If you are a children’s writer, there’s a annual gift of an opportunity to raise your public profile within schools. Now in its 15th year, it’s called World Book Day and has been designated by UNESCO as a global celebration of books and reading. Generous sponsorship from the publishing industry funds free resources – not least a funky website – to inspire teachers and school librarians to join in the celebrations at their school. In the UK, this includes the provision of a free £1 book token for every child and the production of a special set of books that will cost just £1 each – so every child can buy a new book, even if they have no money of their own. Alternatively the voucher can be used towards the purchase of any book in all participating bookshops.
It’s a relatively easy way for schools to promote literacy in a cool way that really draws kids in – and to foster the next generation of book buyers! It’s an unusual school that lets the day pass by unmarked. Consequently, for this one day at the beginning of March, there is a huge demand from schools for visiting authors.
And this is where you come in. Visiting a local school is a great way to raise your author profile locally – and to sell more of your books.
What should the visit comprise? Well, it’s up to you to negotiate with the school. It might simply be a case of giving a short talk to the whole school at an assembly, or they might like you to visit each class or English lesson. Whether or not you’re a household name, the children will view you as a real celebrity and will be eager to ask you lots of questions (not necessarily the ones you expect!) The school might also like to use your visit to mark a particular occasion, for example, opening a new library.
Helen Hart, author of young adult pirate novel The Black Banner, was welcomed to Hawkesbury Primary School on World Book Day by a school hall full of young pirates. Even the school dinner menu adopted a pirate theme in her honour – Chicken Peg Legs and The Windies (baked beans), anyone? Spending time with each class, helping the older ones polish their writing skills and the younger ones develop their own stories orally, Helen wove a very special day that the children will remember for the rest of their lives (as, I suspect, will Helen!)
If you can come up with an attractive visit programme and approach a school in a timely and appropriate way, you should be assured of an eager reception. Obviously it’s easier to do this if you write books that are targeted at the age group of the children you’re visiting, but that doesn’t have to be the case. At secondary schools, careers-oriented talks may also be welcome. Fantasy writer Richard Denning, whose young adult books focus on time travel and great historic events, has addressed not just English lessons but also history and science classes with great success.
Don’t expect to sell many books on the day. Schools will be wary of asking children to bring in large sums of money, not only to avoid pilfering, but also because it is unfair on those who are less well off. But what you can expect, with a little forward planning, is a bevy of great photos of you engaging young readers (get your book clearly in shot wherever possible!), a great local paper story, some nice material for your author website and social media pages, and a lot of local goodwill and word-of-mouth recommendations. You may even get invited to more schools or other local venues for an action replay.
The plaque commemorating Helen Hart officially opening the new school library will subtly advertise for her book for generations of Hawkesbury pupils to come. Richard Denning’s successful trip to a local school led to an invitation from Lichfield Library to talk about Time Travel in Science Fiction to a much wider audience as part of its Scintillating Science Day (for which the library also bought and displayed some copies of his book).
Of course, you don’t have to wait till World Book Day to take the plunge. Schools actively promote a love of books all year round and will never be offended by the offer of an author’s visit, especially if you don’t charge for it. (They may be sympathetic to paying your travel expenses, if absolutely necessary, but don’t expect a state school to have a budget to pay you a fee.) To find out the best person to approach about a potential visit, call the school office for advice. They may suggest the Literacy Coordinator in a primary school and Head of English in a secondary school, unless your book genre suggests a different route, or the Head in a small school, but be guided by them. And don’t be frustrated if your recommended contact is slow to respond. Teachers have restricted access to phones and emails during the school day and will respond at a time that suits them. Replying at their leisure will make for a more relaxed conversation and a more favourable result for you.
So go on, get in touch with your local school and give it your best shot. Good luck and enjoy your school visits – and do let me know how you get on, I’d love to hear from you!
(PS If you can afford it or persuade a volunteer to help, it’s worth taking along a professional photographer to get really good pics with all these young models (with the school’s permission, of course). I have to thank my very helpful friend and fabulous press and PR photographer Clint Randall of Pixel PR Photography for these stunning photos and many more like them! )