I was following a trail of students to the cafeteria. A smile formed when I noticed heads turning to glance at a countdown calendar. Excitement had been building day by day for the last several weeks. Weekly clues had been posted periodically to help answer the question, “Guess who will be coming to school on April 26?” After a few weeks of guessing, every student knew the identity of our special guest. Students were now solving how new clues were connected to the author and his books. Only one more day until . . . JERRY PALLOTTA! So how did a small rural school manage to get a big-name author like Jerry Pallotta? How did an author visit energize a school in the midst of state testing? Here is what we learned through trial, error, and finally success in finding an author to lead a day of learning at our school.
Dream and begin early. Some authors are booked a year or two in advance. However, do not let a late start keep you from contacting the author. Being flexible with dates may possibly get you a current-year visit and also save money if the author can combine a visit to your school with one already scheduled nearby.
Make a list of authors. Ask teachers which authors they want their students to meet. Many teachers know firsthand from conference attendance if an author can captivate a student audience. Who would their students love to meet? Keep a finger on the pulse of teachers' and students' reading preferences by eavesdropping on book talk conversations. Notice what titles are being checked out in your school and classroom libraries. Intentionally engage in reading and writing conversations with students and teachers. It will be easy to build a wish list of authors for you to work from.
Consider your audience and purpose. Who is your audience? All of our K-5 students would be included in the audience. How do you visualize the structure of the day? A whole-school presentation? Grade-level presentations? Classroom visits? An evening presentation with parents? Having these conversations before contacting the author will help you make decisions as you work with the author or their representative. What are your purposes for the visit? It was important that we have an author who had written nonfiction books that interested a wide range of both boy and girl readers. After considering our audience and purpose, we were able to narrow our author wish list to a few names.
Contact the author. Most authors have websites that have school visit information with basic fees. At the least they will include contact information. Otherwise you could try contacting the author’s publishing company.
One of the first things you want to know is date availability. Fees will vary from posted fees, depending on the day’s structure, and flexibility is key. We were able to share travel expenses with another school if we agreed to a date following theirs. Be willing to change your day’s structure from your original plan. There will be several fee options depending on the visit’s structure. One-day visit or two? Number of sessions? You might consider sharing your visit with other schools in your district or a neighboring one.
Travel expenses are often not included in the engagement fee. Some questions you might ask about travel:
How much will we need to pay for your travel expenses?
How will you be traveling? Do you need us to pick you up from the airport?
Will you need a hotel? Will you book your own hotel or would you like us to do that for you? Do you have hotel preferences? (Have a list of the names of a few hotels in your area, as some authors will ask for suggestions.) Will you need a ride from your hotel to our school?
Be mindful of your budget, but do not let it box you in. We are a Title I school and have funds designated for an author visit. However, we discovered that even lesser-known authors were beyond our budget amount. The quoted fee was within our reach if we supplemented it with funds from other sources. After sending emails to our parent/teacher organization about the benefits of having an author visit, they were more than willing to direct funds our way. We also received funds from our student activity account via our principal. Several local businesses were also called for funding support, and many chose to help sponsor the event. It is important to acknowledge these donations.
Details for the Big Day
Once you have committed to an author date, you will need to consider some details.
What equipment and supplies will the author need for his or her presentations?
Will the author bring books to sell? Do you need to pre-order books? Who will collect money if the author is selling books on-site?
What are autographing procedures?
Who will be host/hostess to the author during the visit?
Meals? Preferences? Would the author prefer to eat alone or with a group of teachers or students?
Does the author want a place to wind down between presentations?
Build excitement. Call the whole staff together to brainstorm ideas. The staff wanted our author to feel like a rock star when he entered the building. Every bulletin board in the building was decorated highlighting the author and his books. Each grade level also met to create meaningful literacy experiences for students. Banners were hung throughout the school to display student work connected to the author. The art teacher worked closely with each grade level to support planned literacy experiences. Immersion. Jim Trelease’s advice—feed them and they will come—was followed by the family presentation that took place in the evening. Food was provided before the presentation.
Create memories. We wanted to create memories for our students that would last long after the visit. Our art teacher designed a Jerry Pallotta T-shirt that included his motto, “Read a Zillion Books." Each child was given a T-shirt to wear on the day of Jerry’s visit. This was funded with money given to us by local businesses. Each student also received a book written by Jerry Pallotta. It was pure luck that Scholastic had one of his Who Would Win? books for one dollar. Jerry graciously autographed several books. On the day of the visit we had a whole-school picture taken outside that included the author. The picture was sent to classes and used for thank-you plaques for supporting businesses. Several photographs were taken throughout the day to post in the hallways after the visit. These displays were up until the last day of school.
Give thanks. Send thank-you notes to the author after the visit. Thank-you notes to an author are like comments to a blogger . . . very much appreciated.
Acknowledge donations that were received. We chose to name supporting businesses in a newspaper article after the event. Business names were also posted on school hallway posters, and on the back of the Jerry Pallotta T-shirts. Wall plaques were also delivered to each business. Each plaque had a picture of our student body and words of thanks.
Planning an author visit is rewarding work that will energize a building. Author visits build reading and writing passion in both teachers and students. Jerry Pallotta books were “hot” up to the last day of school, and I suspect that they will remain so this coming school year. Author visits are more important than ever in this era of testing and low budgets for inspiring passion and enthusiasm about reading and writing.