My first Skype chat was with a classroom in Texas. I traveled the “long” distance from my bedroom to my office, and one-by-one, the kids came up to the screen to ask me questions. Since then, I’ve enjoyed many more video chats. At first, I sat at my computer with a tiny camera attached to the screen. Now I prefer to Skype on my iPad so I can give the kids a tour of my office, home library, and my pets. Can you guess what excites them the most? Yup—the pets.
While I’m comfortable using the Skype app for video chats, many authors prefer Zoom, Google and/or FaceTime. I’ve asked the following talented writers/educators to share tips they’ve learned from their video chat experiences.
Sue Fliess is the author of over 30 books for kids, which range from silly to scientific (mostly just fun!) She’s written about pirates, robots, ballerinas, unicorns, mermaids, leprechauns, cars, plus fractured fairy tales and even Mrs. Claus. Her newest picture book is The Princess and the Petri Dish, illustrated by Petros Bouloubasis (Albert Whitman, 2020).
Patricia Newman writes about things that make her angry: ocean plastic, endangered species, a child who can’t afford an education. She writes to make sense of these issues in her own mind and to empower young readers to help fix them. You can join her in conversation on Twitter at @PatriciaNewman. Her latest book is Eavesdropping on Elephants: How Listening Helps Conservation (Millbrook, 2019).
Lori Mortensen is an award-winning children’s author of more than 100 books and 500 stories and articles. Recent picture book releases include Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey, illustrated by Chloe Bristol (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020) and If Wendell Had a Walrus, illustrated by Matt Phelan (Henry Holt, 2018).
Carmen Oliver is a booking agent and founder of The Booking Biz as well as the author of the picture book series Bears Make the Best Buddies (Reading, Math, Writing, and Science), illustrated by Jean Claude (Capstone, 2016, 2019, 2020) and the nonfiction picture book biography A Voice for the Spirit Bears: How One Boy Inspired Millions to Save a Rare Animal, illustrated by Katy Dockrill (Kids Can Press, 2019), a Junior Library Guild spring 2019 pick.
Erin Dealey is a teacher, presenter and author of over a dozen picture books, including Snow Globe Wishes, illustrated by Claire Shorrock (Sleeping Bear, 2019), which received a starred Kirkus Reviews review, and Dear Earth…From Your Friends in Room 5, illustrated by Luisa Uribe (HarperCollins, fall 2020).
Beth McMullen is the author of the Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls (Aladdin, 2017 – 2019), the forthcoming Lola Benko, Treasure Hunter series (Aladdin, August 25, 2020) and a new series, Cats & Dragons, launching in March 2022. She lives in Northern California with her family, two moody cats and Zeus the parakeet, who has attitude to spare.
Lisa Schmid is the debut middle-grade author of Ollie Oxley and The Ghost: The Search for Lost Gold (Jolly Fish Press, 2019). She lives in Folsom, California, home of the 1849 Gold Rush.
Christina Soontornvat is the author of the fantasy middle grade series, The Changelings (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky 2016, 2017), and the early chapter book series, Diary of an Ice Princess (Scholastic, 2019, 2020). Her latest books are the middle grade fantasy, A Wish in the Dark (Candlewick, 2020), the picture book The Blunders: A Counting Catastrophe! illustrated by Colin Jack (Candlewick, 2020) and All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team (Candlewick, October 2020), a nonfiction account of the Thai Cave Rescue.
How do you ask teachers to prepare for your Skype visits?
Sue Fliess: I ask that they talk to their students about me and show them at least a couple of my books, and go over how a Skype works so there is little cross-chatter while it’s happening. I also ask that they have some of the kids prepare questions for me in advance, and that the teacher/librarian will call on those students for me during the Q&A.
Patricia Newman: I ask teachers and librarians to purchase several of my books and read them to students prior to the visit.
Lori Mortensen: Preparation for any author visit is key whether it’s in person, or on Skype. Before I visit, I send the school representative my three-page “Tips for Successful Author Visit” that describes different steps they should follow that begin several months in advance.
Briefly, they’re broken down into several categories, such as:
- Presentation (number and necessary technology),
- Finance (how to fund the visit),
- Promotion (sharing info about the author and their books)
- Book Orders and “Welcome the Author” Activities.
Carmen Oliver: One of the ways that I ask teachers to prepare for our Skype session together is to work with their students to prepare 10-to-15 questions they can ask me during our virtual session.
