You are an author/illustrator/poet and you have been asked to go into a school. The date is arranged, and the organiser has (hopefully) sorted out your time of arrival, transport, lunch, and method of payment. So – all that remains is for you to think what you’re going to do. Vivian French makes some practical suggestions.
Probably the first reaction is panic.
This is normal. It happens to almost everyone…
The next thing to do is to put in a little preparation. Check with the organiser that the children will have read or listened to at least one of your stories … or looked at your pictures … or read your poems. It sounds glaringly obvious, but it does sometimes happen that schools need a little reminder that this is a basic requirement. If they ask you to send them copies of your books (this also has been known) a polite suggestion that they visit the local library is probably more tactful than a demand that they hare off to the nearest book shop. (What you mutter to yourself is entirely up to you.) It is even more helpful if you know which of your book/books they are studying.
Never Assume Anything
It is also a good idea to check at this stage exactly how many children you are meeting, and how old they are. It’s reasonable to assume that you’ll be seeing children of the appropriate age for your books … but my personal rule of thumb is Never Assume Anything. ASK. It saves a lot of embarrassment later. Also find out where the sessions are going to take place … and if you don’t want to talk to more than a class at a time then say so. A cosy session in a classroom with the teacher beside you is one thing; standing up in front of anything up to three hundred children in an echoing hall is a whole different ball game.
One more vital check – make sure you know how long each session is expected to last. It is usual to do two sessions in the morning and one in the afternoon; any more than that and you will be exhausted and you won’t remember what you have and haven’t said. No session should last longer than fifty minutes to an hour – thirty to forty minutes for the little ones.
When you get to be an old hand, you can decide if you want to go for four sessions in a day – but it isn’t like teaching. You’ll be concentrating hard, and it’s very, very tiring … but it can also be hugely exhilarating and inspiring.
So – you know who you’re seeing, you know the children have some idea of who you are and what you do, and you’re on your way to the first classroom. What to do?
Breaking the ice
If the children are six or older then beginning with questions can be a good way of breaking the ice and getting into the swing of things. This works best if you have suggested to the organiser that the children prepare ten questions before you arrive – and it doesn’t hurt to remark brightly that of course they should be ten different questions. (I forgot to do this once, and ten earnest little seven year olds each asked me in turn ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ Amazingly, the teacher sat at the back of the class and beamed while I floundered badly at the front.)
It may well be that certain of the questions will lead into quite long answers – this is fine. Useful items to take along are any early drafts or rough drawings; children are fascinated by ‘before and after’ scenarios. You can show them how the early ideas developed, and let them compare them with the finished work; they always find this fascinating. Ask them why they think you changed it, and which version they prefer and why … sometimes this can lead to surprising conclusions. (And future confrontations with editors when the children reinforce your opinion that the first version was much the best …)
You will find you have a lot in common with even little children in school; they also have to draw pictures, to write poems, to write stories. And they have an editor too – their teacher! Compare notes with them; ask them where their ideas come from, how they think of characters … and then tell them how you do it. Ask them which of your characters they like best, and why – and (if you’re feeling brave) which they don’t like. Ask them how long it takes them to draw a picture, plan a story or write a poem – and then ask them to guess how long it takes you. (This usually leaves them with a virtuous glow.)
Remember the flip chart
When it comes to illustrations, children are completely dazzled if you are prepared to draw on a flip chart in front of them … seeing you draw a character from a book that they have read will be a genuinely miraculous experience for each and every one of them. All of a sudden they will realise that pictures are drawn by real people … and if you make the odd mistake so much the better. It proves you’re human, and that is deeply reassuring. It is the same with poets and authors; an admission of problems or failures makes a wonderfully encouraging bond between you and that grubby little urchin in the back row. ‘Wow! He can’t spell either! Maybe one day I could be a poet too!!!!’
NB – Another couple of points for illustrators. If you’re going to need a flip chart and pens and paper, always ask for it before you get to the school … and if you do draw, it needs to be BIG. Small detailed pictures will have them fighting to get to the front. And if you’re quite certain you could never draw anything in public, do what they do on those kids’ TV programmes. Bring your own flip chart paper with a few pre-drawn characters … but draw them in such light pencil that only you can see them. It’s not cheating. It’s self help.
Talking to infants
But what about the infants? Those in their very first year at school – and sometimes those in the second year – often don’t know what a question is. An invitation to ask about How or What or Where sometimes works – but more often than not results in the confidential whisper ‘my Dad’s got blue trousers …’ and immediately the whole group wants to explain to you that their Dad has got blue trousers too. Only better. And bigger.
Illustrators have a wonderful advantage with the tiny ones; even a nursery child will watch in rapt silence if he can see someone actually drawing a picture before his very eyes. Try asking them to suggest an animal, and then tell you how it’s feeling. Draw the poor sad lion – and then ask why it’s sad. An elephant is calling it names? Great … and here comes the elephant. Magic. Still got time left over? OK. How does the lion look when the elephant says Sorry?
Participation is a great way of keeping the very young ones sitting up and interested; stories with repetition are always a winner, or poems where the children can guess the next word. You haven’t got any stories like that? Try out a few rough ideas when you’re in the school – it’s hugely exciting for children to be told that they are the first ever to hear – or see – an idea. It really could be the start of that prize winning poem … or sparkling picture book.
It can be enormous fun creating a piece of writing/art work with the very young – and no. They don’t do the actual writing or drawing. You do.
(As a point of information I hardly ever get children writing when I’m in a school. It takes too long, they lose their rubbers, they spend half the time writing the date … and it makes the slower writers feel terribly inadequate. Much better to discuss things orally, where everyone can have a fair chance … and sometimes those kids who have real problems controlling a pencil have the very best ideas.)
So how does it work?
You set up the situation, and they provide the ideas. You then write them down – or draw them.
Warning! Keep it very simple. It’s much better to keep it short and get a finished piece than to end up with everyone getting bored. (Including you.) If there’s time left over read them a poem … or a story … or look at some pictures.
Try a numbers theme based around a nursery rhyme … Sing a Song of Sixpence, for example.
I did this not so long ago with a group of four year olds. I began by asking them what they thought the maid was hanging on the washing line … and this is what they wrote:
Five twinkly golden crowns dangling on the line
Four glittery jingly necklaces swinging on the line
Three blackbirds’ black braces twanging on the line
Two queens’ violet velvet dresses dripping on the line
And one big sunny sun to shine them all dry.
They were incredibly pleased with themselves, and drew fabulous pictures after I’d gone. And this can work with hundreds of other subjects – the seaside, outer space – whatever you fancy.
One last idea …
An excellent subject for discussion is the actual look of the book … especially the covers. Do the children like the front cover? If it didn’t have that picture, what would be a good one, and why? What about the blurb? Does it really give the feel of what the book is about? (This can be extraordinarily helpful when thinking about your next book.)
If you’re already working on something new, tell them about it – and ask what sort of title would be appropriate, and what the book should look like. What titles have you thought of so far?
What’s your favourite title … and what is the children’s? Can you think of an extraordinary new title that you could leave with the children … they could write and illustrate the story.
And maybe they could then send a copy to you to thank you for being so wonderful … together with all the other questions that they didn’t think to ask because you were all having such a brilliant time!
Good luck … and enjoy yourself.
Vivian French’s latest book is Singing to the Sun and other magical tales, illustrated by Chris Fisher (Walker, 0 7445 7852 3, £9.99 hbk).