Wednesday, February 26, 2020

School Visit Advice from the Back Row - by Robin Rosenthal

Zetta Elliott talks to students.
Zetta Elliott encouraged and empowered our students to write their own stories. (Photo: Len Small)
Okay so I’ve never done a school visit—my first books come out this year—BUT before you close this tab in disgust...

...I have SEEN about 50 author and illustrator presentations at my daughter’s elementary school when I was the parent coordinator for our Meet-the-Author/Illustrator program and I’ve got some perspective to offer. Here’s some of what I’ve learned from my corner of the rug at a public elementary school in Brooklyn.

Our favorite speakers were entertaining, inspiring, and offered educational nuggets of wisdom. Here are some themes we loved hearing about that you can use in your presentation:

Demystify the process. It’s a big leap from writing a first draft or drawing a picture to having a printed book in one’s hands. Kids want to know HOW a book is made and they are interested in all aspects of the process. If you wrote the book, how did you come up with the idea for your story? Who or what inspired you and why did you write it? Do you keep a journal or sketchbook to capture your ideas? What materials and tools do you use to create your artwork? Where do you create your art? Save your in-progress work, or take photos and screenshots of it along the way. Talk about your research. Show your inspiration, thumbnails, character sketches, piles of dummies, and revisions.

Mike Curato shows thumbnail sketches to students
Mike Curato showed students thumbnails from What If..., his picture book with Samantha Berger. 

Show that writing and illustrating a book takes time, patience, and practice. Revising is a new concept for early elementary school students. How many revisions did you need to do? Were there points along the way that were frustrating or difficult? How long did it take you to complete the artwork? How long did it take you to finish the most complicated piece in your book? Author Shana Corey showed us a draft of one of her books on screen, then in the next slide she showed it with all of her editor's comments, and it was A LOT of comments. There were audible gasps from the second graders.

Tell your own story. Some kids will be meeting an author or illustrator for the first time. The idea that this could be a job THEY could do is a new one.  How did you become a picture book creator? Do you have any writing or drawing anecdotes to share from your childhood? Some of our speakers shared that they loved reading as children. Others shared stories about how they hated school, or were reluctant readers when they were kids. Author-illustrator Christopher Silas Neal told our students he didn’t go to art school. He just loved art and practiced and practiced on his own and got better.

Encourage students to create (and offer suggestions for how they can start.) Show them that anyone can be an author or illustrator. One of our favorite speakers Zetta Elliott talked to our students about the lack of PoC characters in children’s books—with the help of this great illustration—and encouraged them to tell their own stories. Share your tips for getting started and getting better—like keeping a journal or sketchbook, or reading a lot.

Try interactive storytelling or drawing exercises. We’ve seen writers create stories with our students using various writing prompts and brainstorming exercises. The kids also love when illustrators do drawing demos. You can show how you draw one of your characters, or how you draw different emotions. If you plan to do this ask the school to have markers, paper, and an easel ready for you. We’ve also had illustrators request that we give each student a clipboard, pencil, and paper too so they could do a drawing exercise along with the speakers.

andrea tsurumi draws for students
Andrea Tsurumi worked on an interactive story with students.

Find out what grade(s) you will be speaking to and tailor your presentation accordingly. What you present to a Kindergarten or first grade class should be different than what you’d present to fourth and fifth graders. Simplify explanations of the process for younger kids. When a speaker’s presentation skews too young or too old—and I’ve mostly seen it skew too old—it tends to fall flat. 

A Kindergartener once asked author-illustrator Ruth Chan, “How do you draw?” I've seen other illustrators stumped by this question, but Ruth, a former teacher, gave such a great, simple, age-appropriate answer to this five-year-old. I’m paraphrasing here, but it was something like, “I take a pencil and I use that to draw the shapes, then I use a paint called watercolor and I fill it in with color.” The child nodded in response and his expression was like, “Aha, yes, I get it now.”

Make it fun. Your talk should be engaging and entertaining. Chances are you will be trying to hold the interest of a six-year-old who has been at school for three hours already and hasn't eaten lunch yet. Read alouds, moments of participation and brainstorming, funny anecdotes, jokes and pictures work well. Show us your dog. Bring your energy and enthusiasm. You'll get a sense of whether you need to dial this up when you practice your presentation and ask for some honest feedback (see below.) 

Winging it almost always sucks for everyone involved. We can tell. So if you are new to presenting...

Practice your presentation out loud several times. Try it in front of other people. Try it with a group of kids if possible. Feel super-comfortable with it. Ask for feedback on what is working and what isn’t and tweak it. (Highlights offers a course called Crafting Successful Author & Illustrator Visits and it looks great.)

Speak loudly, clearly, and slowly. 

Time it. Find out how long you have and time yourself. Cut things out if it goes too long. Leave room for five to ten minutes of questions at the end. 