Why? Because when children are involved in the process they care more about the outcome. They are invested. They want to know the answers to their questions. They are much more excited and looking forward to the event. It also shows them how much we value their input. And that we think their voices matter.
Erin Dealey: Students read at least one of my books ahead of time (or the teacher reads them to the class).
Beth McMullen: Simon & Schuster has a scheduling agent who makes the whole thing feel much more official by sending out a contract with visit parameters laid out clearly. (how long the visit is, what they can ask me to talk about, etc). While my Skype visits are free, I ask schools to purchase a minimum of twenty-five books.
Because I focus on questions in Skype visits, I ask teachers to make sure students prepare questions before hand. Writing them down on cards helps the child remember in the moment what they wanted to ask. I make it clear I can answer questions about my books, other books or writing–whatever they want.
Lisa Schmid: I ask teachers to have a classroom copy of Ollie Oxley and The Ghost. I also ask them to prepare a minimum of ten pre-screened questions. Kids will often ask the same questions over and over again, wasting valuable Skype time.
Christina Soontornvat: Skype visits go so much better when the kids have been introduced to my books beforehand. If you have time to read the books as a class? Even better!
At the least, try to get a copy of the book from your library. That way you can read the short synopsis as a class and the first five pages if that’s all you have time for.
Read my bio on my website and watch a couple of my short YouTube videos to get to know me a little better. Ask the students to think of what questions they want to ask me during our visit. All of this will get your kids engaged and help make the most of our time together!
How do you prepare and set up for a Skype visit?
Sue Fliess: I find out if there is a specific book they are hoping for me to read, or I let them know which one I’ll read if I’m promoting a new release. I then make sure my book is either in a PDF or PowerPoint.
I then share my screen and read to them. Screen-sharing is not always possible, so check with your host. I will often (not always) do a very quick technical check to make sure it’s working. Usually with teachers who have not done a Skype visit before.
Patricia Newman: For my February World Read Aloud Day visits, I created a Google sheet to allow teachers/librarians to choose their 20-minute time slot and the book they wanted me to share. We also traded video chat and social media account information. Some educators shared helpful information about what the students were working on in class.
Lori Mortensen: First, I make sure the technology works. That means doing a trial Skype run with the event organizer well in advance so there are no surprises later on about sound or video.
Then I set up my office so there’s no clutter in the background and the lighting is bright and inviting.
It’s also important to anticipate any unexpected interruptions, such as phones ringing, pets wanting attention, etc., and take care of that ahead of time.
Erin Dealey: Students explore my web site to learn more about me. (This can be done at home, with a parent [or other child caregiver], to save class time.)
Beth McMullen: I make sure I have a clear understanding of who I’m talking to. For example, if the kids are in eighth grade I’m going to take a different approach than if they are fifth graders.
Lisa Schmid: My Skype sessions are very informal. I typically have my book on hand and a stack of books that I want to recommend. I always talk about what I am reading and some of my all-time favorites.
Christina Soontornvat: I do these so often that I don’t need to prepare too much beforehand, other than making sure my Skype app is updated and my laptop is charged.
If you haven’t used Skype often, I highly recommend testing out the program with a friend (not the author!) beforehand to make sure the audio and video are working properly.
Make sure you add the author as a contact on Skype before the day of the visit, and get their cell phone number (and give yours, too!) just in case something comes up.
Could you describe a typical Skype visit?
Patricia Newman: I perform 20-minute sessions and 45-minute sessions. In the 20-minute sessions, I answer student questions, usually prepared in advance with their teachers. The 45-minute sessions are more like assemblies. Screen sharing is a must!
Sue Fliess: I say hello, introduce myself, talk briefly about who I am and what I do, and about books I’ve written, then get to the story. When it’s over, I let them ask me questions.
This is all between 15-20 minutes, and I offer this for free.
Lori Mortensen: Skype visits are short and fun. As I read a few books, I share the stories behind the stories, and answer questions afterwards.
Beth McMullen: I limit my free Skype visits to thirty minutes. Usually, I begin with a five-minute introduction. I might read a book sample or I might move right on to questions.
Erin Dealey: Each student formulates one question about writing or being an author that isn’t already answered on my web site (sneaky, huh?) or one comment about his/her favorite character/part. etc. Students write their question/comment down. This can also be done at home.
Christina Soontornvat: I start by very briefly introducing myself and my books. If I know the kids have already read my work, I just dive right into question and answer because they usually have so many really great questions! I love making a Skype visit more conversational than a straight-up presentation.
