a way to connect with your audience.

Next I told them about my book, using my one-sentence summary. (Remember those, guys? This is why we need them). This provided a basic idea of the story so my audience had an idea of what I was going to talk about. Some had seen (and bought) the book, but a lot of them had no clue who I was or what the book was about.

Since my novel is fantasy and the world building has some really cool aspects to grab attention, I explained a little about the history and the way buying and selling pain work, and how Healers and Takers interacted. I get to talk about pain and some gruesome stuff, so that helped a lot to pique some interest. Then I hit them with the core conflict (Tali goes missing) and what Nya had to do to find and save her. I ended by touching on the moral conflicts Nya would face to do that.

This took about five minutes, ten tops. It actually wasn't much different than the pitch I gave my agent when I trying to find representation. (See, more good reasons why being able to summarize your novel at various lengths is a good skill to develop) Then I opened it up to questions.

For me, the question and answer session is not only the most fun part, but the easiest. I get nervous presenting, but I can talk your ear off if you ask me direct stuff. And the students were part of it, interacting with me and each other, so there was less eye-glazing. Some of the sessions even got a bit rowdy and we had lots of fun.

Of course, I also didn't come empty handed. A friend suggested these very cool color-shifting pencils to me as marketing giveaways (thanks again Bonnie!) and I took those with me. Each pencil has the book title and the website on them, and they shift from dark blue to light blue with body heat. I'd seen another author toss T-shirts to the crowd at a book festival a few months back, and thought it was a fabulous idea. Whenever someone asked a great question, I tossed a pencil. Whenever I needed a moment to think of a answer, I tossed more pencils. Again, it was something fun that kept the sessions from being static. It also encouraged questions, as who doesn't want a cool color-shifting pencil?

Naturally I got many of the same questions each session (I had six sessions). Back when I did the SIBA trade show, and was moving from table to table talking with book sellers, I added the answers to the questions of the previous table into my opening pitch. These were obviously things that book sellers wanted to know, and I had limited time with each table. It made sense, and worked very well.

But with the students, I didn't do this. This would only extend my presentation period, and what I wanted was that much more entertaining interaction. Since I knew a lot of what I was about to be asked, it was much easier to answer those questions. And every session had unique questions, so I never knew exactly how it would all play out. Some common questions were asked right away, others came later. That helped keep it fresh.

A few other things I learned... don't try to be funny unless you have background in it. A few times I tried to slip in a joke or a gag, and they ALWAYS fell flat. But I got lots of laughs when I was just being myself and being honest. Kids are smart, and they pick up on way more than adults do. They can sense you trying to manipulate them.

I also answered honestly to questions that some would deem "adult" questions. And while I didn't give numbers when asked how much money I got, I did explain the advance system and how royalties worked. In every session I had students who wanted to know the details of publishing. So I told them. I let them know it's a hard business, but if they work at it, then can achieve the same dream I did.

It goes without saying not to talk down to them, right? Treat them the same way you'd treat someone at a party who asked you about your book. Because these guys asked the same questions as the adults I met do. A lot of them even asked better ones.

Never underestimate a middle schooler.


  1. Nicely said! They may be squirrels (I taught middle school for seven years) but they're bright ones worthy of our time, energy, and respect.

  2. Nice!! I love the pencil/question idea. I taught for six years, and this sounds like SO much fun. But nerve-wracking, yes. Kids are sharp.

  3. Thanks so much. That was my question and you answered it with so much detail. It was very helpful. I loved the pencil idea too.

  4. The pencil idea was really good. Thanks for sharing. Definitely going to help me in the future :D