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Thursday, 21 February 2013

Why You Should Invite A Non-Famous Author Into Your School

When I visit schools pupils sometimes ask for my autograph. On one occasion a whole class missed a chunk of their lunch break as they queued up to get little scraps of paper signed by me. When I sell my (lovingly self-produced) books after school, children invariably want me to sign them. I find this incredibly flattering, and am of course delighted to oblige. However, I sometimes wonder the extent to which they know that my autograph is at present not even worth the paper it is written on, and that an unsigned copy of my book is probably rarer than a signed one.

In a strange way, though, I think it is the fact that I am not famous that makes children want my autograph. Of course, were you to ask them they might well say that they want it because they’ve been told a poet is coming to visit their school, and they’ve assumed that said poet is famous, like Michael Rosen or Julia Donaldson. But it is in part the fact that I am not in the same bracket as these writers that means I give it my all when I visit schools. I do not have reputation, book sales, public adoration and critical acclaim to fall back on. Of course I hope to acquire some of these things in the future, but at the moment the only acclaim I get is that accrued through my school visits. I throw everything I’ve got into them, knowing that, at present, it is these visits upon which the entirety of my reputation rests.

None of this is to suggest that were I to be famous I wouldn’t care about my school visits. The fact that I concentrate primarily on these visits, rather than doing what it would take to become famous, is probably testament to that. Nor is it to suggest that I give my all during school visits in order somehow to gain a semblance of the acclaim and adoration I lack by dint of being not famous. I have enough self-awareness to be aware of egotism as a partial motivator (anyone in the performing arts who suggests otherwise is simply lying or deluded), but I think that I am motivated more by a desire for children to enjoy learning and fulfil their potential.

Be all this as it may, there is an interesting issue for teachers: you’ve been given a budget to have an author visit your school for the day. Who do you go for? If you can pin down an author like one of the aforementioned ‘big guns’, in between book tours and festival appearances, then by all means try to do so. If I was a teacher I probably would. But in the highly likely event that such authors are unavailable and/or too expensive, then please be aware that there are armies of ‘little people’ ready to put everything they have into inspiring and engaging your pupils. Perhaps they haven’t been published because they are not already famous – a  terrible Catch 22 rendering it hard for many of those who deserve it most to gain exposure. Perhaps, like me, they have simply chosen to concentrate on hands-on work with children, or perhaps, again like me, they are relatively near the beginning of their career and hopefully have a lot lying ahead of them. Get some of these visitors into your schools and the children will probably want their autograph anyway, and for the right reason: they have thoroughly enjoyed the visit. 

(NB here is a poem, by my friend and fellow poet Neal Zetter, about being ' a bit famous')