Saturday, 5 May 2012

When in School...Top Tips for REAL AUTHORS - Emma Barnes

“Drat,” I say – or something less suitable for a blog about children’s books – as the dog trips me up, and I go sprawling across the kitchen floor in the dark.

One of the great advantages of being a writer is there no need to get up early. Or to look smart. This is lucky for me, because I am much better at lounging around in my saggy tracksuit, tapping at my computer, and not needing to impress anyone except the dog (who is easily impressed).

Watch out for the dog!
But today is different.

Today is a School Visit day. The downside to that warm glow I always feel when a school gets in contact, and tells me that I am the right person to inspire their pupils with the love of literature (“Well, I’ll do my best,” I say modestly), is this scrambling about before dawn, so that I can set off and arrive bright and early before the school bell. And amazingly, I am never, ever late.

(All right, once I was caught in a hideous traffic jam. Once my train was delayed. And once – very embarrassing this – I got lost. In the city where I live. It wasn’t entirely my fault. They had built a new ASDA and changed the roads.)

I like to think that I have turned school visits into a streamlined military operation. Who am I kidding? As I stumble about with boxes of books, clutching my bag of sandwiches, fretting about my Sat Nav, and wondering uneasily if I remembered to fill up with petrol, the last thing on my mind is the joy of the imagination and the wonders of reading and all those other things I like to bang on about on my web-site.

Near Settle
When I am finally off, however, a kind of calm descends. One of the joys about school visits is that they take you places you would not usually go. As I drive through open moorland, or down twisting, fogbound country lanes, or through the immense snowy flatness of East Yorkshire, I am fascinated to discover new places, and landscapes that will stay with me after the day is finished.


Approaching my destination, uneasiness descends again. When it says “turn left” does my Sat Nav really mean into that industrial estate? And when I find the school – what do I do if the staff car park is locked? Is it OK to park on the street? What happens if a local resident comes out and shouts at me (as happened once. And there wasn’t even a yellow line!)

Arrived!
And then, suddenly, I am standing in front of a vast hall of bobbing faces, as the kind teacher says, “We are very lucky today, because here is Emma Barnes, a REAL AUTHOR, who has come to speak to us about her books!” And I wonder uneasily if I am what a REAL AUTHOR looks like, and if any of the children are disappointed, and whether actually I should have turned up in the muddy tracky bottoms after all, because that is what this REAL AUTHOR looks like when she is actually doing her writing.

 (And what would an UNREAL author look like and would that be more interesting?)

“Now tell me,” I begin, “who here loves reading?” And a forest of hands shoot up, and we’re talking favourite books, and favourite authors, and suddenly all is well. I read from my own book, and although I will never win any Oscars for my acting, I am not going to let that hold me back (I AM Fred the Grumpy Angel, I AM Martha the naughty child). The children laugh. The teachers too. (Maybe it’s at my hammy acting, but who cares?) And in the workshops, the kids make me laugh, with wonderful ideas and turns of phrase that I am tempted to steal for my next book.

I AM Martha!

I AM Jessica!

I fall back into my car at the end of the day exhausted, amused, intrigued and inspired. Schools are such fascinating places: each of them a world of their own. Even if everything does not go to plan, it’s always interesting. Even those Year 6 boys who insisted on turning what was supposed to be a funny, family story into a piece about an axe-murderer: well , it certainly livened up the session. And their teacher said they had never shown such enthusiasm for writing!

I turn the music up loud and set off back across the moors.

Top Tips for School Visitors:

Don’t rely on your SatNav. It may decide the A1 does not exist. Or (as mine once did) refuse to speak anything but Afrikaans. 

Never eat school dinners. Despite Jamie Oliver, it's not worth the risk.


Don’t leave your memory stick with powerpoint presentation at home. 

Hands off!
Don’t leave your memory stick with powerpoint presentation in the school computer.



Staff rooms can be funny places. Ask before you help yourself to a mug of tea (that might be the Headteacher's personal snoopy mug).  


Takes lots of sugar in your tea. You'll need it.


Above all, be ready for the unexpected. I was once the subject of  Prayers in assembly. “Oh Lord, make us more like this author! Let us write wonderfully like her!” I nearly collapsed from shock.

Emma Barnes's latest book is How (Not) To Make Bad Children Good
Visit Emma's web-site - with details about how to contact her for school visits!

19 comments:

Schez said...

Hi there! I totally agree with you, schools are fascinating, inspirational places. I am fortunate to work in a reception class and the children and people I work with are fantastic! You have an awesome job; I remember when I was very little and an author came to visit. Embarrassingly, I can't remember their name... Or book... But what I do remember, is how they inspired and encouraged me to want to write for children. Your post was thoroughly entertaining and your tips will be useful for when (hopefully, maybe, fingers crossed, praying) I make it as a real, children's author! Keep doin what you are doin- keep inspiring children to read and write! Ps. Thanks for reading my ramble!

Carole Anne Carr said...

Having been a teacher for many years, in a position of some authority, the visiting author bit is even more hazardous in my case. I think you are doing extremely well! Well done!

Linda Strachan said...

Great post Emma!
You obviously inspire them and keep them laughing! I love the bit about being included in the prayers.

