Monday, 28 October 2013

‘She was inspiring’- The true value of an author visit

Last week the Society of Authors published the results of their survey on the impact of author visits to schools, the summary of the findings can be seen here. I contributed to this survey earlier this year and that author visits have a positive effect on promoting reading for pleasure amongst school children came as little surprise to me. For the past fourteen years I have been a school librarian working with children aged 3 –11 and during that time have arranged numerous visits by children’s authors, illustrators and poets.These events have enthused and excited our pupils and with support from the school the positive impact can be long lasting too.


As a child I don’t ever remember an author visiting my school, in fact I don’t think I knew a great deal about my favourite authors. The world of children’s books is very different today. Despite the gloomy stories in the media of the death of the book, since the arrival of J K Rowling in the late 90s children’s literature now operates at a different level. The growth in the number of literary festivals and visits to schools has brought children’s authors and their readers together. Reading among both children and adults has become a more communal activity, hence the success of book clubs. Many children’s authors have responded to this with engaging and interactive websites that their readers enjoy visiting. However nothing quite matches meeting the author or illustrator ‘for real’.

James Mayhew 'painting up side down'
Clara Vulliamy entertains Reception Class

Author/illustrators are particularly effective in firing the imaginations of younger children and over the past two years visits to our school by James Mayhew and Clara Vulliamy have been huge successes. You could have heard a pin drop during James’s story telling sessions and pupils still refer to the ‘clever man who did the upside down paintings’. Perhaps more importantly when they look at his paintings in pride of place in our library today some pupils can both remember and retell the story that James told their own class nearly eighteen months ago. Clara Vulliamy visited during our Arts Week and engaged our youngest children in a winning combination of storytelling, art and craft sessions. These sessions went down a storm with both pupils and teachers and the lovely happy buzz throughout the day would convince the most sceptical of the positive influence of such an event. Some of these children were only four years old but months later teachers reported that they were copying and expanding on the activities Clara had shown them. In education today when it can feel as though everything must be assessed and measurable it is difficult to quantify the impact of these days but surely the fact that these special events are remembered and valued by the children themselves is important too.

In my experience as a school librarian the very best way of ensuring that books are borrowed from the library and read in large numbers is a successful visit by an author. Two weeks ago Kate Maryon visited our school for the second time to work with pupils in years 5 and 6 and to officially open our new, larger library. Kate’s books are already popular with our girls but as the day of her visit approached requests for her books increased and the waiting lists for each of her books grew steadily longer. The teachers were reading her books aloud in class and I was constantly being asked about the lady herself. Her visit was a big hit with queues out of the door at her book selling and signing session at the end of the day. Kate talked about her latest book, ‘Invisible Girl’, and the issues raised in this and her other books. The discussion touched on difficult subjects and our pupils were engrossed and thoughtful throughout Kate’s talk. The opportunity to talk about and overcome difficulties and to learn to empathise with others is an important aspect of children’s books and I think that this particular author visit was more effective than a lesson on the subject would have been. Something that an author can do that even the very best teacher can’t is offer an insight into how an author writes. Following Kate’s creative writing workshop one of the teachers told me that her pupils ‘were bursting to write’ when they returned to their classrooms. The result of a successful author visit goes beyond raising the profile of books and reading but can also have a direct influence on the classroom too. 
Kate Maryon opens our new library during her visit

The Society of Authors report recommends that all schools should have a school library and a trained librarian to run it who can take responsibility for the organisation of author events. I realise that I am very fortunate to work in a school where the library and enriching activities for the children are valued and therefore have the budget required to allow me to organise these visits, but the report also illustrates that there are ways of funding such events by teaming up with other local schools to share costs. It could also be possible to work with your local library, literary festival or bookshop to reduce the expense.

Most importantly the report asks that the vital role of school libraries and the impact of author visits be recognised by OFSTED. Having seen first-hand how important and worthwhile author visits can be for both school children and teachers I think it is vital that these types of events are actively promoted and their positive contribution to children’s education recognised. Organising author visits is only one aspect of a school librarian’s job but it is undoubtedly an important one.

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