Young people are my favorite audience! I am available for presentations at schools, libraries, book fairs, literature festivals, and any other creative use of time.
A school visit is the absolute best way for kids to connect with authors, and it’s an experience many of them will not forget. For you teachers or parents who might be thinking about such a thing but don’t know how to go about it, I now present my
(A Guide For the Perplexed)
You’re a good teacher, and you teach some great kids. But every now and then, do your days get a little old-routinish? In the depths of the school year, when the gloss is off the whiteboard and the pencils are chewed and the backpacks smell like yesterday’s lunch, wouldn’t it be fun to kick back for a day and let someone else take the class? Someone like an author, whose books the children have read and would love to hear the inside scoop of how they were written? Or an author whose books they haven’t read yet, but will be fighting over once she’s gone?
Here’s what teachers, students and other interested parties are saying about my presentations:
The students really enjoyed your talk and have mentioned to me several times how much they liked it.
–Library Media specialist, Jackson Creek Middle School
Janie is a marvelous speaker, and students love her–she’s a true professional who presents on children’s level–speaks in plain talk about how her ideas for stories are born. Janie is approachable and encourages questions from her audience. Sign her up–you’ll be glad you did.
–Book Editor, The Washington Missourian
Even reluctant readers were ready to dive into her two published books. One of the most entertaining features of her presentation was selecting students from the audience to re-enact scenes from Shakespeare; it was hilarious to watch the interaction of author/student. Another entertaining feature was student-modeling clothing from the Shakespearean era.
–8th grade teacher, Wood Middle School
What can I talk about? Well, what do you need? If you’re looking for someone to make the principles of hydraulic engineering clear to your students, I’m not that person. But here are some subjects I have talked about, any of which (and any combination of which) can be adapted to your particular classroom needs:
Who’s Driving This Bus? I use Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous as a springboard for examining how the parts of a story, especially plot and characters, work together. Through role-playing and interactive exercises, students will explore how characters determine the action, while action moves the characters to create an effective story.
Where Do Stories Come From? Don’t ever let your students tell you they don’t have anything to write about! They have the same thing every writer has: Personal experience. In this presentation I share aspects of my experience that went into writing all my novels (even though I wasn’t even around during Shakespeare’s time), with a special emphasis on The Middle of Somewhere.
The Shakespeare Connection: My first two novels grew out of a love for Shakespeare and theater in general. I share some of my personal experiences (with a little help from volunteers), and show how my research into the life and times contributed to the novels. Students will get a glimmer of an idea what the life of an Elizabethan theater apprentice must have been like (be sure to have a camera for the costume demonstration), as well as why a 450-year-old dead guy is still a big deal today. If time allows, we may ever get to assassinate Julius Caesar!
That War: World War II is still considered the war, and still (barely) within living memory. In this presentation I use visual images to show how experience, imagination, and research contributed to writing My Friend the Enemy. I’ll share my personal connections with the story, including an adventure in Japan. Students will learn about wartime rationing, salvaging, and air-patrolling on the home front, as well as the little-known Fu-go project, the only instance of foreign bombing on U. S. soil.
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Sounds like fun (you think to yourself) . . .
- We’ve never scheduled an author visit, and I don’t know how.
- With all the budget cuts lately, we can’t afford it.
- With all the standardized testing our kids have to prepare for, we don’t have time.
If you can relate to any of those “buts,” this little guide is for you.
1) HOW TO SCHEDULE, CARRY OUT, AND FOLLOW THROUGH ON A SUCCESSFUL AUTHOR VISIT
First, contact Aquila Fenby at firstname.lastname@example.org and let her know you’re interested in a visit from J. B. Cheaney. Information needed: grade levels; number of presentations, time frame (morning, afternoon, or all day); time allowed for each presentation (usually 45-60 minutes).
Except in unusual cases, I request an opportunity to sell my books, usually after each presentation. Many schools, especially those in larger cities, like to order the books through a local bookseller or national distributor. If you have no experience with this, see Book Business below. In certain circumstances, I may be able to bring my own copies to sell.
If we arrange a date and time I will send a letter of agreement for you to sign. Then the countdown starts . . .
6-8 weeks before the visit:
Order books for the library, if you don’t have them already. This will help teachers to read and become acquainted with them so they’ll be able to talk about them with the students.
