Author-Librarian Interview: Toni Buzzeo on School Visits: Part 1

Toni Buzzeo has quickly established herself as a popular picture book author. We previously talked to her after the publication of her debut title, The Sea Chest, illustrated by Mary GrandPre (Dial, 2002)(author interview), which went on to win a 2002 Lupine Honor Award and the 2004-2005 Children’s Crown Gallery Award. We spoke again after the publication of Dawdle Duckling, illustrated by Margaret Spengler (Dial, 2003)(author interview), which was named to the New Jersey State Library Pick of the Decade List. And we checked in for an author update last April.

For the next two days, though, we’re going to be drawing from Toni’s expertise about author/illustrator school visits. She’ll be discussing such topics as: the benefits to young readers; the changing technological landscape, preparation; the day of the event; follow-up; benefits and challenges to author/illustrator speakers; booking a speaker; promoting visits to school librarians; insights from her own experiences; and Terrific Connections with Authors, Illustrators, and Storytellers: Real Space and Virtual Links, which she co-authored with Jane Kurtz (Libraries Unlimited, 1999).

Thanks so much for talking to us today about school visits. Could you tell us how you developed your expertise?

I’m in the unique position of having been on BOTH sides of the author visit fence! First, I am a career library media specialist (1999 Maine Library Media Specialist of the Year, in fact). In my school, I hosted two-to-four author visits a year and dedicated myself to making them among the best learning events of the school year with strong ties across the curriculum and deep involvement of all of the sub-communities of my school, teachers, staff, students, and parents.

But I am also a children’s author myself, and so I currently spend a good deal of my time visiting schools as a visiting author. I work with the schools I visit to create really rich learning experiences around my visits for their students and communities.

As many authors do, I include suggestions for extending my books into the curriculum on my website Because I’m a big fan of reader’s theater and the author of many scripts for published children’s books in Library Sparks magazine and in Read! Perform! Learn! 10 Reader’s Theater Projects for Literacy Enhancement (Upstart 2006), I have included reader’s theater scripts for three of my four picture books there as well. Furthermore, I’ve been lucky enough to publish the ultimate book for schools who invite me to visit entitled Toni Buzzeo and YOU by Toni Buzzeo (Libraries Unlimited 2005).

What are the benefits of school visits to young readers?

As federal NCLB legislation has turned the educational focus so heavily toward literacy education in schools, it’s more helpful than ever to bring authors and illustrators into libraries and classrooms in order to escape the danger of making literacy into a decoding-only experience. Rather than teaching to a high-stakes test, author visits allow educators to ensure that students love to read and engage with written texts on a meaningful personal level. In this way, author visits are the ultimate literacy experience! They are worth the time invested, energy expended, and money budgeted because they add educational value to literacy efforts in the school and community by:

Connecting kids to books in a powerful way;

Affording kids an appreciation of the creative process;

Modeling career choices from the creative arts;

Tying the content of the author/illustrator’s work to learning standards, thus allowing teachers to work smarter, not harder.

The challenges?

Terrific author and illustrator visits require an enormous amount of planning, coordinating, and cheerleading–in addition to a solid funding plan. Because teachers (and administrators) have become so focused on test scores in response to federal legislation, it is sometimes a challenge to convince a community that author visits play an important role in literacy education. Advocates will do well to include the points I made above in their arguments.

Money, of course, is always a challenge as well. Creativity is called for! Some schools have the luxury of district funded visits, but most do not. Many parent-teacher groups raise money for cultural programming including author and illustrator visits. Title I funds are sometimes an option where they do not. Community partnerships with other agencies, including the public library and museums, shouldn’t be overlooked and can, in turn, potentially attract community grant funding. Private business funding from a bank or other institution is also a possibility. Finally, many schools fund author visits with proceeds from book sales. Books obtained directly through the publisher at a 40% discount are then sold at cover price, which, at the least, can establish seed money for future visits.

What is the technological landscape (and major considerations) in staging an event for young readers?

Most authors and illustrators today present using PowerPoint, Keynote, or other electronic software program for slide presentation. It is important to discuss technology requirements with the visitor to ensure that: a) the necessary hardware is available to support the presentation; b) the venue is adequate to the technology needs; c) all component hardware can “talk;” and d) there are no surprises on the day of the visit.

For large group presentations, it is wise to provide a lavaliere microphone to save the author’s voice for multiple presentations. Librarians should also consider the need for a floor mic if student questions are planned in a large setting.

As a librarian, what preparation is necessarily for a successful school visit?

An excellent school visit requires careful planning and attention to details starting with a contract.

To begin, unless the author or illustrator has a standard contract, the librarian will generate one that protects both the school and the visitor from misunderstandings. A generic model contract is available on my website. I advise that both the librarian (or hiring teacher) and the principal sign the contract to afford the school and the visitor the best protection against misunderstandings down the road.

Scheduling is the next important detail. It should be discussed with the visitor in advance, including number of sessions per day, size of groups, venue, and equipment needs. In planning the schedule, 15-20 minute breaks should be included between sessions as well as a relaxing lunch away from a noisy cafeteria.

The final important detail is book sales, which may be handled in many ways, from individual pre-ordering of books to after school or evening signing events. Books can be obtained from a local bookseller, the publisher, or even, in some cases, the author or illustrator.

In addition to the details, it is essential that librarians create curriculum connections to the authors work as classroom teachers prepare students for the visit.

