Both sides of the coin: Emma Carroll’s advice for authors and schools on organising events (YLLP Toolkit)

Today’s YA Shot Blog & Vlog Tour post is the first in our Year-Long Legacy Programme series. While all of the Tour posts will act as a YLLP resource library, we’re also doing five specific posts that will act as a toolkit for libraries, schools and authors working to plan and organise their individual YLLP events.

Upcoming posts in the series include a Q&A with author and teacher Louisa Reid, a Q&A with the wonderful Tim Bowler, librarian and author Lucy Ivison interviewing writing-partner author Tom Ellen, Hillingdon Borough Libraries’ Rosemary Marchant.

For now, here is the wonderful Emma Carroll, sharing her experience as an author and teacher!

Could you give an example of the most effective way you’ve found to use your books as the basis for an event? How do you pick what to focus on? How do you transform theme or sections into a talk or series of exercises?

A usual focus for me would be a picture and/or something physical like a prop: bear in mind my audience are 8-12 year olds, so something interactive is a must. With Frost Hollow Hall, I’d show pictures of an old staircase, a Victorian grave, an ice house. All these things feature in the story and I might ask people to guess what links them or how they occur in the narrative. I also have a pair of Victorian ice skates, so someone comes up, tries them on then we talk about who might own skates like these etc. If I’m giving a ‘talk’ to a large audience, I might also punctuate each section with a true or false style recap of what we’ve covered.

What are your Top 5 Tips for successful events as an author?

  1. Ask the school to prep the students about your books/who you are BEFORE you arrive
  2. Beforehand send the school a copy of a letter to go home to parents with details of your book signing on it.
  3. Keep your technology simple and your system compatible.
  4. Offer prizes for good questions if students seem reluctant to participate.
  5. Make time to speak to students personally, especially after your event.

What are your Top 5 Tips for successful events as a teacher?

  1. Make sure the students know a bit about the author: read a book or do research.
  2. Remind students of why an author visit is special (i.e. not just a way of getting out of double maths!). Raise the visit’s profile: have it on the school website, contact local press, flag it up in assemblies etc.
  3. Prepare students beforehand with questions they’d like to ask.
  4. Involve the school library: displays/prominent placings of author’s book.
  5. Follow up work based on themes/topics/questions raised from the author visit.

What questions should authors and organisers always ask ahead of time?

  1. What sort of event would you like: presentation/ workshop/ signing?
  2. How long should it last?
  3. What members of staff will be present?
  4. What numbers of students involved?
  5. What age/ability?
  6. What technology will be available?
  7. Do your books deal with topics that may be difficult/traumatic for some of your audience?

How can everyone do their best to ensure that events have a legacy of inspiration and aspiration?

Schools can make visits high profile with publicity both before and after the event: website, local press, newsletter, displaying work. Schools acknowledging that author visits cost money, and that well-known authors might be more expensive but that this is an investment and shows the importance the school places on literacy. It’s great when schools share positive experiences of author visits with others in their locality, possibly pooling together to share costs. The Patron of Reading scheme pairs authors up with schools on a more long term basis and is brilliant for developing  a regular working relationship between an author and students.

Can you share your favourite tried-and-tested exercise or ice-breaker activity?

Give students a character name (e.g. Gertrude Pickle, Professor Snide, Countess Von Tischler, Mary Brown) and ask them to say what they’re wearing, what they ate for breakfast, what they’re scared of, what sort of story would they appear in… After a few goes name a villain in a detective story set in the Amazon. This second bit is harder, so depending on the audience you might stop at the first part.

What can authors do to engage an initially unreceptive audience? How can teachers prepare students so they’re most likely to be receptive?

Don’t panic. Older students in particular may look like they’re not listening but don’t be put off by their body language- they’re probably following your every word! Students are often initially shy around new people, but they’re also, for the same reason, more likely to be interested in you. As an author, I’d say keep your readings short. Ask your audience questions. Work out who the loud ones are and get them on side (e.g. helping out with props etc.). Also ask the teachers to join in.

But be mindful that no audience is the same. Some groups are quieter than others. Not everyone will respond in the way you’d like them to. It’s not your fault or theirs, nor does it mean your event is rubbish. Be flexible.

Teachers should know the group much better than you do. It might be worth having a quiet word with the teacher beforehand. If participation is going to be a problem, students could be prepped with questions beforehand.

What event activity or subject most surprised you in terms of how engaged the audience was? How have you used this since?

I recently used an activity at a festival where we made up our own circus names from a formula. One girl who was the ringmaster then introduced everyone by their name in a very flamboyant, ‘big top’  way. It was so simple, yet the kids absolutely LOVED it! I haven’t used it again yet – but I will.

How can schools fund author events or what other tactics can they use to give students as many opportunities to be inspired about reading, creative writing and careers in the Arts as possible?

I think how events are funded is a decision for schools themselves. Sometimes the money comes from library budgets, sometimes from English Dept funds or whole school initiatives. Some schools club together to afford visits, some ask students to contribute. The funding issue is more acute in state schools, generally. It’s self-evident that outstanding schools value the enrichment an author visit can give. Other ways to inspire children may be to do with the quality and prominence of the school library, how reading is celebrated across the school. What opportunities there are for creativity beyond the classroom: reading groups, writing groups, performing arts etc. Are there visits to the theatre, the cinema, art galleries? Are there writing residential trips offered, such as The Arvon Foundation? Are the Arts represented at careers fairs and options evenings? Are students mentored by professionals from the performing arts? The list goes on…

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