6 weeks before the visit:
If you’d like, I will send a packet with classroom suggestions and activities that teachers can use to prepare the students. The packet also includes a “know the author” quiz, a sample book-order form, and a reproducible flier to tack up in classrooms.
Double-check lodging and schedule arrangements and line up necessary equipment. “Necessary equipment” is merely a standard-issue PowerPoint projector. Also a microphone, if we’re talking about a large room (such as a gym) filled with kids.
Decide which of the preparation activities you’ll have time to do and work them into your lesson plan.
3-4 weeks before the visit:
Put up fliers in classrooms and begin to talk up the event. If you are reading one of the books to the class, you might want to allow four weeks. To give you an idea how long it might take, The Middle of Somewhere is 218 pages long with 19 chapters. Somebody on This Bus is 296 pages with 12 chapters, some of which are quite long. I Don’t Know How the Story Ends is 277 pages long with 20 chapters (and an epilogue). My Friend the Enemy is 262 pages long with 27 (shorter) chapters.
2 weeks before the visit:
Check with me to make sure we’re coordinated!
Designate one teacher or teacher’s aide to help with book sales.
Hand out book order forms in class.
1 week before the visit:
Order books from bookseller or publisher.
Pick up rose petals at the florist’s to strew on the sidewalk (just kidding).
I’ll take over from there!
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2) HOW TO SAVE MONEY ON A SCHOOL VISIT.
My standard fee is $500 for a full day (up to four sessions) or $350 for a half-day (up to two sessions). You’ve already saved money! This rate is below the national average, but even that may be too rich for your little district. Don’t despair; we still may be able to work something out.
Network with other teachers or librarians in nearby districts to see if any of them would be interested in a visit. If schools are not impossibly far apart, I could do two half-days at a cost (per school) of much less than a full day, and more kids get the benefit. Often the local PTO sponsors special events; ask what they can contribute. If your school doesn’t have an active parents’ group, perhaps a local service organization would be willing to contribute (especially if I included a talk at one of their meetings). Or, do you have a substitute teacher fund? Would the district allow you to offer one or two days’ sub pay in return for a visit? Some of these ideas may spark further creative financing!
Lodging. Do any of your teachers or administrators have a basement apartment or “mother-in-law suite” standing empty? Though I need some time to myself every evening to unwind, I certainly don’t mind staying in a home, backyard RV, or private guesthouse (I draw the line at gym floors, though).
Or, consider asking a locally-owned hotel or lodge if they would be willing to offer a free night or two in exchange for advertising. Then, on every press release sent to the papers and every letter sent home by the students, be sure to include the blurb, “Mrs. Cheaney’s visit is co-sponsored by _________.” You might even include the hotel’s logo on fliers and correspondence.
Mileage. If driving, I usually charge a nickel less than the standard business rate. This rate has been averaging .43-.53 per mile, so $.45 is a good figure to use for estimating the cost. If your school is less than fifty miles from my home in Southwest Missouri, I often don’t charge for driving there.
Airfare. If the location is over 400 miles away, flying might be preferable (and cheaper!). I can arrange this, if you prefer not to. I always go for the least expensive rate that fits with the time frame. We’ll discuss the best way for me to get around once I’m in the area. If you can arrange chauffeur service to get me to and from my lodging and the airport, that’s fine, but it might be simpler to provide me with a car (and a good map!). A local dealership might be willing to provide a car in exchange for blurbs (“Mrs. Cheaney’s transportation generously provided by _____”), or a teacher or board member may have an extra vehicle they’d be willing to entrust to me. Like that rusty orange pickup they use during deer season.
Food. During the day, I can lunch with teachers or students. Would the student council or writers’ club like to order in pizza for private time with the author? Could we arrange a coffee klatch in the teacher’s lounge? If you’d like to take me out for dinner one evening on the district’s tab, that would be great, and I eat practically anything. For the rest, I can take advantage of the hotel breakfast or pick up a salad at Wendy’s at my own expense.
This may seem daunting: so we have to send an order form home with the kids, collect the money, order books (from where?), sort them when they arrive, distribute them to the right students, and send back any that didn’t get sold. Who needs that??
