I often joke that the professional author or illustrator is someone who had the time to master their craft because they liked being alone. Thus, they were able to put in the many hours necessary to hone these innately solitary arts. And as their reward, what do they receive? They win the happy chance to stand in front of hundreds of people and tell them all about it.
There is some truth to this: I remember the first time I visited a school as an author. I was not long out of college and was proud to have my first book released into the world. A local school asked me through my publisher whether I would be interested in visiting them and I agreed, not having the least idea what awaited me. I can still see the row of expectant faces looking up at me. My visit was meant to last just forty minutes but five sufficed to finish reading my book and I had no more material. ‘What am I doing here?’ I thought.
I have visited many schools since and this is a question I have often returned to. In fact, I believe there are many reasons for an author to visit a school and every one of them is important in its own right.
The author can, for example, be an excellent entertainer. We became writers or illustrators because we were passionate about stories and storytelling. In creating our work, we have lived every moment. An author’s performance of their own work can breathe life into every word. Our work was meant to challenge or bring joy or share ideas. Having an author perform it in front of you takes you straight to the source of the story. A book that might on first reading have failed to grasp the children’s attention can rise to become a cherished favourite after meeting its creator. Many authors and illustrators are not only able to perform their work but also to show their process in front of the children. I myself have never lost the joy of seeing that happen. To see a new character or story emerge before your eyes is a thrilling thing, a kind of magic that never grows old.
The visit need have no greater aim than that, to entertain. If all a child learns is that a book can make them happy then that is a great lesson. A world of learning waits in books. If a child is eager to read, if they can learn to take joy in reading, then they will be at an immediate advantage. Nor should the joy itself be undervalued. I have often thought that we need to break out of our sense of study as being arduous and self-sacrificing. For my own pleasure I have continued to study all of those subjects I enjoyed at school whilst, sadly, the others have faded. If only I had enjoyed myself more!
Most authors find great joy in their work. This is what we are keenest to share. We can also act as serious educators in the traditional mould. The craft of drawing or writing is not easily learned. It takes many thousands of hours of hard work to become an author. This is hard won knowledge that we can pass on to the next generation, as my teachers did for me. Many of us have also acquired highly specialised knowledge relating to our books. After all, they must be about something! It is a safe bet that the author of a book on dinosaurs will know a thing or two about them. This knowledge can be shared in the form of workshops or lectures or built into a performance. The school need not be passive in this. They too can decide in collaboration with the author what they want to achieve and whether there is something they are keen to learn from them.
To a large extent, exactly what an author visit is will come from the school itself. It will be a very different experience for author and child alike if the children have read or studied the author’s work in advance, perhaps watched them perform or read their work aloud online. Then again, if the author is unknown to the children the visit can be one of mutual discovery and may allow individual children to stand out above the general clamour that greets the much-anticipated author.
One of the things I personally enjoy the most about visiting schools are those times when I feel I have made a difference to an individual child. I have known schools to select which children I will work with, based on interest and ability. That can make for a wonderful experience as all of the children selected feel proud and privileged to be chosen and the author never feels they are unwelcome or unwanted. These groups tend to be more energised and engaged and to progress faster. There is a case against them though. My proudest moments are when I single a child out for praise only to find that previously they had been labelled slow or failing. To see their sense of self-worth return, even for a moment is a wonderful thing. There are many forms of intelligence and all too often our system will take a narrow view of what it means to excel. A fresh pair of eyes can give a child a chance to change their story for the better.
There is a small group of children who have no interest in stories or writing or drawing whatsoever. What might an author visit mean to them? If nothing else, there is this: I decided long ago that this was what we wanted to do with my life. I worked hard every moment I could spare and after many years, I made it happen. School is a place where you can reach up and grab your dream and pull it closer. I learned the career I love by studying in school and I will always be happy to share that lesson with any child who cares to listen.
Alexis Deacon is a writer and illustrator of children’s books, including Beegu, Croc and Bird, I am Harry Finch, A Place To Call Home, and many more. He has twice been shortlisted for the Kate Greenaway Medal and is a two time recipient of The New York Times Best Illustrated Children’s Books Award. In 2008 he was chosen by Booktrust as one of the ten best new illustrators of the preceding decade.
Alexis Deacon is a favourite with The Children’s Bookshow, a charity that inspires school children with a love of reading through an annual programme of theatre performances and in-school workshops with the very best author and illustrators from around the world. This year he will be at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester on 18th October. For further information about the rest of the tour and to book tickets see www.thechildrensbookshow.com
This is a guest post from Alexis Deacon and the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the FCBG.