So These Author Visits…
Hey. Hi there. Hi.
So, today I did what I’m guessing is likely my last author visit of the 2013-2014 school year. I went out to a school in Mahtomedi, Minnesota (a cool 20 minutes from home) and talked to close to 300 kids. It was a fantastic time (like pretty much all of the visits I’ve done) but I gotta admit it was a little bittersweet.
I mean…seriously? The school year’s just about over? I won’t be able to do this again until fall?
Here’s the thing about author visits: They’re easily one of my favorite things to do. I get a huge smile on my big, dumb face when I get an e-mail from a teacher or a media center supervisor or even a friend who wants me to come out to their kid’s school. I’m not sure it’ll be easy to explain, but I’m going to try.
First Visit – Woodbury Library
(Okay…first off? Don’t worry. I’m not going to go into detail about EVERY SINGLE visit I’ve ever done. I just think it’s kind of interesting to think of how far things have progressed with these quirky little events.)
My first official visit was at the Woodbury Library. My second book (and first non-fiction title) MOUNT RUSHMORE had just been published and I was pretty darn excited. Sure, I was excited enough when PATRICK’S SUPER SOCKS came out the year before, but now…I had TWO. It felt like I was bona-fide!!! Somehow I ended up talking with the head librarian and we figured out a time for me to come out into the little amphitheater they had outside the library. I could read a little bit, talk about where the ideas came from, etc. It was even in the local paper that I was coming. I told my friends and family, too. I’ve never been really nervous talking in front of people, but this made me a little jittery. I brought extra copies of my books in case some people wanted to buy ’em. It was going to be awesome.
I even thought I’d pull off the old suit jacket with jeans move that I figured authors did. The problem was, the sleeves were too long, so I folded them in and stapled them so they looked better. High class all the way, kids.
I was ready and I figured the children’s book reading public was ready for me.
Well…sort of. There was some sort of mis-communication in the paper that showed the wrong date. They tried to correct it, but it was too late. When I got there, I saw a bunch of my friends and family had shown up (thanks, guys!) but there wasn’t anyone there I didn’t know. I did my thing anyway to a group of around 20+ familiar folks who probably felt kind of sorry for me. Sure, I had some books published (one about an alligator who wears socks and the other about 4 crazy stone faces in a mountain), but man…NO ONE else showed up. While I was (and still am!) extremely grateful to have the support of those who did come by, it sort of left a bad taste in my mouth. I couldn’t help thinking: What happens when you throw a party and no one (else) shows up? Is that what this is going to be like???
Shoot. If people from the town where I live can’t be bothered to come, what does that say?
Ugh. I’m sure I sound bratty, but it was a bit humbling.
It was quite a while (and twenty-something published books later) before I started getting requests from friends who were teachers. Yes, I thought. A captive audience!
Students would have not choice but to sit and listen to me talk about books and writing and stuff. I would come in, introduce myself, read IF I WERE THE PRESIDENT or whatever else seemed right to a handful of kids and answer questions. Twenty minutes. BAM. It was perfect. And truth be told? It was… One of my favorite things about the visits is the questions at the end. They change, naturally, depending on the age of the students I’m visiting with, but man… Some of the earlier questions I would get were:
How old are you?
What’s your favorite book?
What’s your favorite food?
Do you draw all the pictures?
And one that really stumped me:
What’s your favorite book that you haven’t written yet?
I did these smaller visits for a while. Maybe a couple class rooms worth of students, eat lunch with them (school lunches are a little better these days!) and I was done.
Dollar Dollar Bill, Y’all
I should point out that I don’t charge schools to have me come out (though I’ve been told I should) and I take time off from work to do it.
I don’t know, man. I just have a hard time saying no if a school reaches out to me to come and talk with kids about books and stuff. I could probably drone on for hours (if they let me!) about where ideas come from, answering their questions, and letting them know about the stuff I’m working on. It’s like Hulkamania, you know?
I’m no pro-wrestling fan, but remember how The Hulkster would get his butt kicked around a bit, but when he needed a “boost” he’d do this ridiculous thing where he would listen to the crowd? They would cheer for him and after a while, the dude was so pumped up, he’d tear his shirt off and hit the other sweaty dude in the face with a chair.
That’s probably not the best analogy since I don’t hit anyone with chairs or have 1/3 of the muscles, but I think you get what I mean. When I talk to students about projects I have in the hopper and hear them go “SWEET!” or “OH, WOW” or something, I get a little amped up to get back behind the keyboard and get working. That’s sort of all the “pay” I need. Plus, schools have lousy budgets. At this point, I have a hard time justifying asking for any sort of money for me to show up there.
(Full Disclosure: A school I used to go to waaaay back asked me to come and asked what I charged. I threw out a number that was below what any other author would ask and they said: Yeah, I guess we can’t make that work. Haven’t done that since.)
