He follows me on Instagram. I don’t think he follows many authors…his photo feed mainly shows hairstyles, football skills and groups-of-lads-being-silly. For this boy, I am a personal connection to book culture.
I love going into schools. I am more or less permanently fourteen years old, so even though I’m a grownup making actual money with lots of letters after my name, I am also inclined to be silly, to be interested in popular culture (ask me about Spiderman or Love Island) and ready to discover something new. I’m as comfortable in a huge auditorium of Year 7s and 8s as I am on a university conference panel – probably more so. I don’t get to take giant cardboard cut-outs of grizzly bears and coyotes when I go to conferences… I do when I go into schools.
Not all authors who write for young people go into schools, but many of us do. I visit about thirty a year – more when I have a new book out.
When I’m in front of that big hall full of young teens, I often talk about reading for pleasure, readily acknowledging to my audience that they’re probably sick of being told to read for pleasure. I use slides of neuropsychology studies to look at how fiction works in our brains, like this one from Emory University in Atlanta, US. I show them how reading is actually a revolutionary, rebellious act, in which they get to change their brains in any way they choose, to become who they want to be… to become more of who they really are.
By the time I’m telling them about the life of a writer and about what I write, we are usually on a bit of a roll. I was a working class kid, I have a disability, I don’t make tons of money – I’m just a normal person. If I can make it in the creative industries, it’s plain that they could, as well.
I reward the first shy questioners with badges and soon everyone has their hands up because they want a badge, too. I answer questions about when I died in a car accident, when I stepped on a grizzly bear’s head, why I write in a shed, how long books take to write, how much money I actually make, how to keep going when your ideas run stale.
Then I sign books. I chat to young people one on one and sign postcards for folks who don’t have the dosh for books. I also donate books to the school library. That said, I feel every book sale is a win – and not for the forty pence I’ll make on the sale. A signed book is often a treasured object in a home and a treasured book can make a difference to how books are viewed in that home.
Then come the workshops. The energy shifts in the smaller groups. We all get quiet and scribble furiously. I’m watching text emerge from the participants, thoughts going onto paper. I’m working to keep the room going, giving ways for them to feel safe to express themselves, stimulating their imaginations, giving them permission to make mistakes, to not write ‘correctly’. When I read their work out in my ‘writer voice’ we all marvel at how good they are. And they are good, workshop group after workshop group.
I ask them to keep in touch, and some do, sometimes for years afterwards. Sometimes they tweet me about their exam results or their first jobs. From the school, I often hear that footfall in the library has dramatically improved, that students who previously didn’t write are writing more, that someone read out in workshop who never normally reads out, that a student has started trying to write a novel. I absolutely love it when any of this is reported back to me.
I go back into my busy life with hundreds of images from the school lodged in my brain; faces, gestures, friendships, enthusiasms, slang, haircuts, amazing insights from librarians and teachers, artwork I’ve seen on the walls. Who knows how much of it will go into a new story? I keep it locked in my head for days, months, years. It feeds my own imagination. I inspire them and they inspire me, and all of us grow in creativity and confidence.
Yes, I went to that boy’s school.
It was brilliant.
For information about how best to organise an author’s visit, here is a link to the Society of Authors’ guide.