There are two special days each year when books and reading are celebrated around the world – World Book Day, for children, and World Book Night, for adults, founded by UNESCO as part of World Book and Copyright Day. Each of these events provides a good excuse/opportunity for indie authors everywhere to push themselves forward in their local community and draw attention to their books. In today’s post, British children’s writer Sue Bough shares her first experience of marking World Book Day in a local school, where she had great fun gathering feedback from young readers, learning important marketing lessons for future reference, and working alongside bestselling children’s authors on an equal footing.
“Before we start, we must face the scariest thing for a writer… can anyone guess what it is?”
I lift a cardboard box marked ‘DANGER’ onto my knees and scan the sea of eager faces before me. A green alien waves his hand, desperate to be heard.
“The government!” he blurts.
“Not quite what I was thinking,” (but oh, from the mouths of babes…). “Anyone else?”
“Great answer but actually my publishers are lovely!” I stifle a smile. Having left teaching 30 years previously, I’d forgotten the delights of working with children. Now, as an author visiting Parkside School to celebrate World Book Day (WBD), all was flooding back. It was thrilling to see the class file in, dressed as aliens and mad professors in homage to my book.
In the Company of Bestsellers
Mind you, there were some anxious moments in the run up to the day. My kind friend Charlotte, the school’s librarian, tactfully failed to mention that the other guest authors were both bestsellers. Caroline Lawrence has sold a million Roman mystery books and Joe Craig is the author of the popular Jimmy Coates series. Then there was me; self-published creator of a strange blue creature called Norman Snodgrass, less than 500 sales under my belt and zero experience as a visiting author. Still, we all have to start somewhere.
I use this point in my talk and am impressed by my audience’s insights. They know all about JK Rowling’s 12 rejection letters and are easily able to define ‘resilience’ (“keep going when things get difficult”) – something I wish I’d understood at the tender age of eight. We discuss the challenges of writing and the importance of good editing.
The Wisdom of Young Readers
“The first thing you write might not be your best work”, I explain, showing them an early composition about a hungry dog. “It’s not going to win any prizes is it?” I smile.
“But you were only six!” one child reassures me.
We go on to talk about the fun of reading aloud to friends or, if you have one, to your dog. They love stories and there is the added benefit that they are non-judgmental. Unlike people.
My harshest critics are sat cross-legged in front of me now. Years 3 & 4 have reviewed ‘Norman’ prior to meeting me and their comments are thought-provoking, e.g. ‘I like it ‘because it’s a sky-fi (sic) fantasy’, ‘It’s cool, interesting and original. Should go on to be a classic’ and ‘use better adjectives’. (I’ve made a mental note to try harder next time.) One of my reviewers is particularly difficult to please. When questioned ‘what did you like best about the book? he wrote ‘It was short’ yet, when asked ‘what could be improved?’ he responded ‘Make it longer.’
Brainstorming for Book Two and Beyond
I then give the class a sneaky insight into book two. Our unlikely hero Norman is currently stuck on the moon and I’m debating the best way to rescue him. The suggestions come thick and fast.
“Saw the moon in half!”
“Send up a jet-pack!”
“Or some cheese!”
With our creative juices flowing, I challenge the children to create their own fantasy worlds and I’ve come prepared with interesting props to stimulate the imagination. My books have science and environmental themes which lend themselves to many curriculum areas and the teachers appreciate the added value.
As the end of the hour approaches, goody bags are distributed and I encourage the class to give their creations a name. ‘Planet Vodka!’ shouts a mad professor to my left. His teacher grins as they head off.
I quickly re-set the room for session two and nip off to find the loos. The corridors are reminiscent of the scene in ‘Gregory’s Girl’ where a child, randomly dressed as a penguin, roams the floors, being misdirected at every turn. Centurions mingle with gangsters, spies jostle space creatures and in the staffroom, Mary Poppins chats to the White Rabbit. I pause to consider the dedication of the parents who fashioned a hedgehog outfit by sticking hundreds of pasta tubes to a onesie.
The second workshop is even more enjoyable than the first. I’m comfortable with the spontaneous interaction and my time management is better. Before leaving, I’m presented with a list of children who have ordered my book and am humbled as a mini professor proclaims ‘this is my second copy – I really love your book!’
I pack my bags feeling exhausted but elated and later that day, reflect on what I have learned.
What I Learned from my World Book Day Visit
- My flexibility has been tested. I’d spent weeks developing ideas but many were abandoned when group numbers changed from 15 to 60 then back to 30.
- I note that experienced authors travel light, unlike myself with a car-full of props, books and goody bags. Fine if schools are local but I’ll need to streamline if I’m heading further afield.
- I already understood the importance of safeguarding and possess a DBS certificate, however, it’s essential to check the schools’ policy around both the taking and usage of photographs. Alas, I can’t share the pasta hedgehog with you!
- My friend insisted that I produce an invoice for my time and gave me guidance on the going rate. Naively, I hadn’t appreciated that most authors charge for visits. As a newbie, I was prepared to do this for free to gain experience and I’m interested to learn how fellow authors deal with the many requests from friends to visit their children’s schools.
- I was delighted to sell 39 books but, with the cost of goody bags and props, probably only broke even. That said, much of the equipment is reusable and the value of the experience gained is immeasurable. I also received a lovely e mail from the Head of English saying it was ‘the best WBD workshop’ they’d had and can I come back next year?
I think a celebratory visit to ‘Planet Vodka’ is called for.
Oh, and the scary thing in the box? A blank piece of paper. But you knew that.
OVER TO YOU If you’re a children’s author and have done school visits, what were your most memorable lessons learned? Any cautionary tales?#Indieauthors - if you write for children, have you ever thought of making @WorldBookDayUK visits? Let Susan Bough tell you why they're such fun and what you'll gain from them. Click To Tweet
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