During the 2018–2019 school year, Alan Gratz spent 200 nights on the road going on school visits and attending conferences and festivals. The author—then a self-described “road warrior”—spent a typical Monday through Friday in the fall and spring doing as many as three to five presentations a day in schools across the country. He was such a frequent flyer that the TSA agents at his local airport would greet him by name. Gratz built up to this busy schedule for a decade while writing more than a dozen middle grade and YA novels. With the breakout success of his 2017 novel Refugee, demand for school visits only increased, but his schedule was no longer sustainable. He had already decided to cut back when the pandemic shut down in-person visits, and schools and authors pivoted to virtual author events.
As the new school year approaches, a lot of authors “can’t wait to get back out there,” says Carmen Oliver, author and principal of The Booking Biz, an agency that books speaking engagements for kid lit authors including Tami Charles, Mitali Perkins, and Don Tate. But with Covid-19 conditions changing daily in states across the country, the foreseeable future of in-person author school visits remains uncertain.
"There’s Nothing Like In-Person"
Author school visits have been a staple in children’s literature for decades, valued by educators and publishers, who consider them a cornerstone of marketing for picture books and middle grade novels in particular. For authors, they can serve a number of purposes. “There’s nothing like the energy of an in-person school event,” says Gratz. “It’s an invaluable way to connect with readers and continue to see what’s important in their lives. It’s also a powerful tool for getting the word out about a book.”
Kirby Larson, the Newbery Honor-winning author of more than a dozen books for children, agrees. “You can’t replace that in-person connection with kids. The kids who raise their hands and the teachers blanch. The kid who lingers and confesses he wants to tell a story. Kids were open with me. I’d come home with wonderful experiences.”
For former teacher and media specialist Tammi Sauer, author of a number of picture books, school visits offer a chance to be in a school without having to do it on a daily basis. “I’m like Steve from Blue’s Clues,” she says of her approach to delivering every presentation “as if I’m in front of the most engaged kid in the world,” even if that wasn’t the case. In-person school visits align with her educator roots, helping to spread the message that “reading and writing is fun and books take people on adventures.”
That sentiment is echoed by Janice Raspen, librarian at H.H. Poole Middle School, in Stafford County, Va.. She and other educators at her school build excitement and interest leading up to author visits. That enthusiasm lasts “for the rest of the year—the kids are excited to read that person's books for months and months afterward.”
For author Saadia Faruqi, school and library visits have been meaningful on an entirely different level. Her Yasmin series—the first early readers featuring a South Asian and Muslim girl—was immediately successful, so visits were “never about promoting the book,” she says. Rather, she recognized the impact she could have on young readers’ cultural perceptions. “It’s important for kids to see a woman like me—a Muslim woman in a hijab—as an author. Whole families would come to library visits, even the grandparents.” Her presence in schools, libraries, and classrooms is important not just to Muslim immigrants, but to immigrants and first-generation kids from all backgrounds, she says.
But for all their benefits for authors, there are some drawbacks to in-person school visits.
“It’s a big commitment,” says Karina Yan Glaser, author of the middle grade series The Vanderbeekers. With a travel day typically included on either end of the school visit, “It’s a day out of writing.”
“I couldn’t write first drafts while I was traveling,” Larson says. She did get used to, and even come to enjoy, writing on airplanes and would use that time to focus on revision.
Before the pandemic, Faruqi did in-person school visits for about 18 months, traveling twice a month. “It’s exhausting,” she says. “I would get home at midnight so I could take my kids to school in the morning.”
The Pandemic Pivot
When the pandemic hit, scheduled school visits ground to a halt. “Everything came to a standstill,” says Oliver. “Contracts were canceled immediately with the hope we’d reschedule when we knew what we were dealing with.”
With the situation rapidly changing, there was about a month of flux before some authors began to offer virtual visits. This wasn’t unprecedented (“Before there was Zoom, we were doing Skype visits,” Larson says). But it required adjustment. “Children’s literature is about hope. It’s about connection,” says Oliver. She adds that many authors felt it was important to be part of the conversation; to send a message that “this is hard, but we can get through it.” Collectively, Oliver continues, publishers, authors, and educators found ways to reach their readers. Authors started revising their slide shows and working on improving their on-screen engagement. Several entrepreneurial authors even offered workshops on how to “reinvent” the school visit in an online format.
“I was resistant to doing virtual visits,” Sauer says. “I love doing them in person.” She had never used Zoom before the pandemic. “It pushed me out of my comfort zone. Later, I discovered I enjoyed it.”