I also usually show the kids some items from my house or office. Oftentimes I will have proof pages from new books that aren’t out yet and I can give them a sneak peek. It’s fun to do extra things like this that I can’t do in my normal school visits!
Lisa Schmid: My Skype visits are usually 30 minutes. Sometimes I read the first scene and then answer questions. Or if they have read the book, I jump into my writing process and how I come up with ideas
Any tips on what mistakes to avoid?
Sue Fliess: Be firm about the time allotted for a Skype, and don’t be shy about saying you have to wrap up. Our time is precious too!
I always offer to answer any burning questions that kids did not get to ask, at a later date, should the teacher send them over.
Also, if you Skype for free, like I do, it’s okay to tell them you will do one or two with the same school (different classes), but any more than that, and they need to either pay a fee for your time, or bring you in for an in-person visit.
Lori Mortensen: Yes! Make sure a teacher is going to be in the room moderating the Skype visit and the room is set up for students to gather around the screen.
At one Skype visit, both of these things occurred at the same time—no adult in the room except me on the screen, and the visit was held in the science lab with tables and stools perpendicular to the screen. I was one of many author events planned that day, and somehow these important details went by the wayside.
Patricia Newman: Check your tech. Make sure your camera and microphone work. Make sure you understand how the selected video chat platform works. Remember to share your video chat account information in advance so you and the educators can “find” each other on the platform. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you cannot hear a child far away from the microphone.
Carmen Oliver: It’s important to make sure that you test out the laptop equipment the school will be using before the live online Skype session with you. Make sure the video is working, you can be seen and the students can see you. Also, that you can be heard and vice versa.
Sometimes, you may be asked to use another platform like Google Hangouts or Zoom. Try and be as flexible as is feasible. The school knows what technology works best in their buildings.
I recommend testing the equipment as close to the virtual session as possible (within 24 to 48 hours of the actual event). Once you’ve tested with the school, you don’t want anyone coming in and changing the settings on the equipment without them knowing it.
It’s also a good idea to have a technology support person from the school on hand during the virtual session because anything is possible.
Beth McMullen: Make sure your technology works. Make sure you are in a quiet space. Make sure the lighting is decent. Make sure you have managed the expectations of the school or group.
Make sure you have a glass of water on hand because you will talk a lot. Make sure the notifications/bells/whistles are turned off on your computer and your phone. Make sure the contact person for the visit has a way to reach out to you if they are experiencing technical difficulties.
Erin Dealey: Teacher collects the questions, combine the duplicates and then “duplicates” ask their question together when we Skype (and, of course, singles ask their questions too.) This keeps the conversation rolling, and the shy kids get a chance, too.
Lisa Schmid: I always log onto Skype early to make sure there are no technical issues. And I always ask the teachers to Skype me when they are ready to go. I’m only one person; they have a gaggle of kids they need to get settled down
Christina Soontornvat: The only thing I would advise against is positioning your equipment so that authors can’t see the kids’ faces. It’s not the end of the world if we can’t see your students, but it makes it so much nicer to get feedback on how the visit is going.
What advice can you give for a successful Skype visit?
Sue Fliess: Have everything you think you might reference during the Skype (your first book, your newest book, a favorite mug, your dog, etc.), at your fingertips, so you don’t have to get up.
Also, send a follow-up thank you to the teacher. I always send them a ‘write-up’ they can forward to parents and include my website.
Patricia Newman: An on-screen interaction isn’t the same as an in-person one. Try to establish a rapport from the start with a provocative question or a song or a simple game. Project enthusiasm and smile!
Lori Mortensen: Have fun and remember to look at your camera rather than your own screen. Difficult, I know!
Erin Dealey: Interact with the students. Treat it like a school assembly. Watch your audience to make sure they are engaged. If not, switch gears–read a book, sing a song, ask them a question.
Beth McMullen: Don’t look at your screen–look at your camera!
Lisa Schmid: Have fun, and be yourself!
Christina Soontornvat: Advance preparation is the key to a great Skype session. Reading (any portion) of the books ahead of time, visiting author websites, and getting the kids in the mindset to meet the author are all things that will really help make the visit special.
Linda Joy Singleton is a Roving Reporter for Cynsations.
She lives in the Northern California foothills, surrounded by a menagerie of animals including dogs, cats, peacocks, horses and pigs. Linda reports on writing and publishing children’s literature for Cynsations.
Follow her on Twitter for writing news @LindaJoySinglet