Well . . . the kids do. Getting to meet a real author in person connects them to the world of books in a tangible way (“Authors are real people like we are! Maybe I could write a book some day!”). Getting to own a book personally signed by the author extends that benefit. Also, as almost all my books are available in paperback the cost to the student isn’t so great. Very little of it accrues to me, incidentally–if the school takes responsibility for ordering the books, I receive my royalty and that’s it. For paperback books, that’s surprisingly little! But I’m cool with that, as long as the kids are reading.
So, how do we do this?
Ordering from a dealer. Many schools, especially those in larger districts, have a working arrangement with a local bookseller. If yours does not, it’s worth connecting with the community relations director of your local Barnes & Noble, Half Price, BooksAMillion or independent dealer. Any bookseller worth his salt will bend over backwards to work with schools, and many offer school discounts. You can either keep that savings for school projects, or pass it along to your students. Most booksellers will allow you to order the books on consignment–that way, you may return any unsold copies without a penalty.
Ordering from the publisher. If there’s no local bookseller, it’s easy to order directly from my publisher, Random House. Their warehouse is centrally located Indiana, and it’s staffed with friendly, helpful people. All the books I’ve ordered from them have always arrived on time, or even ahead of time. If you decide to go this route, I can provide you with contact information.
Purchasing directly from me. A few of my hardcover books are out of print, meaning if the student really likes hard covers, or the library would like to purchase copies for the library, the best option is to buy them from me. Also I sometimes bring my Wordsmith books to sell. This is easy if we work it out ahead of time so I know how many copies to bring.
General Procedure and Countdown
- We’ll discuss how and from whom to order the books. Remember, I will work with you on this!
- I’ll include an order form in my packet of prep materials. I can also e-mail it as a file attachment so you can customize and print it directly from your computer. You may photocopy as many as you need and send them home with the students two or three weeks before my visit. (p.s., I’ve tried to make the forms interesting enough so the kids will at least look at them–though, let’s face it, at least half will end up at the bottom of the book bag.)
- Once you have a rough idea of how many students will be buying books, you may place your order. One week (five business days) is usually enough time for books to arrive, whether you order from a publisher or from a local bookseller. You may want to allow a few more days just to be on the safe side. Also, it’s a good idea to order a few extra to serve those kids who forgot to return a form or decide they simply must have a book after hearing me speak. (It happens!)
- Allow a little time after each of my talks to sign books. I love having the time to chat with an individual boy or girl while signing personal copies.
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3) DO WE HAVE TIME FOR THIS?
This is the most common complaint I hear from teachers: with all the additional testing required these days, there’s just no time for the field trips, special assemblies and other enrichment activities. That’s a tough one.
But there’s more than one way to skin a standardized test. Here are some ways a visiting author can enhance learning and comprehension for students:
Can answer questions about writing and story development
Can be a source of encouragement to aspiring writers
Can encourage reluctant readers through personal connection (“I met the author of this book . . . maybe I should read it.”)
Reinforces familiar material from a new perspective (For example, have you ever told your students to turn in a sloppy copy? Real authors do this too! I’ll show you mine.)
And here are some specific benchmarks addressed in my presentations or preparation activities:
- Describe how an author creates mood by choosing words [and details] with specific connotations.
- Analyze the influence of setting on characters and on how the problem or conflict is resolved.
- Write [or discuss] responses to literary selections that demonstrate an understanding of character motivation and development.
- Read aloud or recite literary, dramatic, and original works.
- Explain differences between literal and figurative language in text.
- Distinguish between main plot and subplot and identify various types of conflict.
- Generate ideas for writing by responding to stimuli such as current events and magazine articles. (I share exactly how my own experience contributed to my books, showing the students how authors “get their ideas” and giving them ideas for their own work.)
(These apply to the “Home Front” presentation)
- Identify the effects of WWII on the home front.
- Students know topography and patterns of global and local atmospheric movement influence local weather, which occurs primarily in the lower atmosphere.
(These apply to the “All The World’s a Stage” presentation, which serves as a practical Introduction to Shakespeare in one hour or less!)
- Define the Renaissance in terms of science and fine arts.
- Explain how theater reveals information about other historical periods and cultures.
- Explain the roots of theater in Western civilization.
IN CONCLUSION . . . .
If you’ve never scheduled an author visit, here’s a good chance to give it a try. Click over to the “Talk to Me” page, type your address in the email form and lets see what we can do