As an author and as a parent, one of the school activities I love most is the book fair. This chance to watch our readers as they browse books and talk about what they’re connecting to is invaluable; it provides a unique peek into what they love about books and characters that I don’t get anywhere else. Obviously, there are other tools and even metrics to measure what’s resonating with our middle grade readers, but book fairs are just special.
Recently, in an effort to enhance the book fair at my children’s school, I piloted a new program called “Meet the Author.” I stole the idea from another book fair I had worked with in Oro Valley, AZ, where their week-long event included two full days of classroom visits from authors whose books were being sold at the fair.
It was a wonderful way to immerse the students in the whole process of publishing—from the crafting and editing of a book to the actual purchase. The visits also offered readers who were able to purchase the authors’ books a tangible reminder of the visit—personally autographed books! The difference between these and the typical author school visit was that it all happened in the classrooms, which provided a more intimate visit than is usually manageable when you pack an entire grade level into a large room.
The event took a lot of heavy-lifting: months of organization and two long days of managing a roster of authors and parent volunteers who could escort our visitors around the school. But oh, the results. Kids were excited and energized; brand new authors were born in every classroom. It was truly wonderful to watch.
When I imported the idea to our school here in northern Virginia, I started small: no budget and only one author for one grade level presentation. I had to depend on the kindness of an author who would be willing to speak for free and still be willing to sign books afterward. That author was Leah Henderson, author of ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL.
Leah was fabulous. Her presentation was interesting, engaging, and interactive. The children loved her slide show, which included photos of Senegal, where her novel is set. They really plugged into her questions, competing with each other to identify which of her geographically diverse photo slides were in Africa.
Even better? Our 6th graders gained a valuable and exciting connection between the book they saw on the shelves at the book fair and the in-person visit from the actual author—the face of the artistry behind the pages.
“Whenever someone can build a connection with a book they’re more apt to pick it up the next time they see it—often curious what other connections they may make. Having a ‘Meet the author’ event before or during a book fair is a wonderful way for students to hear the behind the scenes in an author’s book journey.”
–Leah Henderson, ONE SHADOW ON THE WALL
It’s important to note here that the experience itself—an author visit—wasn’t new for us, nor would it be for most schools that want to try this. Our school in particular is very fortunate in that we have an active librarian who schedules author visits as often as her budget allows: we’ve met some pretty amazing, well-known writers. But this was unique in that the author’s work was on sale at the book fair, so everything happened in real time: students saw the book on the shelves at the fair and heard about it in person. They got to interact with the author. Many bought the book and got it signed, much like bookstore signings, which not all children get to attend.
One student said afterward, “It was very interesting to hear how she was inspired to write the book and I liked that she focused on that instead of giving spoilers about what the book was about. That was really good.”
Another said, “I was interested to find out what it takes to get a book published. It takes a lot longer than I thought, and I didn’t know that before we listened to Ms. Henderson. She was a great speaker.”
What motivated me to share this with all of you is twofold: 1) I wanted to encourage all of you who get to work with school book fairs to consider this idea (if you haven’t already); 2) I wanted to thank all the authors who are willing to cut or eliminate their speaking fees entirely when they are being courted by a local school or a speaker program with no budget. I understand that for many of us, speaking fees are a vital part of our income and we can’t make ends meet without them, certainly not when it involves travel outside our region. But the fees can also be prohibitive. I was so grateful to Leah for her generosity because I had no budget at all; any speaker fee would have come from my own pocket, which I couldn’t do. But the value of Leah’s visit was priceless for our kids, and, I can confirm, gained her some new fans. And if we’re lucky? A few new authors were born that day.
Happy Holidays to all of you, and here’s to a 2018 full of great books and good cheer.