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The visit: from the author’s lens
A couple of weeks back, we were fortunate to host a visit from author James Kennedy. James was adorable and so very generous with our students. He charmed even the most charm-resistant of our kids.
He mesmerized my Book Club fan-girls for two whole hours after a full day of formal presentations at both our High School and Middle School. He critiqued Jelli’s one-act play, an independent study inspired by Marlene’s Creative Writing class.
It was an unforgettable event for many of our students. They spent a full day laughing and learning with a real-life author. They were entertained. They visited James’ fantasy world. They learned about the creative process. They learned about the power of story. They learned about writing as a possible career path.
But why do authors do it? I don’t think it had anything to do with the modest honorarium our wonderful PTA was able to offer. (Yeah PTA!)
I asked James: What do authors get out of a school visit?
Why do I like doing author visits at schools? Why is it a good idea for young adult authors to do this, if they possibly can? After all, it takes away from one’s writing time. And as for self-promotion, there are probably far more efficient ways of doing book publicity.
For me, it’s because writing is a lonely, isolating vocation. Even though I’m active online, nothing replaces face-to-face interaction with readers. I write for young adults, but in my everyday life, I don’t get the chance to interact with many of them. So the opportunity to plunge into a someone else’s school for a day, and to meet enthusiastic readers and talk to them about not only The Order of Odd-Fish, but other books, and TV and movies and favorite memes and the students’ own lives—that’s a privilege.
When I sat in with the Somewhat Virtual Book Club at Springfield High School, we ended up talking for nearly two hours. We could’ve gone longer! My favorite parts were when discussion strayed from my book, and I got to learn about the book club members’ own lives. For a young adult author, this is a gold mine. I hung on to every word they said.
It’s a treat to meet fans of your book—but it’s even a bigger treat to become a fan of your readers.
I’d experienced this in the past, when I received tons of fan art for The Order of Odd-Fish, and showed my appreciation—my own fandom of their fandom—by throwing a fan art gallery show of their work.
At Springfield Township High, I got to see a short play written and performed by some of the Book Club’s members. The play was quite enjoyable, and since it was still a work-in-progress, I was lucky enough to get to talk shop with the playwright. When I was in high school, I always wanted to write a play, but I never managed to make it happen. So I was impressed that our playwright was able to achieve so much so early.
I also got the chance to see a action-detective-comedy TV series about hall monitors that was created by another student. I made sure I met him and invited him to submit to the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival. These are the kind of creative, driven people I want to know early on!
Much of an author’s visit at a school usually centers on the presentation the author gives, usually to a group of a hundred or so students at a time. This is nerve-wracking and thrilling. I often “perform” my stories to myself as I’m writing, with various voices and gestures. I make absolutely sure nobody can overhear me as I’m creating this stuff, but once it’s published, it’s fun to bring this extra dimension of the book to the audience. It can be frightening, though, because in my imagination, there’s no tougher crowd than a bunch of teenagers who have never heard of you before. But as it turned out, I didn’t have to work as hard as I anticipated.
The students at Springfield Township Middle School in particular made me feel like a star, by recreating artifacts from the book—a baby with a mysterious note, a package that fell from the sky, strange jars filled with multicolored liquified smells, an ostrich, an appendix. For the students to take the time to bring The Order of Odd-Fish to life that way was an honor. And listening to their introductions—some written in the style of Odd-Fish itself—before I went onstage–was a pure pleasure, and banished any last bit of stage fright I might’ve had.
Some authors are naturally shy, preferring to stay away from their audience. And some great books nevertheless don’t lend themselves to being performed aloud; live readings don’t bring out their best side. But even if you’re not a ham like me, taking the time to visit schools is great for a writer—and not just to talk about one’s own book, but to listen to your audience, and learn from them.
About Joyce Valenza
Joyce is an Assistant Professor of Teaching at Rutgers University School of Information and Communication, a technology writer, speaker, blogger and learner. Follow her on Twitter: @joycevalenza
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