Blog Archive

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Writing for Children - How to Set up School Visits

For those who have written children’s books, they know one way to promote their books is by school visits. But if you’ve never been a teacher where do you begin? Who do you contact? Today's interview is with an author who is well versed in doing school visits.

Mara Rockliff is the author of many books for kids and teens, including My Heart Will Not Sit Down (Knopf, 2012), the Green Earth Book Awards 2011 Honor winner Get Real: What Kind of World Are You Buying? and The Milo & Jazz Mysteries series, published under the pen name Lewis B. Montgomery.She has been doing school visits for seven years, including a visit to rural Jamaica, where the school lunches are delicious.

For someone not accustomed to doing public speaking, how do you plan for this? What is the first step?
If you’re a published children’s writer and you have a website saying where you live, you will probably get emails from schools in your area asking if you do author visits. 

The best way to encourage this is to make sure your website has a page saying you do author visits, giving schools a way to contact you, and describing the program(s) that you offer. You’ll also want to get listed on sites such as America Writes for Kids, Kim Norman’s Author School Visits by State, and SCBWI.

Of course, then you need to HAVE a program ready to present! A great way to get some ideas is to watch other authors doing school visits. Your local school may let you attend an assembly, or if you have writer friends who are doing visits nearby, ask if you can go along. Some children’s writers post video clips on their websites. You can even google “author visit video” and see what comes up.

Teachers and librarians are a great resource. If you know any, you could ask them nicely if they’d read your books and make suggestions. You might offer to do a free school or library visit in return. 

Once you have a program planned, if you’re not used to public speaking, PRACTICE. That probably sounds obvious, but it took me ages to figure out! 

What I used to do was just make notes of what I wanted to say, then show up and hope for the best. When it didn’t go well, I thought it was because I wasn’t a natural speaker and didn’t get enough practice speaking in public. It never occurred to me that I could actually PRACTICE AT HOME.

Finally a friend tipped me off. Now I rehearse my school visit programs many times before I go. I’ve heard of people doing this in front of a mirror, which sounds like a terrific idea. I tried it and I couldn’t get three words out of my mouth. So I borrow my daughter’s stuffed animals and talk to them. 

Fun, right? NO. I hate it. But my programs have gotten much better. 
One last suggestion: Check out It’s full of wonderful advice to children’s writers about how to improve our school visits.

What type of books work best for school visits and why? Picture books? Easy Readers? MG books? YA Books?
That’s an interesting question! In my experience, YA authors get fewer school visit requests. I think that is because elementary schools have more flexible schedules and more active parents’ groups, which often raise the money for an author visit. When YA authors are invited to a middle school or high school, they’re likely to be asked to do a writing workshop for a small group—maybe just one class.  

Elementary schools are more likely to want an author to do large assemblies, often for several grades at a time. Authors who write for different age groups definitely have an advantage. For instance, I write picture books under my own name, but I also write a humorous chapter book mystery series under the pen name Lewis B. Montgomery. Schools like that, because I can use my picture books with grades K-1 and my chapter books with grades 2-5.

Still, if you only write one type of book, that doesn’t mean you can’t do school visits. Picture book authors can talk to older kids about the writing and publishing process. And schools might bring in a middle grade author just for the upper grades. 

Personally, I’m not a huge fan of author visits for the little kids. I do them, and the kids have a great time and so do I, but they would have an equally good time with any grownup doing something fun. The thing is that kids under second grade do not understand what an author is. I don’t care if they can all sing “The author writes the book, the author writes the book, hi-ho the derry-o, the author writes the book.” They still don’t get it. 

How do I know this? Because my daughter, who is a reasonably intelligent child, LIVES with a children’s author. And well into first grade, when one of my new books came in, she would read it and then say to me, “You’ll never guess how it ends!”

How long of a presentation should you expect to do? What should you cover?
Usually, schools will expect a presentation between 40 minutes and an hour, depending on how long their class periods are and how flexible their schedule is. That’s something to work out ahead of time with your contact at the school. It’s good to be flexible, though, because some schools have kids in their seats at the dot of the appointed time, while at other schools, the classes may take ten minutes to straggle in, and then the principal gets up and spends another ten minutes introducing you and telling the kids how to behave.