In Gratz’s in-person visits, he developed ways of drawing out the audience, such as by avoiding asking students open-ended questions: “always yes or no, this or that.” Some of his techniques translated seamlessly to Zoom—an in-person show of hands became an online poll. Some kids were more willing to participate in this more anonymous format.
Raspen reports that none of the excitement was lost when her school hosted a virtual visit with Dan Gemeinhart, author of such middle grade novels as The Remarkable Journey of Coyote Sunrise. “The kids were so into it,” she says. “The Google Meet chat during Dan’s talk was hysterical, and the kids were over the moon to meet him. You could totally feel their excitement.”
Another unexpected benefit of virtual visits has been connecting with schools that wouldn’t ordinarily host authors, Larson says. One school in Chicago she visited virtually had never had an in-person author visit. “Not every school can afford to fly in an author,” the librarian told her. “Her comment made me realize that we can build connections in a variety of ways,” Larson says. Her presentation was a new and exciting experience and the kids were highly engaged. “The librarian was like a rock star because she had arranged the visit.”
There were some other surprising benefits to the new format. “As a teacher, I am, of course, always worried about kids’ behavior during author visits: the ones who don’t want to be there listening to another grown-up,” Raspen says. “During virtual visits, I did not have to worry about behavior. I loved that! The kids could talk about stuff in the chat and it didn’t disrupt the visit. That was a big plus for me.”
For many authors, school visits aren’t just a way to connect with readers—they’re a major source of income. “Authors rely on speaking engagements to provide for their families and pay the bills—it’s just a fact,” Oliver says.
Gratz doesn’t depend on fees from school visits now, but in the earlier years of his career, they accounted for half of his writing income. During the economic downturn in 2009, most schools canceled his scheduled visits. “They needed their money back,” he says. It was a significant financial blow.
For Sauer—who charges $1,000 per day for an in-person school visit and $1,300 for out-of-state visits—the cancellation of roughly 40 school visits (a year’s schedule) has meant an economic impact of tens of thousands of dollars. Since the pandemic, she has maintained a reduced schedule of virtual visits at a lower cost. “It’s fine. I still have income through advances and book sales,” she says.
More difficult to navigate is the expectation on the part of some teachers and librarians that virtual visits should be free, says Ruth Spiro, author of the Baby Loves Science series and other board and picture books. In the early days of the pandemic, there was a rush by authors to offer free virtual visits. Publishers authorized read-alouds, free content that still lingers online. Spiro wonders if a new precedent has been set for authors to offer their visits and content for free.
“Is that a fair expectation? I put a lot of time and effort into my presentations,” she says, including making sure the content is curriculum-aligned for specific subjects and grade levels. For authors, the time spent both preparing for and offering presentations is time taken out of writing. “When I’m presenting, I’m not writing another book and developing more income that way.” Spiro “heavily discounted” her fee for virtual visits during the pandemic because it “seemed like the right thing to do.” But she has concerns about the future. “Moving forward, it’s going to be tough to shake that expectation. Will educators tap those who are willing to do it for free? Those for whom this is a sizable portion of their income will be left behind.”
Requests for free school visits are nothing new, says Dusti Bowling, author of the middle grade Aven Green books. She has always made free 20-minute virtual visits available to educators on a monthly basis, reserving her Tuesday mornings for these slots. She generally gives away an entire 40-hour work week of her time each year in free visits. Demand for the slots has remained steady rather than increasing when the pandemic hit. “It’s always awkward” having to turn down such requests, she says. “But teachers and librarians don’t work for free. I have to charge for my time at some point.” And while it may seem as though the author is just “popping on for a few minutes to answer questions,” each visit requires preparation time and takes focus away from writing. “There’s a misconception that authors are highly paid,” she adds, along with a belief that “you can afford to do this for free.”
“Whether it’s virtual or in person, an author’s time needs to be valued monetarily,” Oliver agrees. “Even a small amount is respectful.” Bigger name authors who don’t depend on the income sometimes donate their fees to non-profits that provide free books to kids, she adds. But not every author can do that.
School visits are rarely part of a school budget, Bowling says, but “more often than not” are paid for by parent fundraising organizations or grants. She encourages teachers and librarians at Title 1 schools to apply for grants for author visits. “There’s funding there, but they have to put in the effort.”
