You write for different age groups- do you find a big difference in how to carry out an event for teenagers versus primary school kids?
I tend to approach them in a broadly similar way, but with an awareness that the reaction is likely to be different depending on the age group. Teens are more likely to be self-conscious and less willing to ask questions, etc than younger children, but that doesn’t mean they are engaging any less. I love the variety. The youngest children I talk to are about nine, which is a lovely age – old enough to be quite sensible but young enough to be un-self-conscious and they often have this great confidence in their own creativity which seems to be rarer in older audiences. One thing that does vary is that I often share some of my own childhood writing with audiences, and with teens I deliberately read a bit that’s actually pretty bad! (Hopefully it’s at the ‘so bad it’s funny’ end of the spectrum.) I do this to show that being good at writing doesn’t happen overnight, that I wrote a lot of derivative, boring crap as a teenager, but that doesn’t mean I kept on doing so! I share it with them to reassure them that even when they feel discouraged about their own writing, they should remember that we all start somewhere, and what matters is keeping on practicing and not being in a rush.
2. What challenges have you experienced during events?
Lots! I think the worst was when I did some events as part of a BBC initiative last summer. I suspected that the children who came along would be younger than I’m used to, even though I said 9+. Some instinct made me pick up some cuddly mice on my way out of the house, and I was glad I did, because I used them to tell a story for all the four and five year olds who turned up. I could cope with that, but in the next session there were toddlers. With actual nappies! They were doing what toddlers do, as loudly as possible, and unfortunately all the twelve year olds I really did want to speak to were at that session. I had to ask the toddlers’ mothers to remove them!
3. Do you think events work better when the kids or teenagers get involved and interact in the event, or when it’s more of a presentation by the author?
I do lots of both, and both work well. It depends so much on the context and on the group. Certainly, I find presentations very easy and I hope I’ve worked hard over the years to fine-tune what I say so that I make it relevant to each audience. There are so many variables. A class who have read one of my books will respond differently from a whole year group who haven’t heard of me before but are happy to be missing maths. Some kids want to get involved; others prefer to be talked to and be free to listen.
4. You had huge experience as a teacher before you began book events. Do you think this helped when you began events? Have you any tips for début writers who have no teaching experience, and aren’t used to presenting in front of an audience?
It definitely helps, not least because I am realistic about how schools work. I always talk to teachers or librarians in advance to make sure that we both know what’s wanted. For example, a teacher might ask for a workshop for two hundred pupils in an assembly hall. That’s impossible! But if she is keen for the pupils to get some practical help with writing, then I can run the session as a kind of masterclass, using examples from my books.
The best advice I can give is to communicate in advance, make sure you know what you’re being asked to do, and be prepared to be firm and stick to what you know you’re comfortable with. Some writers are happy with a hall full of teens; others prefer a small reading group. But if you’re just starting out, you might need to try a few different things before you find what works for you.
As a teacher, I observed many author sessions with my own pupils – some good, and some terrible. I always remember one writer who clearly fancied himself as a comedian, and who spent the hour encouraging the kids to ignore everything their teachers said. He obviously thought himself too cool for school, but I find that attitude disrespectful: I vowed there and then that if I was ever published I would never do an event like that. I want every pupil and teacher to leave one of my sessions thinking that it was useful and inspiring, not undermining what the teachers are trying to achieve all the other days of the years.
5. Do you put restrictions on the amount of kids you’ll do an event for? What type of numbers do you think work best in kids/teen events?
I think that’s been more or less covered above, hasn’t it? For me, it’s important to do a variety, but authors who prefer smaller groups shouldn’t be afraid to say so. I’m a big fat show off, and I love performing, so I’ve always been happy with a big audience.
6. Are there any events/experiences that stick out in your mind as particularly successful, or fulfilling to you as a writer?
There are so many! I really love engaging with readers and writers and I like all the work I do. If I had to pick one, it would probably be teaching at Arvon, a residential writing organization in England, where I have worked with all kinds of groups from primary school children to vulnerable adults, and where I bring my own young writers’ group from Belfast every year or so. It’s such an intense experience, and seeing the young writers develop their voices and their confidence over the five days living and writing together is magical. I had a similar experience at the Story House in Ireland this year, spending a week with a very talented bunch of adult writers.
I also have a very soft spot for my work as a Reading Patron. This simply means that I have a special relationship with a school – the wonderful Trinity Comprehensive in Ballymun. I’m their sort of tame author, and I work with their JCSP librarian and other staff to promote a reading culture.
Often I’ll do an event and I’ll think, Gosh, that’s the best group I have ever worked with … and then the next one comes along. That’s one of the reasons why I love what I do so much!
Sheena Wilkinson has been described as ‘one of our foremost writers for young people’ (The Irish Times, March 2015). Since the publication of the multi-award-winning Taking Flight (Little Island) in 2010, she has published several acclaimed young adult novels. Her most recent book is Street Song (Ink Road).