I’ve actually never seen an author visit program where the author just read books. With my picture book The Busiest Street in Town, I do read the story aloud (with the pages projected on a screen so everyone can see), but I use big colorful props and let the kids help act it out, and then there is an art project for them to do. 

For the older kids, I don’t read aloud at all. Instead, I talk about the writing process, using funny slides, a costume, and lots of audience participation to keep it lively. Getting questions at the end is no problem—there are always more raised hands than I can call on. 

Should you bring books with you to sell? Or should you just let them be ordered?
The first thing to do is check your contract, or talk to your publisher, and find out whether you’re allowed to sell your books. If you are, you’ll need a sales tax license from your state, I think—and also any state where you do school visits? As you can see, I’m not an expert! I don’t sell my own books, partly because I don’t have time to deal with those complications, and also because I’d rather see schools support independent bookstores in their area. 

When a school asks me to visit, I let them know that I am more than happy to sign books while I am there. I also tell them that many schools and PTAs raise money to help cover the cost of an author visit by ordering books at a discount from a local bookstore (or directly from the publisher) and selling them to students at the cover price. 

The best way to do this is to send order forms home with students weeks before the visit; that way the school knows exactly how many books they’ll need. I have order forms available for download on my website and schools are welcome to adapt them however they please.

Do schools pay authors for their visits? How does an author negotiate a fee?
Absolutely! School visits take a lot of time and effort—not just the time an author spends at the school, but time spent arranging the visit (a typical school visit involves dozens of emails back and forth), planning a program, making props, rehearsing, creating materials such as a simple contract or book order forms, and traveling to and from the school. This is all time away from your real job: writing! 

Some authors list their fees on their websites or in their brochures. Others, like me, tell schools to contact them for fees. I’m not being coy; it’s just that my fees vary depending on how far away the school is, whether or not I’ll need to spend the night, and how many presentations they want me to do. 

I can often work with schools to make my visit more affordable. I give discounts for multiple days in the same district, for example. I also lower my fee for local schools and schools in low-income areas.

If you’re just starting out, ask around about the going rate in your area. Aim low at first, but not too low, unless you owe someone a favor. Unfortunately, new authors often find that if they charge schools too little (or nothing), they’re not treated well. You’d think that people would say, “What a nice author to come for free! How kind and generous!” But instead they tend to think that if they didn’t have to pay for it, your time and effort must not be worth anything.

Give me an example of something that surprised you in a good way in doing a school visit. Tell of something you learned the hard way to improve your school visits.
Every school visit has wonderful surprises, because you get to meet kids and hear the things they say about your books! Often the teachers are surprised as well. They’ll come up afterward and tell me that a child who spoke up is usually very shy, or that they thought I picked a “troublemaker” to participate and they couldn’t believe how nicely he behaved. 

One thing I’ve learned is that it’s NOT a good idea to pass out rewards (stickers, bookmarks, etc.) to kids for asking questions at the end. They go completely nuts and no one listens to your answers because all they want is to get called on next so they can have a sticker too. If you’re worried that no one will ask a question, have some questions ready to ask them. I like to ask kids about their favorite books

Also, never do Q&A sessions with little kids. A kindergartner’s idea of a question is, “I have a dog!”

If this hasn't answered all your questions or if you would like to buy some of Mara's books, here's a link to her website. 


  1. Thanks for these great tips! I'm doing my first school visit very soon, so your post gave me some good ideas. :-)

    1. Hope it gives you an extra boost of confidence and paves the way for more book sales.

  2. What a wonderful post! I am not at the stage yet where I will be doing school visits (although I have done 2 classroom visits). Still- I saved the link that was included about expert school visit advice and I found this whole post to be so helpful. It really made me think. Great advice about not passing out rewards for questions- I can see how that can get out of hand. Thanks so much for posting this!


  3. What great information! I don't write Children's Books but I found this quite informative, as I am working on a Childs Holiday Poetry Story.

  4. Great advice. Thanks for this post. I am filing it away for when I get to do school visits!

  5. Any thoughts for other writing topics to cover?

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