Memorable Author Visits: Tips from Teachers, Librarians, and Writers

In my classroom I make my students write a lot.  Students who are learning to write need role models and who better than the people who fill the pages of the books that line our shelves?  My students want to hear what authors were up to when they were in sixth grade, what tips and tricks they use to write a really good book, even what it looks like when they are writing!  I know that an author visit is successful if I see students using strategies that an author has shared with the class: “Hey, will you read my story out loud to me?  I want to try revising the way Mrs. Schlick Noe does.”                                                                       ~ Jordan Kimmerly, 6th grade teacher

Books crammed with students' sticky notes in preparation for my visit!

My visit to Jordan’s classroom was one of the first in a whirlwind of author visits this winter and spring – to schools, libraries, bookstores, after-school and mother-daughter book clubs, as part of the Mixed-Up Files Skype Tour, and even to a museum.  Whew!

As a long-time literacy educator, I’ve had a lot of experience with professional presentations.  But speaking to young readers and writers as a middle grade author is a whole new (and wonderful) adventure!  To create the most worthwhile author visits that I can, I asked my network of educators and fellow writers for their insights into what makes an author visit especially valuable and memorable.

I hope you discover new ideas, whether you’re an author preparing for a visit or a teacher planning one for young readers and writers.  This post is organized into four sections: what works for readers, how visits can encourage young writers, how teachers can extend the learning, and additional resources on author visits.

What Works for Readers?
As authors, our first opportunity to touch young hearts and minds is when students read our books or hear them read aloud.  Here are some suggestions to reinforce students’ connections with the story, as well as to support their growth as readers:

• Share the “story behind the story”   I love the background story that you can’t get without meeting the author in person. I want to hear what inspired the author, a tidbit of interesting research.  I also love to hear a gossipy piece – maybe a secret that didn’t come out in the story, because it’s juicy and makes the book more interesting.

•  Read an excerpt   We love hearing the author read — a chapter, a few paragraphs, even a few sentences.  It brings us into the story if we haven’t yet read it or into the story again, if we have.

•  Include photos and visuals   When an author shows photos and maps of places and people, it makes the story and the characters and the setting even more real!  Students find themselves re-thinking and re-imagining the novel.

•  Connect with the reading (and writing) curriculum   I want the author to check in with the teacher/coordinator about what they are trying to work on specifically when it comes to writing/reading so that the author can tweak the personal “real life author” things that they share to hit on those topics.

In 6th grade most of our reading instruction revolves around evaluating author’s craft and reading beyond the text.  I can tell my students about what I think the theme of a story is and what I believe the author wanted his/her audience to take away from a book until I am blue in the face, but there will always be those students who doubt that I know what I am talking about.  It is pretty difficult for even the most ornery of twelve-year olds to question what the author’s purpose is when it is coming out of the mouth of the author!

I love when an author is able to give insight into his or her writing on things that my students and I can only infer and hypothesize about. For example, we want to know how the author intended for various characters to be received.  We want to feel the payoff, a sense of being correct, for being critical readers.

• Save time for questions    We hope an author saves lots of time for questions.  If an author visit is going to be meaningful for students, the students need to be active participants in the encounter.  Often the students have better questions than anything that I would think to ask and the answer a student receives will most likely be the most memorable moment for that kid.

Encouraging Young Writers
Like many of us as children, I was an early writer – but I never dreamed I could meet a real author. So it’s no surprise to me that my favorite part about interacting with students has been connecting with them writer-to-writer.  Here are some ways that authors can encourage other writers:

•  Suggest that students jot down ideas as they listen   Ask students to bring writer’s notebooks or simply a piece of paper so that they can capture ideas they hear that they might want to use in their own writing.  Show photos of your writer’s notebook and talk about how you used it in the process of writing the book you’re discussing.

•  Talk about how you became a writer   We want to hear the author’s personal stories about becoming a writer, especially anecdotes about the writer as a child.  It’s very inspiring when the author shows bits of writing when she was the same age as my students!