“I am expected to use library funds to pay for author visits,” Raspen says. “I usually fund visits once every three years, so that during students’ time in grades six through eight, they’ll get to meet an author once. The money to pay for author visits comes from book fair profits, and of course I haven’t had one since fall of 2019, so there isn’t a lot of money to work with.” Sometimes schools in her county’s system will pool resources to bring in authors for several days, sharing the expense if an author is willing to spend half days at different schools, she says. “That really helps with the added costs like hotels and travel. We can all split those costs among our schools.”
A 2018 survey by authors Jeanette Bradley and Michelle Cusolito found that only 8% of authors offer all their visits for free and the most common day rate for in-person visits was $1,000. Rates vary according to the author’s award and sales status and the region of the country in which the visits take place (schools in the Northeast pay the most, those in the South the least).
Faruqi offers free virtual visits, but only for q&a and only to classrooms in which students have read the book they’ll be discussing. She’s aware that offering free visits is seen by some as undercutting those who charge for them, but taking this approach ensures that while a student’s family may not have personally invested in the book, the teacher or school library has.
While authors at different stages in their careers have varying viewpoints on and experiences with school visits, there seems to be one point of consensus: 2020 was not a great year to be a debut author. For children’s writers, making connections with teachers and librarians through author visits is a tried-and-true way path toward sustaining a career. Without an established way in, it was harder to achieve. Some authors offered free virtual visits as they worked on perfecting their presentations. The question authors need to ask themselves is “What value do I give back to teachers?” Bowling says.
She adds that while school visits are one approach, there’s no one single strategy that works for establishing connections. She has always initiated a lot of outreach to educators through Twitter and Instagram in addition to doing school visits, frequently sponsoring book giveaways.
The Way Forward
With the recent surges in Covid in many states, the 2021–2022 school year remains uncertain. Glaser has one in-person visit scheduled for spring 2022, but points out that “the age group I write for isn’t vaccinated.” That’s likely to leave parents and administrators feeling wary about bringing outside visitors such as authors into schools.
“Victoria Jamieson is going to be in our area in April, which is so far away that I can’t even predict what that could look like,” Raspen says. “I’d love for her to talk with a grade level at a time, but sitting 350 kids at a time in the bleachers of a middle school seems like something my administration would not be comfortable with.”
Being forced into virtual visits has made schools more confident in their ability to deliver successful events in this format, Glaser says, speculating that in the future, schools will probably opt for a mix of both in-person and virtual visits.
For Bowling, the in-person bond is irreplaceable, she says, pointing out that screen fatigue is real, and a virtual author visit had more novelty at the beginning of the pandemic than it does now. “I’m so glad we can do virtual visits. But in-person is special in a way that virtual isn’t. I think in-person visits will come back,” she says.
Even if regular school visits were to return on a regular basis, Gratz says he will limit the number he does and opt for a less demanding schedule of virtual visits. Like other authors, he has found that the switch to virtual visits has offered an unexpected silver lining—more time to write. “When I traveled, I really had to hustle to squeeze in writing time,” he says. A lighter travel schedule has meant being able to say yes to more writing projects, plus the extra time relieves some of the stress of compressing projects into such a small span of time. He’s getting more enjoyment out of the process. In other words, for some authors, the pandemic has allowed them to get back to doing what they do best—writing.
Larson says that in addition to helping her draft her most recent book in record time, cutting back on in-person school visits allowed her to consider what else she could do with her time. “I have a big hole in my schedule. How do I want to fill it?” She came up with an Instagram Live series called Write Space with Kirby Larson and Friends, interviewing other authors for 15 minutes each Thursday evening. It’s been a new way to engage teachers and librarians. “I wouldn’t have tried that with the travel schedule I’ve had,” she says.
For Glaser, moving to virtual visits didn’t affect sales for the fall 2020 release of The Vanderbeekers Lost and Found. She held a virtual book launch with attendees from all over the country and sales were strong. She’s planning the same approach for the release of The Vanderbeekers Make a Wish, due out in September. The series’ established reputation with readers no doubt helped make the latest book a success. But it’s not the only fall 2020 title that fared well. Sales across children’s fiction grew last year despite the pandemic. They continue to grow this year according to recent NPD Bookscan figures, with the market largely driven by backlist titles (another indicator that established authors fared better than debuts during the pandemic).
When it comes to school visits, though, Respen says kids don’t care if an author is famous or not—they’re just excited to meet a writer.
“Whether they are virtual or in-person, school visits are magical, transformative and life-changing,” Oliver agrees. “Connection is so important. To see your stories alive and reflected in the faces of children—it’s why we write for kids.”
This story has been updated.