Revising Your Author Visits

In some communities, if you know someone who knows somebody, or are a writer, you show up in the local classroom and talk about your work.

Not so in Newton, Massachusetts.

Yesterday, I showcased a presentation called "RICKSHAW GIRL and ALPANA ART" to sixty or so parent volunteers. Newton Public Schools' Creative Arts Director Cheryl Nelson (who has served in this capacity for 21 years) invited me to be a "surprise" guest during their annual celebratory brunch.

Basically, I'll say yes to anything this talented, experienced woman asks me to do in the schools, even though I'd much rather address a cavernous auditorium of kids than a cozy living room of adults. Grownups make me nervous; kids don't. But I owe a lot to Ms. Nelson.

Five years ago she got me started by previewing my LIFE BETWEEN CULTURES presentation for the fourth grade immigration unit. It wasn't very good back then. But her insightful suggestions helped me make changes that (1) engage boys as well as girls, (2) connect with my audience's five senses, and (3) reach different kinds of learners. How many authors get that kind of professional feedback (for free!) from a person who knows kids, teachers, and curriculum, and has watched countless presentations?

When she thought I was ready, Cheryl invited parents to preview my show. Once they gave the green light, I was listed along with other artists and writers in Newton's Blue Binder. Creative Arts and Sciences Committee members leaf through the binder to book enrichment programs for their schools. They evaluate performances rigorously, balance their chunk of the PTO budget, and listen to educators as they plan a year of programming. Cheryl sends me their feedback so I can keep improving my shows.

This is serious stuff. If I'm discussing an author visit in other towns, I'm glad to casually drop this bomb somewhere in the conversation: "Yes, I'm in the Newton Blue Binder." Believe me, they're impressed.

Authors, if we want to get invited into the classroom, our primary goal can't be promoting or selling our books. It takes time to design a program that adds value to the teachers and enriches the curriculum. If you're up for that goal, why not invite an experienced educator to help? But be ready for criticism like: "That part's a bit boring." Or, "You're leaving out a certain group of kids."

There's no getting around it: revision skills and a thick skin are required for every part of this profession.


Color Online said…

My admiration and respect for you continues to deepen.

I've participated in a variety of public speaking groups and occasions and I'm not shy but it is work and no matter how well you know the material and how comfortable you are with public speaking, there is always something to learn and the first 45 seconds are nerve-wracking.
Kate Messner said…
What a fantastic community resource Newton has! I'd love to see more areas adopt this concept. I've actually solicited feedback from teachers in another way - creating a SurveyMonkey survey that I send out to districts after I've visited. Teachers & librarians have given me great feedback about what works & what doesn't so that I've been able to fine-tune my presentations. As authors, it's great to tap into the expertise of the people whose classroom needs we're trying to serve!
Anna Alter said…
Hi Mitali,

I couldn't agree with you more. Particularly about setting the goal of enriching curriculum (vs selling books) and that we authors need a thick skin in just about every way!

I was lucky enough to have the same experience with Cheryl last year; she previewed my presentation and offered such generous and helpful feedback. The Newton school system really knows what its doing!
Rebecca Stead said…
Mitali, I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and I really love what you have to say. Now I just need to find a mentor . . .
Mitali Perkins said…
C.O., the feeling is mutual.

Kate, I'd love to see that survey monkey.

Anna, so glad you've met Cheryl.

Rebecca, I'm going to ask Anindita and Greg if we can invite a panel of expert educators to give us feedback at the NESCBWI conference next year -- we sign up for half-hour slots, present, and get their input and suggestions. People could come in and out and get ideas ... What do you think?