With over two decades of first-hand experience regarding school visits, I have seen and learnt for myself just how much of a difference author and illustrator visits can truly make. Such visits inspire not just reading and writing, but also fire a child’s imagination and lead to previously reluctant readers actively seeking out stories.’ Malorie Blackman, Children’s Laureate
The evidence is overwhelming, says Caroline Sanderson: author visits are worth their weight in words.
Author Visits in Schools, a piece of research conducted by the Society of Authors in 2013 found that a remarkable 99.4% of all those who had organised an author visit considered them to be ‘an invaluable enrichment that encouraged reading for pleasure, wider reading and creative writing’. Author visits, the survey of more than 150 schools nationwide found, had ‘a profound and lasting impact’, positively engaging pupils including (and particularly) reluctant readers and those with Special Educational Needs (SEN), whilst many teachers indicated that author visits had benefitted their teaching skills too.
The results of the Society of Authors research were a huge encouragement when last year, I had the wild idea of organising a Book Week at the Gloucestershire primary school my now teenage children attended. I have been a governor of the school for the past eight years; a role I mostly enjoy, but one which has involved grinding through the ins and outs of too many misguided – and deadening – government policies aimed at improving literacy. It was during one such governor’s meeting that I impulsively decided to stop merely mouthing-off about the importance of reading for pleasure, and actually do something to help the beleaguered staff inject some. ‘Let’s have a Book Week’, I said to the head. ‘I’ll organise it for you’.
My crazily ambitious aim was to have an Author of the Day, for five days in a row, each of whom would visit at least 3 classes, so that each year group would have the opportunity to hear from, and work closely with at least 2 real live authors. With the support of the headteacher, I went cap-in-hand to a PTA meeting, and talked them into funding the author visits.
Next I visited the owner of our local independent bookshop to talk to him about supplying books. He was not only keen to work with us, but also proved to be a mine of information on children’s authors living in our region, and gave me a list of recommended writers with whom he had collaborated successfully on school events in the past. For this reason I would suggest to anyone thinking of organising an author visit to talk to their local independent bookshop first.
Most children’s authors have websites, which usually include a section on school visits. They sometimes give an email address so you can send an enquiry direct, but it is also well worth considering agencies such as Speaking of Books and Authors Aloud each of which represents numerous writers active in schools. The booking services they offer help take the administrative hassle out of booking an author visit, a particular boon for hard-pressed teachers. Their prices start at between £350 – £400 per day. Prices vary when booking an author direct, but the minimum Society of Authors recommended rate is £300 a day (a ½ day is usually billed at ¾ of the daily rate). If the cost is a problem, it can often be shared by organising a visit with a second school or group in the same area.
The advantage of booking authors who live fairly locally is that it cuts down on travel expenses. Three of the authors I invited – John Dougherty, Hannah Shaw and Tom Percival – live in the same town as me (one of them can actually see the school from his house), so it made sense to ‘book local’. It’s worth bearing in mind that booking authors who live some distance away can involve them in either a very early start, or an overnight stay if you want them to be in school by 9am.
Minimising travel expenses for three of my days meant that I was able to ‘splash out’ on the other two. I invited Tanya Landman to visit us from North Devon; and Tom Palmer from Yorkshire completed the programme (hand-picked because of the rugby-themed reading activities: the game is huge among the reluctant reader boys in the school).
Having five talented authors in school in the space of a week enabled us to offer a wide variety of activities, from singing (and laughing uncontrollably) along with John Dougherty, to making drawings for a huge park scene with Hannah Shaw, planning the perfect murder with Tanya Landman, and looking at multimedia ways of working with Tom Percival. Paticularly if you are planning just a single event, it is worthwhile thinking about which groups of children will most benefit, and/or what sort of activities you might want to encourage. Do you want to inspire their creative writing? Storytelling? Acting skills? Singing? Drawing? Or all of the above?
Justly popular, many authors get booked up months ahead (they also need to allow time for their own writing!), so the more notice you can give, the better. World Book Day in March is a particularly busy time.
Organising our Book Week was a lot of work, particularly with a full-time job of my own, but it was worth every moment to see the children engaging so enthusiastically with our guest authors each day. I passionately believe that there is nothing like meeting a real living, writing author to instil in children the power of words. Every morning in assembly, when I introduced the day’s programme , I would ask: ‘What week is it this week?’ ‘BOOK WEEK!’ was the roared response of 200 children.
The Society of Authors website includes excellent, detailed guidance for both schools and authors about author visits.
Caroline Sanderson is a freelance writer, editor and reviewer.