Ever wondered what an author visit is like from the author’s point of view? HVLA’s very own Kyle Lukoff, Librarian at Corlears School, and Stonewall Award-winning author of When Aidan Became a Brother, shares his insights.
I joined HVLA in the fall of 2012 when I was a brand-new librarian in my first year at the Corlears School in Chelsea. My school schedules author visits once a year, for our bookfair, and after a few years, I became responsible for coordinating those visits.
Then, in the fall of 2019, I took three months off from work to travel around the country with my second picture book, When Aidan Became a Brother. I made a lot of mistakes, and in doing so learned a lot about what goes into making a successful school visit. The HVLA board was generous enough to let me share some of what I learned with you! I’ve tried to include everything that I’ve discovered through trial and error, and also got two author friends (Michelle Knudsen and Traci Sorell) to look this over and add their thoughts. Of course, no one guide can account for every possible situation, and every individual author might have their own needs and preferences. But I hope this helps, especially when paired with clear and direct communication with the authors you’re working with.
Money money money
Money is the hardest part of all this for me, which is why I’m getting it out of the way first. If I were an independent zillionaire I might be like “Oh I just do it for the kids, no payment necessary, connecting with children is payment enough,” but, well, royalties aren’t a reliable source of income for like 99% of authors, advances are sporadic and impossible to count on, and if a writer wants to be able to commit to writing without having a day job, a good percentage of their income will come from school visits.
I know that some schools don’t have a budget at all. And sometimes librarians rely on personal connections with authors who are willing to donate their time, for low or no cost. I’ve certainly participated in this, from both sides, but it’s important to keep in mind that since many of us rely on this to survive and to keep writing books, an author who’s willing to work for free or for way below an acceptable rate (like, under $200 for a single class visit), is sacrificing their time for your community.
In a first or second email, whether I initiate or the school reaches out to me, I attach an “informational flier” that includes my prices for various engagements. I recommend confirming a price right away, either before confirming a date/time or in the same email. I’ve done a couple school visits where I didn’t know whether I was getting paid until they gave me a check because I was too embarrassed to bring up money after committing to a day. Also be sure to confirm ahead of time whether you’ll have a check ready the day of the visit, or if it’s coming in the mail. Save everyone the awkwardness of that uncertainty.
Some authors will negotiate their fees, some won’t. If an author’s price point is way out of reach, many are willing to split it between schools or plan a multi-day visit with other schools in the area to share travel costs, honoraria, etc. It’s fine to ask, especially if you have a reason for why your budget can’t accommodate them—but be considerate, and don’t try to convince an author to work for less than they’re comfortable with.
Before the event
The fewer people the author coordinates with over email, the better. Many authors have contracts they use with all necessary details spelled out in them, which helps to manage needs and expectations without too much back and forth. I have found that the smoothest school visits are the ones where I am ONLY communicating with one person (let’s assume that’s you, the librarian, though sometimes it’s been the literacy specialist or a PA chair or a member of admin). Even if you need to coordinate with classroom teachers or administration, it’s so much easier if it’s just one person on an email with me. School visits are less likely to be successful if I’ve been talking to multiple people at one school because sometimes not everyone is aware of changes, or I’ve sent the wrong info to the wrong person, or no one’s sure who’s supposed to meet me so I’m hanging out for an awkward 20 minutes in the lobby.
I prefer doing as much coordination as possible over email, in ONE email thread. Not one thread with the initial set-up, one thread for “here’s your schedule,” and one thread for “See you tomorrow!” ONE thread, please, for the love of all that is organized. It makes is so much easier to confirm that all necessary files are sent, that I can easily find the address the day of, all those crucial details. This might seem nitpicky, but even I didn’t realize how important it was until one time when I was on the bus in an unfamiliar city frantically searching through several different email chains to figure out which campus I was supposed to go to.
Some schools prefer discussing future visits over the phone, some don’t. I’m one of those millennials who hates talking on the phone but understand that it can be helpful to have a conversation around potentially tricky situations. An email follow-up with details discussed on the phone is really helpful for record-keeping and for future reference. And if the event is scheduled far in advance, most authors appreciate an email exchange a week or so before just checking off all points.
The day of
I always get to a school approximately 30 minutes before my first scheduled engagement (okay, exactly 30 minutes early, but that’s just me), but don’t assume that an early arrival goes without saying. If you want the author to arrive at a certain time, definitely confirm that prior to the visit! Some people are the “stroll in five minutes beforehand” type, and it’s good to have your expectations aligned.
Let the front desk know the author’s name and purpose of their visit. I’m often anxious walking into elementary schools as an unaccompanied man, and being greeted with suspicion is an unsettling way to start the day. It’s best if someone is available to greet you right away, but if not, please fetch us relatively quickly! It is uncomfortable feeling like a shiftless grownup hanging out in the lobby of a school.