So true, about using Sat Nav, so many primary schools are in the middle of housing estates. One my Sat Nav took me to had the main gate padlocked and I had to drive halfway around the town to find the other entrance.

Often there's just a very small sign showing where the main door is and I have walked all the way around the outside of a school trying to find the front door, with bags of props, only to find that it was hidden from sight a few steps in the opposite direction!

When described as a real LIVE author- a little voice in my head wants to ask if they have had many dead ones in to visit the school, but I usually manage to resist!

Ann Evans said...

Great post Emma, it really made me smile. Everything you said was so true.
And about the sat navs - I think they come equipped with wicked little gremlins!

Pippa Goodhart said...

I once stood in front of an assembly where the head teacher had carefully chosen the music to be appropriate for an authorial visit: the Beatles' 'Paperback Writer'. But he'd not thought the thing through. The lyrics sing on about 'the dirty story of a dirty man, and his clinging wife who doesn't understand' (have I got that right?). Anyway, luckily nobody, apart from me, seemed to notice!

Penny Dolan said...

Great post! That "real live author" is an interesting expression. I have very occasionally - and (n.b!)with the right Year 6 audience and with the right teaching staff - dropped my head into a mock "death" the moment after these words are spoken. Though I immediately resurrect with a very big smile!

And I always, always take a printed-out map with me as well as making sure there are map-books in the car.

Love your photographs. Seeing new scenery on your travels is such a pleasure. Battling the school gates, parking and entrances is another matter.

Emma Barnes said...

Thank you everyone for your comments.

Schez, I'm so glad you were inspired by an author visit yourself. We never had any at my school, and I know I would have loved to meet a REAL author. I don't think I ever realised they were flesh and blood, ordinary people. Good luck with your writing.

Pippa - that story made me laugh!

And Linda - you don't realise that being a writer involves so much manual labour until you are struggling around a school car park with a box of books. Still, at least we don't need personal trainers to build up our biceps.

Joe said...

Thanks for sharing this. I'm a school librarian at a secondary school, and have arranged a few author visits over the years, but it's great to get a perspective on how it goes in primary schools!

Sounds like you had a great day :)

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Emma Barnes said...

Joe - I tend to visit primaries, which means there is rarely a full-time librarian and sadly, not always a library. Although some primaries do have wonderful libraries - a lot depends on space.

I'm sure we authors would like to hear about visits from a librarian's perspective - any hints or tips about mistakes to avoid?

Joe said...

Well, we love them, and so do the kids! I suppose from a libarian's point of view, the main thing is for the author to make their requirements clear from the start. I've heard all sorts of horror stories about authors being stranded at train stations because they'd assumed someone would pick them up from there, or them not being happy with the space they've been allocated, or there being a panicky rush to get a laptop because there wasn't a realisation that the author wanted to do a PowerPoint presentation.

I should probably blog about it in greater detail at some point actually.

By the way, I'm not just a librarian, I'm an author too. My agent is currently submitting my debut YA novel to publishers, so I'm at that nerve racking time that doubtless a lot of you guys on this blog have experienced. So I could do with some tips from you too! :)

Emma Barnes said...

That made me smile, Joe. I've recently taken to PowerPoint but (as with SatNav) I've also discovered that however great it may be, NEVER rely on techology. Apart from missing memory sticks or laptops, there is incompatible software, screens that don't work when they should, bright sunlight pouring in and no curtains, forgotten passwords...all kinds of reasons where you might be back to just author and audience.

Very best of luck with your novel. It never gets easier waiting to hear back from publishers about a new manuscript. My advice would be, if you can, then crack on with another novel (maybe you already have).

Joe said...

I think that's an excellent point! By all means use it, but have a back up plan.

I am indeed cracking on with the next one. Nearly finished first draft, at which point going to start on novel three for a bit, then when I hit the inevitable wall, can return to novel two with fresh eyes. As I've been told, no one likes a one novel wonder!

Emma Barnes said...

Joe - you're right. If you have lots of irons in the fire it really helps to stay motivated, and I think it helps keep your writing fresh.

Elaine AM Smith said...

My SATnav once sent me under the M25 that was fun.

As a teacher, I know all about the problem of the single memory stick verses multiple computers. The dreaded staffroom furrows - named labels on coffee jars, obviously non-matching cups and which chairs are off-limits - have all tripped me up, in the past. ;)

Saviour Pirotta said...

Visiting school is awesome. One word of warning, though: staffrooms are always, but always, packed with cakes and biscuits.

Emma Barnes said...

Elaine - most staff rooms are very welcoming. And, as Saviour says, always packed with cakes and other goodies! Outside, in the corridors, lots of healthy eating displays and posters showing vegetables. In the staffroom - biscuits and cake galore!

I think teachers - and visiting authors - need the sugar.

Miriam Halahmy said...

Am I the only author left in the entire world who enjoys school dinners. Last time it was fish and chips and a yummy pudding and I could have had yoghurt as well and there was carton of juice. I ate the lot!
But otherwise, great post and sounds as though your visits are great fun. Wonderful stuff.

Emma Barnes said...

Fish and chips and a yummy pudding I would enjoy too...but how can you tell that's what you'll get?