Inspiring Readers and Writers with Author Visits by Jim Bailey
Everyone has a favorite day of the school year. It could be the first day, a special performance, or a tradition that is unique to your school. For me, my favorite day is an easy choice: the day of our annual author visit. This year our guest author was Marc Tyler Nobleman. He wowed the students, staff, and parents with his presentation based on two of his books, Bill, the Wonder Boy and Boys of Steel. Several things happened after the visit that remind me why it is so important that we invite authors and illustrators into our schools. Author visits are not extras; author visits are essential.
After Marc’s visit, a group of staff members were so fascinated by the presentation that they gathered in the teachers’ lounge after school and spent the next 45 minutes discussing the books and the visit. We talked about reading, we talked about writing, and we talked about our shared experience. There is great value in being able to share a story together not only as a staff, but also as an entire school.
Another thing I immediately noticed is that the students wanted to read and write. We purchased extra copies of Marc’s books before the visit. Most classrooms read the stories in advance to prepare for the visit. However, after it was a Marc Tyler Nobleman reading explosion. The waiting list for one of Marc’s books was twenty students long. The excitement was still going strong a week later. Kids were writing stories and illustrating comics up and down the halls of Hemmeter. It was awesome! I have witnessed the same thing after every author visit at our school. The students want to read more books. They want to write more stories. They want to spend more time illustrating books. I fondly remember illustrating hiccupotamuses over and over with my son after an author visit from Aaron Zenz. You can’t help but be inspired. Every school wants motivated readers, writers, and illustrators. Author visits are one of the best ways to build that motivation. If author visits are so powerful for creating readers and writers, why don’t more schools schedule them? I believe two obstacles exist: funding for the author visit and finding an author to visit. I want to help remove these obstacles because every student deserves to have an author visit their school each year.
First, let’s tackle the funding issue. I fully realize the lack of funding that exists in public schools today. We are asked to do more with less every year. However, author visits are too important to cut. The first thing I would ask schools to do is prioritize your budget. What are you currently spending money on? My school previously spent ridiculous amounts of money on Accelerated Reader (AR) and prizes for students who met their reading goals. We eliminated AR several years ago and took all the money saved and gave it to teachers for classroom libraries. Also, we eliminated all prizes for reading goals and took that money for author visits. Scrutinize your current budget. You likely have things that will not give the return you will get from an author visit.
If you still can’t find money in the budget for author visits, it is time to do our favorite thing in K-12 education: fundraise (Remember, cutting author visits is not an option). One of our most successful fundraisers is our annual used book sale. This accomplishes two goals. It helps get books into our students’ hands while raising money for the author visit. Most of the book donations come from our current and past families, community members, and current and retired teachers. We usually sell the books for $1-2. It’s an easy fundraiser to organize. The kids get books to read and the school gets money for an author visit.
We have a couple of other fundraisers that have worked well to support our author visits. I refuse to sell wrapping paper or candy bars, so don’t worry about me suggesting those ideas. However, we do have restaurant fundraisers once a month. I like to find ways to raise money by doing things families are going to do anyways. Families like to go out to eat so we try to capitalize on that. Many restaurants offer schools a night where the school receives a percentage of the total bill for families eating at the restaurant. It’s another great, easy way to make some extra money for author visits.
My final tip for overcoming the funding obstacle is to partner with another school. We would have never been able to afford Marc Tyler Nobleman’s visit on our own. We partnered with several other schools in the area. Marc actually did ten presentations during his visit to Michigan. We were able to split the cost and make the visit more affordable. It’s a win-win. You share the cost of the visit and have another school to connect with to discuss the visit. Now that you have the money, how do you find an author to visit your school?
Four years ago I attended a session at Nerd Camp by Aaron Zenz. He talked about how his family read books together, created art based on books, and what it is like being an author. He offered a discount at the end of the session for anyone that mentioned Nerd Camp when they booked him for an author visit. I called Aaron the next day, and we set up the visit for the following school year. If you are a school in Michigan, he is a “must have” author visit. My next two author visits also came from authors I met at Nerd Camp (Matt Faulkner and Ruth McNally Barshaw). As you can see, Nerd Camp is an awesome place to meet and build relationships with authors. NCTE and national and state reading conferences are other great places to make connections with authors.
Another great resource for finding an author for a school visit is to ask colleagues in your ELA network. When I get ready to book an author for the year, Alicia Kubacki, Carrie Davies, and Kurt Stroh are the first people I call. They have many great contacts and have a great deal of author visit experience. We connected with Kelly DiPucchio last year based on a recommendation from Kurt.
Finally, Twitter has been a great resource for connecting with authors. When I read a book I enjoy, one of the first things I do is find the author on Twitter. I send them a quick message telling them how much I enjoyed the book. Just one tweet can lead to a lasting friendship and a great author visit contact. Debbie Ohi, Josh Funk, Nora Raleigh Baskin and Jess Keating have all visited our school via Skype for author visits. Twitter was also my first contact with Marc Tyler Nobleman. We chatted about his book, Bill, The Wonder Boy. That conversation lead to me attending his session at the Michigan Reading Association Conference, which lead to him coming to my school, and completely blowing away the students and staff.
Author visits are powerful. I love this quote from Dan Gutman, “When kids get the chance to meet the author of a book they’ve read, a special connection is made. They are energized, inspired, touched with a new appreciation for reading.”
Author visits are not extras; author visits are essential. They need to be a part of every school, every year. Let’s make it happen!
Jim Bailey is the principal at Hemmeter Elementary in Saginaw, Michigan. He has a passion for helping all students become lifelong readers. Jim spends his time reading, cheering on the Detroit Tigers, and enjoying time with his family (wife, Laura, and two sons, Evan and Griffin). He is an all-around nerd who probably spends too much time obsessing over Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Clash of Clans, and comic books. You can follow him on Twitter @jcbailey3.