I always appreciate being offered coffee (especially if it’s first thing in the morning, that first cup usually isn’t enough). And water is crucial (I try to bring my own water bottle but sometimes forget). I LOVE it when the tech is set up prior to my arrival, but when it isn’t, 30 minutes is always more than enough time. Any materials should also be printed out and ready to go, preferably prior to the author’s arrival
I far prefer staying one space (library, gym) and having different groups of kids come to me, but of course, sometimes that’s not possible! It’s not an unreasonable burden to move from classroom to classroom, especially if we’re offering smaller classroom workshops instead of large assembly situations, but it is kind of a pain when tech needs to be set up afresh in each location. Especially if the kids are already in the classroom, watching you struggle with a projector or SmartBoard. It’s manageable if necessary, but please let us know ahead of time, and be sure to schedule in extra time for repeated set-up.
Also, let us know ahead of time if the kids are going to be eating lunch or snacks during the presentation because that might require last-minute adjustments. I hadn’t thought I’d need to clarify this, but one time I showed up and they were like “It’s so great you’re going to read to them during lunchtime,” the room smelled like oranges and everyone was chewing.
If the author is doing a full-day visit, make sure you’ve built breaks into the schedule (and that the author agrees with the schedule ahead of time). And, make sure that those breaks are REAL breaks, not tours of the school, not lunch with an affinity group. Any time that we are interfacing with members of your school community, it is work. It’s still being “on,” it’s still performing. Only time spent without engaging with people from the school is a real break. I’m the most extroverted person I know and I definitely need chunks of time during a full-day visit where I can recharge on my own. Of course, there’s a balance, and different people have different needs and preferences. It’s probably safe to assume that we don’t need a chaperone for every minute not in front of kids, but we also shouldn’t be left completely alone overall, especially given different school’s legal policies around adults who aren’t employees.
During the presentation
I always want to be introduced to the group by an adult the kids are familiar with. I tend to prefer a very brief introduction (“Good morning first grade! Please help me welcome author Kyle Lukoff.”) Some authors might prefer more thorough introductions, and I don’t mind them, but that’s a good thing to check in about ahead of time. It does get a little awkward when the person introducing me says all the things I was planning on saying, or says something inaccurate, so that’s why it’s important to confirm in advance. Make sure you know how to pronounce the author’s name. One time someone mispronounced me (a well-intentioned “they” instead of the correct “he”) so make sure to confirm pronouns if those aren’t clear.
Help the kids be successful! It’s hard for kids to sit still, so showing up on time is crucial—it’s tricky to have 50 kindergartners waiting semi-patiently in the gym while one last class is still taking off their coats and trickling into the space. If it’s a mixed age or class group, kids are often excited to see their friends in other classes, so it’s good for classroom teachers to facilitate their transition into the room. And even in single classes, we don’t know which friend groups are prone to distraction, which kids can’t sit next to each other, or the underlying or ongoing dynamics in each class, so please help kids find spots where they can be steady and focused.
Similarly, during the event, please keep an eye on the students. Since I’ve been a school librarian for eight years, I’m pretty comfortable with classroom management and don’t have a problem shutting down side conversations or other disruptions, but lots of authors don’t have that experience and will need you to support them if necessary. Even with educational experience it can be hard to control a group of kids I’m unfamiliar with, especially if it’s the end of the day, or before recess, or after cupcakes, so please step in and redirect the group’s attention if it feels like the author needs that support. It’s easier to do this if the adults in the space are paying attention to the presentation and the class, rather than looking at their phones or working on their laptops. If there’s a drawing/writing/interactive activity after the presentation, please help facilitate that transition—handing out materials, dismissing kids to tables or parts of the room, etc.
I am good at projecting but have noticed that events without a microphone are far more exhausting than events with a microphone in a room bigger than a standard classroom. In addition to accommodating kids who are hard of hearing or have auditory processing needs, it’s so much easier to talk into a microphone than yell for 45 minutes. Hand-held mics are tricky if I’m holding a book at the same time, but it can also be kind of awkward to maneuver around a stand. One time someone had a microphone clip for my collar, and that was magical, but whatever you have can work.
After the event
If you loved the event and would invite the author back again, spread the word and let your colleagues know! (*cough, cough*)
If the author is part of a marginalized community, especially one that you’re not part of (of color, LGBTQ, disabled, immigrant, neurodivergent, etc.), be cool. Sorry that I can’t be more specific about what it means to “be cool,” but maybe don’t insist on telling the author how important “these kinds of stories are” or how great it is to expose kids to “people with differences” or “My niece is trans, and she, I mean he, sorry it’s just so hard, you know” or “Why can’t everyone just be nice to each other, we’re all just human.” A simple “Did you find the school okay, I love your book, would you like some coffee?” is good. Just, like…be cool.
Similarly, if there’s been pushback from parents about the event, it’s hard to find a way to discuss it tactfully. I’ve had well-meaning people tell me, happily and excitedly, that “only two or three families wouldn’t let their kids attend.” You might think it’s great that only two or three families believe that my presence in your school is a threat to the wellbeing of their children, but no matter what the number is it’s a pretty upsetting thing to learn, and something hard to feign gratitude around. That being said, I do think it’s important to know, so if that’s information you have to share, please do so thoughtfully and respectfully.
School visits are a huge part of why I wanted to write for kids. As a librarian, I know how special it is to share stories with groups of children, and going into other school communities has been nothing short of magical. And my author friends all say the same. These guidelines are, at their core, intended to make the visit as successful as possible for the kids, and for us to most effectively share ourselves and our stories with them. Thank you for all the work you do to make that possible!