•  Offer tips and discoveries that will help other writers   When a writer gives the audience their “best revision strategy” – for example, listening to their work being read aloud by someone else — it gives students a concrete and easily adaptable idea to try, regardless of the age level.

•  Share your own struggles, hard work, and solutions   What you do when you feel stuck or uncertain? Little tricks like that. What surprised you about the story/process?  What did you learn?

Most middle grade kids find writing pretty frustrating simply because of where they are in their intellectual development, so I try to share the parts of the process I find frustrating.

When a writer shows students the many drafts saved on their computer, it reminds them that writing is a process that requires time, effort and great attention to detail.

I think kids want to believe that their story ideas are worthwhile, so I try to do an exercise on generating story ideas. Or illustrate how I took a relatively simple and straightforward idea and elaborated on it until it grew into a whole novel.

When a writer shows suggestions that her editor gave on her writing, it helps the audience understand how helpful an outside perspective is, and that no matter how competent the writer, there is still more to learn.

When an author says that writing is a process of discovery, that while you can start with what you know but that what you don’t yet know is even more significant and can be discovered, it makes the process of writing even more exciting and the possibilities greater. It encourages you to begin!

•  Provide time, if possible, for students to share or talk about their writing   Some of our most valuable sessions have included the author listening to my students’ ideas or their own writing.  When an author says, “That’s a book that needs to be written,” I love how the young writer is empowered, re-energized and re-inspired to write.

Extending the Experience
Teachers can greatly increase the impact of an author visit by extending students’ learning experiences:

•  First of all, make sure you attend   The author visit can have far-reaching staying power when the classroom teachers also take part.  This allows follow-up for deeper, richer learning!

•  Help students reflect on what they’ve learned as readers and writers   I asked my students to write about something the author mentioned in her presentation that they can take away and use as writers themselves.  We typed up this list to post in our classroom and use during writer’s workshop — and we sent it to her as a thank you note!

Based on Katherine’s title, Something to Hold, I had students describe things in their own lives that they “hold in their hearts” to help them through difficult times.  This exercise helped students think about issues in the book that they encounter in their own lives, such as friendship, prejudice, and what it means to speak up for other people.

Resources for Author Visits

•  Consider Skype as a lower-cost alternative to an in-person visit
All of us here at the Mixed-Up Files hope you got in on last year’s amazing Skype Author Tour!  Even if you didn’t, consider Skype as a way to bring an author to your school or group.  Many middle grade authors offer lower cost – or even free – online visits.

Check out Kate Messner’s Authors Who Skype for detailed information for authors who want to Skype, as well as teachers and librarians looking for free or low-cost Skype visits.  In addition, author Mona Kerby and library media specialist Sarah Chauncey maintain the Skype an Author Network, an online database of children’s authors who offer Skype visits.

•  Mixed-Up Files author visit blog posts
We’ve offered a great series of posts about author visits here at the Mixed-Up Files.  You might start with Bobbie Pyron’s, Care and Feeding of Your Visiting Author for tips for schools and groups hosting an author.

And check out these posts by Rosanne Parry: Authors Visiting Schools: Thinking Outside the Box (creative alternatives to a standard, in-person visit), Successful Author Visits: What an Author Can Do to Prepare (valuable details to help authors get ready for a great visit), and Successful Author Visits: What Teachers and Librarians Can Do to Prepare (more helpful tips for people who are planning the visit!).

Finally, many thanks to the contributors who shared great insights and ideas about what makes an author visit memorable for young readers and writers:  Trish Bailey, Cindy Flegenheimer, Denise Gudwin, Jordan Kimmerly, David Lowe, Debi Mandel, Rosanne Parry, Lori Scobie, and Pam Schwartz!

Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. Her debut novel, Something to Hold, was published by Clarion Books in December, 2011.  Now that school’s out, she’s hanging up her traveling shoes and concentrating on her next story!  Visit her at http://katherineschlicknoe.com

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