This time we jump up an age group again into the older middle grade readers, with the simply splendid Dave Rudden talking all things book events.
1. What is your advice to any author or illustrator who has been asked to do an event for children?
Firstly, preparation is key. You want to know how many kids, what age they are and how long the event will be. You want to know if it’s ticketed how many have been sold, or if it’s open and public. You want to know if they’re familiar with your work (though it is always safest to assume not) and if you have tech requirements you want to make doubly and triply sure that the venue have provided them.
After that, it’s preparing yourself. As a former teacher and actor, I believe that your biggest enemy is dead air. Always have something to say, have a joke for every occasion (don’t worry, this comes with practice) and, if you’re asking the kids questions, be sure to say hands up so they don’t all yell at you at once. When you’re starting off (or if you don’t have teaching experience) it’s no harm to ask the teachers present to do the discipline thing while you concentrate on being fun.
And it should be fun. It should be fun for you and fun for them. Remember that they’re getting a break from class – they’ll be delighted to see you.
- What are the main differences between doing a book festival event and a school visit event?
Book festival events are generally ticketed/open so you don’t know exactly who is going to show up. There’ll always be that well-meaning parent who’ll bring a three-year-old to a gig for teenagers, or vice versa. (You can have fun with this though – there’s no triumph like getting wry smiles out of teenagers who’ve been dragged along against their will) You are also more likely to get kids who are there for you, as opposed to kids who are there because they have to be.
School events, in contrast, are a literally captive audience. If you’re told you’re getting seventy, you’re getting seventy. (Most of the time) There will be teachers present if you need help with discipline, and there’s no harm in shamelessly saying ‘oh I hear you’re getting no homework because of this’ for extra cool person points.
The UK have a culture of selling books at school events as well, which we don’t really do here, though that is something I politely offer to schools because sometimes they’ll be delighted.
- How do you prepare for an event?
I overprepare. Whether it’s an author event or a workshop, I find it best to think modularly, coming up with five/ten minute exercises or segments that can be swopped around, edited, stretched, played up or played down. For example, my default author event is –
Intro to myself and the world of Knights of the Borrowed Dark (5 minutes)
Reading from Knights of the Borrowed Dark (4 minutes)
Writing Tip 1 (This writing tip ties back to the scene I just read, with funny stories behind each detail of the scene to show how I came up with each idea – 10 minutes)
Writing Tip 2 (leads up to reading 2 – 5 minutes)
Reading 2 (5 minutes)
Writing Tip 3 (10 minutes)
Writing/Editing Tip 4 and close-out speech (5 minutes)
Q & A (15 minutes)
I can swop out any of these if the kids aren’t responding, or if they’ve heard any of it before, or if I think they’ll like one bit more than the other. If they’ve all read the book, I take out the intro and do more questions. I know exactly how long each module lasts so I’m not going to get cut off halfway or end up with twenty minutes of silence at the end.
It didn’t start off this polished. I wrote my event, I made projector slides (which are great for comedy) I timed it and then I road tested it. Bits that worked really well I kept, bits that didn’t I jettisoned. When I want to bring in new material, I just swop out a module and it’s one untested bit in an otherwise solid gig, so the quality doesn’t dip.
The one thing that’s super important is practice. Practice your readings, practice your jokes, practice your timing, practice your projection. A lot of new writers are afraid of the Q & A – don’t be. There are only so many things they can ask you, and after you’ve done ten schools you’ll see similar questions all the time, which gives you a chance to practice answers. Just remember that even though you might have been asked that question 10 times, it’s the first time a kid has asked it, so your response should be full of respect and enthusiasm.
- What tips do you have for keeping children engaged?
Be relentless. From the moment you walk out, don’t give them a second to talk, or to look away, or get bored. Whether your style is to be funny or to hook them with interaction or fascinating facts, make sure it never lets up. If someone puts up their hand, tell them questions at the end. If you’re asking them a question, make sure it’s hands up so you don’t get derailed by a deluge.
Take advantage of the fact you’re not a teacher. Have fun. Let them know that getting to meet a writer is a special treat but also make sure your gig is inclusive and friendly and makes them feel important. Tell them all the things you wish a writer could have told you when you were a kid.
I also offer a free signed book for the best and most interesting question, because the competitive aspect gets them excited, and it always means a kid will be leaving with your book.
- What is the best lesson you have learned from doing book events for children?
That you’ll never have a child put up their hand and say ‘um this is a comment rather than a question,’ and then spend ten questionless minutes telling you how often they read the Guardian.
The best thing about doing events for kids is that you get to replicate the feeling you might have had meeting one of your heroes, or even just someone who’s doing the job you want to do. You’re not going into a school for your ego, or for the money, or even to sell your book. You’re doing it because you have the chance to be that inspiration to a kid, that memory that’ll keep them going through their first short story comp loss and their first win, that memory that might make them a writer themselves.
- And finally, what is the most unexpected thing that has happened to you at a book event?
Oh, I have so many. I’ve had schools surprise me with five times the amount of students, I’ve been inexplicably given fourth years and third class together in one room, I’ve been asked what was my worst break up and what my favourite flavour of crisps are.
The thing you have to remember is, if it happens to you once, you’ll know how to deal with it for the next time. Everything is survivable. Everything is a learning experience. That’s the fun of it.
The first novel in Dave Rudden’s Knights of the Borrowed Dark trilogy was the Specsavers’ Children’s Book of the Year in 2016.
The second, The Forever Court, is on sale now.
Dave enjoys cats, putting pens in his beard and being cruel to fictional children.
Follow him at @d_ruddenwrites on Twitter or @theruddlesstravelled on Instagram.