Take questions at the END of your presentation. We always asked our students to save their questions until the end. But lots of kids have trouble waiting and will wave their hands frantically at you while you are presenting. I've seen some speakers take questions during their presentations, but I’d say that's an advanced move that can sometimes derail things. A gentle, enthusiastic, “Ask me/tell me at the end!” acknowledges that eager kid and usually does the trick. (I loved when I saw author-illustrator—and former teacher—Abby Hanlon do this on a visit.)

“My dad lives in Staten Island!” (Comments versus questions). You will probably get lots of statements rather than questions, especially with the younger kids. It’s just a fact. They want to share and connect with you. (Some speakers gently reminded our students that questions begin with who, what, when, where, and why.)

Sometimes a child will ask a question that’s been asked already or that you’ve addressed already in your presentation. Be kind and patient. For some of these kids it takes serious bravery to ask a question and they may have been rehearsing it in their heads over and over rather than fully listening. Sometimes they’ve known about your visit for some time and have been working up the courage to connect with you. I love this thread by Kate Messner that addresses this.

Shadra Strickland explains her illustration process.
Shadra Strickland compared her sketch and final illustration for a piece in Please, Louise. 

Shadra Strickland explains her illustration process.
Shadra Strickland showed students some character studies for Please, Louise. 

Sometimes the venue is noisy, the kids are jumpy, or the teachers have not prepared the students for your visit. All of these things happened at our school at some point, even with our best intentions. You might bomb. Or be just okay. You are human. Sometimes things fall flat. BUT...

Please know that you ARE reaching the kids, or some kids, or one kid, even if it doesn’t feel like that sometimes. One of our favorite speakers Jason Chin was inspired to become an illustrator when illustrator Trina Schart Hyman visited his elementary school. You may be speaking to the next Jason Chin and wouldn't that be cool? Two more stories:

I got to see my daughter see these presentations from first through fifth grade. She was silent during every presentation. No questions, no comments. Sometimes it looked like she wasn’t listening. But she would almost always come home and talk to me about them. About a year (A YEAR!) after Shana Corey’s visit to her second grade class she said to me, “I still think about how many drafts Shana Corey had to write for that book, like, a lot.” How cool is that?

A second grade boy at a recent visit started his question to another favorite speaker Nina Crews this way: “Hi Nina Crews, I have been waiting for you to come. I have two questions…” I HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR YOU TO COME. 

Have information about school visits on your website. By doing this, you let schools know that you are serious about doing visits and that you have presentations ready for different age groups. I rarely contacted someone who didn't have school visit info on their site.

Here are some examples:
Christopher Silas Neal:

Set your rate(s). Talk to other authors and illustrators about what they charge. SCBWI conducted a very helpful survey on school visit fees in 2018.

Most people have different rates for in-town and out-of-town visits, and different rates for full-day or half-day visits. At our school, we paid our speakers $500 for two back-to-back 45 minute presentations. For some folks this is too low, which leads me to the next point…

You can totally say no to a visit. Have some ground rules about what visits you will and won’t do. Is the money too low? Is the school too far? Are they unable to reimburse your travel? Are you in the middle of a deadline? Does it just not feel like a good fit? I suggest having a generic-ish email ready that you can send back to politely decline and don’t sweat it. I sent a lot of emails to potential speakers and got a lot of no’s. I didn’t take it personally.

And you shouldn’t take it personally if schools are offering little or no money. It’s not a reflection on you or the value of your time, it’s often the school budget. (If the school is trying to make you feel bad or guilty for charging what you do then buh-bye.)

If you are comfortable, put your fees on your site. Most of the speakers we worked with don’t publish their fees, but if you are comfortable, go for it. It will save you a lot of time answering emails from schools whose budgets don’t match your fees. (Though she hasn't spoken at my daughter's school, Aram Kim is a seasoned presenter and she breaks her fees down very clearly on her school visits page.) Some authors are more flexible on their rates, depending on what else they have going on, if they happen to be in town, or how far away the school is, so are willing to negotiate, and therefore don’t state their fees upfront.

Sort out the technical stuff BEFORE the visit. Can the school handle the format of your presentation (PowerPoint, PDF, Google Slides, etc.)? Should you bring your own laptop computer or is a thumb drive okay? Do you need the school to provide an easel, markers, and paper? We found it helpful when speakers emailed their presentations to our school beforehand so we could have it all loaded and ready when they arrived. 

After the visit, check with the school before posting photos of kids. Chances are the school will NOT have consent/photo releases for all the kids in your pictures. To be safe, block out kids’ faces before posting. 

You don’t have to do visits at all. Many successful authors and illustrators don’t do visits, or are taking a break for a year or two. School visits take a lot of time, energy and prep, and it’s not for everyone. If they stress you out, don’t do them. 

Robin Rosenthal is an illustrator and art director. She has illustrated Two Dogs on A Trike (Abrams Appleseed, May 2020) and the Big Ideas for Little Philosophers series of board books (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, July 2020). She will be doing her first school visit in May 2020. You can see more of her work at and follow her on Instagram @robinrosenthal.


  1. Robin this post, your insights, and your knowledge is SO HELPFUL, thank you for writing this! I've been sending it around!