First, of course, students need to have read/listened to the author’s work. Librarians must make it clear to teachers that this is a non-negotiable expectation for participation in the visit. Next, the librarian, who is intimately familiar with the author’s work, should think ahead to the potential curriculum connections the visit can generate in the classroom and library and share these ideas with teachers. Authors and illustrators always report having had wonderful experiences at schools who took the time to create curriculum connections.

There are many excellent examples of curriculum connections for the work of various authors in my book Terrific Connections with Authors, Illustrators, and Storytellers: Real Space and Virtual Links by Toni Buzzeo and Jane Kurtz (Libraries Unlimited 2002)(interview with Jane).

What do you need to ensure happens during the day of the event?

In order to be certain that the visit day itself is a smooth-sailing success, the librarian will have to juggle the schedule, student behavior, facilities and technology, book sales and signing, transportation and lodging, and the author’s comfort. Above all, he/she will need to be sure that the author is PAID that day.

To read an “Author Wish List” that encompasses all of these things, written by fellow author illustrator colleagues and myself, I invite readers to visit my website.

What follow-up is required?

Once the host has written a thank you note to the visitor and mailed it along with some student responses and a letter of recommendation (if requested), it is essential to have many copies of the author’s books available for student check-out, of course, and for continued curriculum work in the classroom. In addition, both teachers and librarians will want to reinforce concepts introduced in the visitor’s presentation and allow students to work with these concepts to make the learning personal and lasting.

An author/illustrator visit should never be the event of a single day. Reverberations in the learning community can be felt over the course of the remainder of the academic year with careful attention.

As a former school librarian, could you tell us about a couple of your most positive school visit experiences?

Two of my most memorable visits were from author Jane Kurtz and illustrator Melissa Sweet.

Jane’s visit was one of my early author visits, long before Jane and I wrote a book about author visits, Terrific Connections with Authors, Illustrators, and Storytellers: Read Space and Virtual Links by Toni Buzzeo and Jane Kurtz (Libraries Unlimited 2002). What makes Jane’s visits unique is not only her obvious comfort with students and schools (she is a lifelong educator) but her extraordinary life story, which informs her books.

Jane grew up in Ethiopia and is now president of the board of directors of the first children’s library in Ethiopia, EBCEF. Her presentations combine amazing slides of her childhood and adult experiences in Africa with real objects from Ethiopia that students can see, smell, touch, and hear. She is a favorite wherever she goes–and I have recommended her across the country for many years.

Melissa’s visit was also memorable for so many reasons. She is a charming and friendly illustrator whom children instantly warm to. During her slide presentations, students are rapt by photos of her studio, the travels that inspire her books, and her illustrations in their many stages. But even more, she engages students in their own creative process, sharing with them techniques that they can bring to their own drawing and painting and encouraging them to try new techniques. My students were wild about these hands-on opportunities with Melissa.

Any clunkers, and why?

I was lucky to only have one somewhat challenging author visit. In this case, the author contacted me, as she was planning to be in my area. Because her book was set in our state and our fourth graders were engaged in their annual state studies unit, I did invite her for a visit. However, her presentation was exceedingly low key. She sat in a chair throughout her time with students and failed to exude much energy or animation. Since nine-year-olds are all about energy, there was a significant mismatch. My students were very polite throughout both presentations but teachers told me later that they were disappointed by the lack of liveliness on the part of the presenter and their students’ corresponding lack of excitement.

What are the benefits of school visits to authors and/or illustrators?

Authors and illustrators gain much from school visits as do the schools they visit. They have the opportunity to interact with their primary readers–children or teens–in meaningful ways and to hear, first hand, how their books affect these readers. They also have a chance to hear about the concerns and interests of these readers–and their teachers–which may generate ideas for future books. Of course, because writing and illustrating are isolated professions, just the camaraderie of a day with others is sometimes welcome. And, in financial terms, author visits can generate a steady and reliable income that supplements unpredictable book advances and royalties!

The challenges?

For some authors and illustrators, the challenges are personal. It can be overwhelming for a quiet or introverted person without much school experience to spend the day with hundreds of children or teens and all of their teachers and support staff. More often, however, it is the poorly planned and executed visit that is the challenge. Inappropriate presentation spaces, unprepared students, last-minute or unreasonable schedule changes–all of these and more can pose challenges that can ruin a promising event for the author or illustrator.

As a children’s/YA book creator, what preparation is necessarily for a successful school visit?

While some authors do little to prepare for a visit and plan only to show up and answer student questions, and some illustrators plan simply to show up and sketch, I feel that this short-changes the students and their learning.

Instead, I think that it is essential that authors give time and attention to preparing a variety of presentations that include visuals as well as rich content about the writing/illustrating process, or the content of their books, or their life experiences, or other subjects unique to the author and his or her working life.

We authors have unique experience to share with our young readers. Of course, writing and illustrating workshops that focus on teaching students specific skills are also very welcome in schools.

I advise authors and illustrators to work with their host/contact to refine their programs for the needs of the individual school each time they plan a visit.

What do you need to ensure happens during the day of the event?

I invite authors and illustrators to refer to the Author Wish List on my website. It is best not to assume that schools understand the importance of scheduling, managing student behavior, setting up facilities and technology, arranging book sales and signings, providing transportation and lodging, and looking after author comfort. It is also best not to assume that they will pay on the day of the visit. Rather, I advise authors to discuss all of these things in written and phone conversations with the host and put the most important of them into a signed contract.

What follow-up is required?

A personal, hand-written thank you note is essential. The visitor should also be sure to provide any signed bookplates, additional book copies, bibliographies, or the many small things that teachers ask about during the course of the day.

Cynsational Notes

Author-Librarian Interview Toni Buzzeo on School Visits, Part 2 from Cynsations.