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Welcome to the Kite Tales Writing Challenge: #KTWriteOn. Each writing challenge is crafted by a kid-lit publishing professional to help spark ideas, creative energy, and get your work moving out into the world.

This exercise was created by Amber Morrell, an author of middle-grade fantasy from Orange County, CA, where she’s a member of SCBWI SoCal. She’s also a children’s librarian and professional storyteller: “With poems, puppets, and songs, I create narrative experiences for children of all ages.”

Today, Amber’s bringing us an exercise that challenges authors to rethink their school visit presentations in a time when almost everyone is learning from home, online. If you’ve never done a visit before, or aren’t there yet in your career, you’re still going to learn a lot about keeping kids engaged, and we can all use that! Write on!

Author Visits in the Time of Remote Learning
by Amber Morrell

This school year, many schools have switched to a distance learning model. For authors, this means school visits have moved into a digital space. While many conferences and bookstores have pioneered online events and panels, this new landscape can be difficult for individual authors to navigate, especially if they are unused to the digital world. But virtual appearances at schools and libraries are not only possible, they are in demand. Librarians are finding themselves asking many of the same questions that authors are: how can we best reach readers in this new digital landscape, especially readers that need us most?

Why Virtual Visits?

Even before COVID, virtual visits were gaining popularity as a cost-effective way for schools to bring authors into their classrooms. Because there were no travel costs for the authors, schools could broaden the range of authors available beyond those who lived locally. These days, virtual visits are essentially the only option. They are both a great promotional tool for authors to spread the word about their books, as well as a good way to get kids excited about reading. In addition, virtual visits can serve as a good way to give teachers a break in the mad scramble to create remote curriculum for distance learning.

Being able to present to a classroom full of kids without having to change out of your pajama pants definitely has its perks, but there are other benefits as well. For example, there are no travel costs for you or the hosting organization, lowering the investment of time and money for all involved. Organizations will save money by not having to pay for your travel, and you’ll save loads of what is often uncompensated time by not having to commute to their location. While nothing beats the experience of being up close and personal, this is a clear monetary benefit to both you and the organization.

Getting Paid: New Models in a New Landscape

Even though they take place behind a computer screen, author visits are still work, and you should be paid as such. Many schools, libraries, and other organizations are finding themselves low on funding, so budgets for visiting authors might not be as available as they’ve been in the past. However, going virtual allows you more flexibility than in-person visits in ways that can be advantageous for both you and the organizations you’re visiting.

Neither you nor your participants are limited by geographical location. Those watching your presentation do not have to all be in the same place. That means that schools and libraries could coordinate virtual visits together and split the cost. For example, let’s say a library wanted to host you for a live read-a-loud and Q&A session. Since it wouldn’t take place on the library’s premises, they could ask a library in the neighboring city to cohost the event (librarians do talk to each other, after all), and thus split the cost. In essence, you can still be paid a fair amount for your time, while giving the libraries a more flexible way to offer your program.

You can make similar deals with other organizations, like schools, scout troops, and even homeschoolers, who are more often than not unable to access the same visits that schools are. This sort of cooperative payment model can bring literacy programs to groups that are usually priced out of them, especially schools and libraries with extremely low budgets. In this time of economic uncertainty and looming budget cuts, schools are looking for ways to engage their students without breaking the bank.

Going Beyond the Screen: Interactive Visit Ideas

Finally, I want to talk about something contentious since before the time of COVID: screen time. Students engaged in virtual learning spend most of their time in front of a screen, to the magnitude of several hours a day, five days a week. That’s not likely to change any time soon, and you want to make sure that your visit stands out from their other classes and learning material. Seeing someone other than their usual teacher is probably very exciting, but being able to engage with the students beyond the screen is vital.

Here is a simple exercise that I’ve done with students in my virtual creative writing workshops. It’s fairly basic, requires no preparation, and ends in laughter almost every time. I love doing this activity because it’s easy to add on to any sort of presentation, and it gets kids thinking about story in their own creative way. As writers, it could spark some inspiration for your own stories, as well! Try it now and share your experience with us!

Scavenger Stories

  1. Pick three random objects from the room you’re in. As I type this, I am sitting at my desk which also happens to be in my bedroom. For this example, I’ll pick a few things I currently have around me: a candle, a pillow, and a water bottle. With virtual learning, kids could be in all sorts of different rooms, like the kitchen, the living room, or even outside, which can add some variety in the types of objects they choose.
  2. Use the objects to tell a story where the objects are involved. Using the objects I chose earlier, what sort of story could I create? Well, I start by asking “what if” questions: What if the candle was too close to the pillow, and caught it on fire? What if I tried to use the water bottle to douse the flames, but the plastic melted? Encourage the kids to use their objects in creative or conventional ways in their stories.
  3. Now, find a fourth object, and remove one of the first three from the story. How does the story change? If I remove “pillow” and replace it with “Barbie doll,” (which I do currently have in my bedroom—one of the joys of parenting), my story becomes much sillier—especially if I imagine the Barbie doll comes alive Toy Story style and is trying not to get melted.
  4. Share the stories! (If you try this activity out yourself, share it in the comments, on Twitter with @atmorrell@SCBWISOCALLA, and #KTWriteOn, or on SCBWI-L.A.’s Facebook group.)

This is just one of many ways to give young readers a concrete presence in an increasingly digital world. Whichever way you go about your virtual visit, you’ll be making an impression not just on their screen, but in their lives. Making connections is more important now than ever before.

If you need more ideas for virtual visits, I highly recommend the Facebook group “Creating Engaging School Visits,” as well as 826digital.com for more ideas.

If you want to share your own ideas to meet the need for virtual author visits, or if you just want to connect with others working with this in some way, comment on this blog post, post in our Facebook group, or Tweet us  @SCBWISOCALLA with the hashtag #KTWriteOn and be sure to mention Amber (@atmorrelltoo!

To learn more about Amber, visit her online at ambermorrell.com and on Twitter: @atmorrell.

Need more inspiration? Check out all the past #KTWriteOn prompts.

For more fantastic content, community, events, and other professional development opportunities, become a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators today! Not sure if there is a chapter in your area? Check here.

#KTWriteOn Stock image by Dustin Lee on Unsplash

Author photos provided by Amber Morrell. 

Additional photos by Mimi Thian on UnsplashAnnie Spratt on UnsplashERIC ZHU on Unsplash, and Rohit Farmer on Unsplash.  

Manipulated image includes original photos by Thomas Park on Unsplash and Gabriel Benois on Unsplash.