Malone Elementary – The Game Changer
So, I was pretty comfortable doing little classroom visits here and there and I figured that’s how it would be. Every year I’d kick out a handful of new books and schools would let me know if they wanted me to come and talk to their classes. Some even had me back multiple times. (that means it’s working)
Through this trusty website, I ended up getting a message from a teacher from Malone Elementary in Prescott Wisconsin. He was running an after-school reading program for a group of boys who were kind of reluctant readers. They discovered the truth about the sports books written by Jake Maddox (it’s a fake author name that a handful of writers write under, including me!) and found my website. They asked if I wanted to come and hang with them, read some books, talk about author-ly stuff, the works. I did! They gave me an orange Popsicle (my favorite) and it was sooo cool to see a group of young readers get into some of the stuff I’d written. They were asking questions about some of the other titles I’d done and I was just blown away. I left feeling as close to a celebrity as I likely ever will.
Around a year later, Malone wanted me to come back, but on a larger scale. I got a message from their media center head honcho and was asked if I’d be interested in talking to the entire school. Never one to shy away from a chance to talk about books (and especially my books), I said sure. I figured I’d be doing multiple classroom visits throughout the day. OH NO. This was the entire school, broken into 3 sections. All told, it would end up being around 800+ students.
It wouldn’t be good enough to read a book and answer a few questions. This time, I was going to be up in front of everyone talking about how I got started, the process I follow, tips for aspiring authors, etc… And I needed to make it interesting to hold the attention of all kinds of age ranges. It couldn’t be too complicated and risk losing the attention of the Kindergartners and I couldn’t make it too cutesy and risk having the 5th graders throw rotten vegetables at me. I put together a thing where I covered it all, AND included a place for me to read PATRICK’S SUPER SOCKS. I was worried that the older kids would hate it, but amazingly enough, they were probably more excited to hear about the lil’ alligator than the small fries were.
So…over the course of a few years, I went from a kind of little, low-impact visit at my city’s library to bigger schools and a lot more people. I was hooked and I literally got to the point where I was running out of vacation days from my real job to make it happen. I have yet to turn any requests down and I’ve had to get creative with my time, but so far it’s worked!
Still, I think some of the best things about the school visits is the excitement I can feel from the questions I get. I have a tendency to run out of time before I can get to everyone and I love that when it’s over, I get a swarm of students bum-rushing me to get their questions in before they get an angry teacher looking for them.
One kid in particular at an elementary school in Cottage Grove stuck out.
Cottage Grove Kid
After my third presentation, a young guy in 4th grade came up as the rest of his class was filing out. He asked me if he could talk to me about his story. Of course, I said: “Yeah, lay it on me, sir.”
He told me about this big book he was working on and how he didn’t feel confident enough to finish it. It was about a guy who had a magic backpack that could produce whatever he needed in a given situation. If he was going into battle, he could get armor and a sword instantly. He seemed nervous talking about it and sort of spoke in hushed tones as if he were worried others would hear him. I immediately felt a connection. I WAS THAT KID when I was his age. I had more ideas than I had the confidence to write out and I struggled with feeling like a bit of an outcast considering I wasn’t really all that into sports or anything else and just wanted to write and create stuff. As he was explaining the story to me, we walked, heading to the lunchroom. At one point he said: “I don’t know. I’m afraid people will think it sucks.”
I immediately told him, “That shouldn’t matter. Write what YOU think is cool and just get your story down. Finish it. Don’t over think it, just power through without worrying about the details. When you get to the end, you can give yourself a high-five for getting it done. Print it. Hold it in your hands. Feel the weight and know that your mind created something that has WEIGHT to it.”
“But what if it doesn’t turn out right?” he asked.
“Make it turn out right,” I replied. “When you’re done, work on it until you’re happy with it. If you’ve written the story you want to tell, it’s right. Plus, I think it sounds like a killer idea. Dude, I want to read it.”
Now, I know this sounds like a Hallmark Channel Movie of the Week moment, but seeing the kid nod and then eventually smile (and this guy was stoic as all get-out) totally made my day and visit worthwhile. He shook my hand, thanked me for the advice and help and joined his class.
Most Memorable Quote
“Mr. Troupe, are you part elf? Because you wrote a book about elves and your ears look kind of elf-like.”
Dang. I didn’t mean for this post to get soooo long. If you made it this far, thanks for humoring me. I guess in the end, I’m so grateful that I’m given the opportunity to do this. I’m grateful to the teachers, coordinators and students that invite me into their schools to (hopefully) ignite some imaginations. I love knowing that, in some ways, I’m helping to motivate young readers and writers to get creative. I love hearing back a month or two later or even in the REALLY INCREDIBLE thank you notes from students that they’re working on something and that I helped inspire them. I never had an author come to my school when I was growing up and I did sort of feel like I was alone in what I wanted to do. I think every young writer should feel like their stories should be finished and they should be heard. I, for one, am anxious to hear them!
So, while I might not ever get my name in lights or get a star on the Hollywood walk of fame or even end up on a best-seller list of some sort, this…
…is good enough for me.