I don’t remember meeting any authors when I was a child. My school had a well-stocked library with a librarian, and I do remember checking out books from there and the public library, and discovering a host of intriguing and exciting fiction and non-fiction on the bookshelves, but I don’t remember having a Book Week or author visits. We certainly didn’t dress up for World Book Day. That only started 18 years ago, and I left school before then. In fact, one of my favourite authors was Noel Streatfield – I didn’t know until after I left school whether Noel was a man or a woman – it didn’t matter. The author was largely anonymous, a system only for finding a book on the shelf, or reading more of the same.
For the next generation though, authors of books are REAL, alive (most of the time) and KNOWN. They may go to a school that encourages author visits, or attend book signings at a local bookshop or library, or attend literature festivals, such as the Southbank Imagine Children’s Literature Festival and meet authors in person. Suddenly these authors become celebrities (Jacqueline Wilson, Anthony Horowitz), or in some cases, celebrities become authors (David Walliams, David Baddeil, Helen Skelton).
Authors have always been fundamental for writing, but now they have become fundamental to the reading process. On a cynical basis, I would attribute this to both increased marketing strategies and our celebrity culture. Authors are expected to provide a profile, whether it be on social media or in public life, as well as carrying out a fair bit of their own selling. For authors of children’s books, this often means visiting schools (which also serves a dual purpose as it creates an extra revenue stream as most authors make very little money from the sale of their books).
Pity the author who doesn’t have a SPARKLING personality or isn’t good at public speaking – by association they may tarnish their books. For those who can tell a good joke or strum a guitar they may gain a whole new audience for their stories. And after all, didn’t our storytelling all come from an oral tradition anyway? The notion of a writer scratching away with quill and ink in an impoverished attic was always rather Victorian.
What do children gain from seeing an author of a book? Not every author is as famous as David Walliams or Jacqueline Wilson, so what do the children think when it’s an author whom they’ve not heard of, with books they’ve never read, and are only prepped by their school the week or two before the visit?
Of course there are certain benefits that are readily talked about – it creates an excitement around reading, and books of all kinds not just by that author – it can inspire children, as passion for reading is something that is caught, not necessarily taught – and it can provoke children to write creatively themselves, believing it to be a ‘job’ they could do. These are all hugely important. This is something that the Patron of Reading scheme delivers in particular – you can read about them here.
I quizzed some school children recently about author visits. Why does it have to be an author of a published book? Surely a librarian – someone with knowledge of books, a good reading-aloud voice, a passion for literature and knowledge of the book market could equally well do a school visit, read books and inspire children. They admitted it wasn’t the same. For children, and I would argue adults too, there is something hugely special about seeing the author’s name in print on the front of the book – and if they are standing in front of you holding their product, then that’s something particularly special. It’s even better than Sir Tim Dyson vacuuming in front of you. But there was something else that came up that was surprising and special. Although any teacher, librarian or visitor could deconstruct a book – guess what came next, ask questions about the narrative, speculate on different endings and meanings – only the author had the ‘absolute’ truth in his head.
Having the author there to question on the story is like being able to get a glimpse inside someone else’s brain – in their dreams and imagination, in their feelings and reveries. The author is the only person who won’t reinterpret the book but has the ultimate interpretation of it – can discuss its origins and machinations, its complexities and issues, the versions it went through before its finalisation, with total authority. And then, and this is the bit that finally made me giggle – the children felt they could properly critique it.
I’ve yet to come across a school that didn’t heartily embrace the author who had come to visit – children who didn’t come away with a renewed vigour and warmth for reading, and a special place in its school library for those coveted signed books. If you’re an author, do a school visit, and if you’re a school, invite an author in. It’s mutually beneficial.