Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Guest Post: P.J. Hoover on The Awesomeness of School Visits

By P.J. Hoover
for Cynthia Leitich Smith's Cynsations

OMG an author visit! It’s a huge, exciting time for students, teachers, and the author. We, the authors, are honored to be visiting your school.

Aside from the fact that it gives us an opportunity to get out of the house (and change out of our pajamas), there is nothing better than connecting with our target audience about a subject we love: books.

About the Visit

I like to start my school visits off with a story from Greek mythology. It’s a great way to not only engage the audience right from the beginning, but it provides a nice framework for the entire presentation.

And my story . . . it’s filled with adventure. It’s filled with suspense. It’s short. It’s sweet. And it concludes with a satisfying ending. But disguised underneath it, it talks about the Hero’s Journey.

The hero in the story sets out with one goal in mind. One thing he must accomplish. It’s the thing that drives him forward and keeps him from giving up, even when faced with unspeakable perils.

It’s a lot like life.

With author Cory Putnam Oakes
I’ve learned a ton in the last decade or so, in my transition from electrical engineer to author, much like the hero in my story learns as he travels from one end of his adventure to the other. But the big difference between my hero and me is that he reaches his destination. His perils are left in the past, and he reaches his goal.

My perils? They continue on, day after day after day.

Perils as an author? Sure, I face a ton of them, but lucky for me, everything I’ve learned so far on my hero’s journey has helped me deal with these perils.

It’s made me better, stronger, faster. And I can’t imagine anything more rewarding than being able to share my journey with today’s kids.

School visits are a tricky business. There’s this very fine line that we, as authors, must walk. We need to entertain the kids, to keep them hanging on our every word, while also making the educators in the audience happy. We want the teachers to shake our hand afterward and tell us how they can’t wait to use what we’ve shared in the classroom. And the kids . . . we want them asking for our Instagram usernames so they can follow us and continue the connection.

Because that’s what it all comes down to: the connection.

Take this. I adore playing video games. From the time I got my very first computer (hello, Commodore 64) to my brand new table-top Ms. Pac-Man/Galaga gaming machine (complete with 410 retro arcade games), video games are a great way to relax, spend time with my kids, and—hey, look at that—they’re also a great way to connect with kids during school visits.

I’ll talk about Fallout 4 and Minecraft after the presentation with the kids for hours. But underneath, talking about video games isn’t enough. It needs to relate to books, to writing, and to my hero’ journey. And you know what? It does.


When I was younger, I would have much rather played video games than spent time writing. I didn’t love writing, mostly because I thought it was very subjective and that you were either born a writer or you were not. While some of my author friends spent their youth writing stories, I learned to program in BASIC. I wrote video games on my computer. And I went on to become an electrical engineer.

Now, I love writing, too, and I’ve learned that there is a beautiful cross section between books and the world of technology (including Scratch, Minecraft, and other fun STEM related ideas). It’s this cross section that kids don’t expect. And it’s this cross section that I believe it is important for kids to see.

The same thing goes for "Star Wars." Kids laugh when I tell them that when I was little, I wanted to be a Jedi. You know why? Because they wanted to be Jedis, too. (They probably still do. I do; that’s for sure.) And the thing is that though my dreams of being a Jedi didn’t work out (yet), it’s totally played a part in my life and getting me to where I am today.

The thing about Jedis is that they don’t give up. They don’t walk away from fear. And we, as authors, can’t either.

When I have the kids guess how many rejections I’ve received, they at first say really high numbers because they think it will be funny and get a laugh out of their friends. And then, when I tell them that they’re right, they’re floored.

But, as I tell them, if I don’t face these rejections, day after day, I will never publish another book. It’s a way to show them—yes, show, not tell—that we all face failure. And we all fail. And that’s okay. But it’s what we do after that failure that makes the difference.

If I had to list five (covert) messages I try to get across in school visits, they’d be: 
  1. You don’t have to be born an author to be an author when you grow up. (You can, in fact, be an electrical engineer, just like me.) 
  2. Many things in life are a lot harder to do than you think they’ll be (like, hey, writing a book! I thought it would be easy).
  3. Never give up (even though lots and lots of times you may want to).
  4. Face your fears and do it anyway (this is also a fun time to mention that I’m a third degree black belt in kung fu) And perhaps the most important . . . .
  5. It’s going to be a long journey while you work toward whatever it is you want in life, so you better learn to enjoy it.

Prepare (but don’t stress) about the Visit:

My dream author visit is this. I drive up to the school. My name is on the marquee out front. There is a parking spot reserved for me (and bonus points if it has streamers and balloons). The office staff greets me by name when I walk through the front door, because guess what?

They’ve been expecting me! They know I am coming. They sign me in and have a student escort me to the library. Other students point as I walk to the library and whisper things like, “There’s the author!” or “It’s really her!” I feel kind of like a superstar at this point.

Outside the library is a huge banner with my name. A display of my books sits in a glass case along with fan art created by the students.

Inside the library waits a Starbucks for me (venti Americano, no room). The librarian warmly tells me how the students can’t wait for my visit. She lets me know that every student has read my book.

Things are going great. The technology works without a hitch. There is water. A microphone. Lots and lots of pre-orders.

Like I said, it’s a dream author visit, but we don’t live in this dream world, and I completely realize that this is not always the way author visits go.

As much as I would love every student to have read my book ahead of time, I get that this is not realistic. But there are some simple ways to get the kids excited about an upcoming author visit. Things that can go a long way.

  1. Booktalk the author’s books ahead of time. Display them in the library, print out covers, talk about them during library time. 
  2. Enlist the help of your Language Arts teachers. If budget permits, consider purchasing a copy for each classroom, and encourage them to read a chapter aloud. 
  3. Have students visit the author’s website. For schools hosting me, have the students complete my Author Scavenger Hunt ahead of time. If possible, reward the completion with extra credit. 
  4. Publicize the upcoming author visit during the morning announcements. Announcements are also a great place to remind students about pre-order book deadlines. And finally . . . 
  5. Think about back to the connection. Do you have a kid that can solve the Rubik’s Cube? I’m happy to do a challenge. Someone who can beat box? I’ll rap Alphabet Aerobics. Ask me to sing The Element Song. Challenge me in a kung fu sparring match! (okay, maybe not this, but I do love showing my kung fu video). Whatever it is, make the kids feel like they are a part of it. That this event is special for them.

Continuing the Connection

I admit I got tears in my eye when I read this email I received after an author visit.

“After that talk about your journey to being an author you have inspired me . . . I thought that I couldn't do military, become an engineer, and become a successful author, but now you've changed that. You have shown me that you can do whatever you want as long as you don't give up and keep striving towards your dream.
"My parents always say never give up because you might achieve your goal, but I always thought that was something that parents said because it was a requirement for being a good parent or something. Then I heard about your stories and how you achieved all you goals and dreams using perseverance, patience, and persistence.
"You are one of my heroes and inspirations to chase after my goals . . . You are an inspiration to me showing that nothing is impossible no matter how hard . . . Thank you so much for presenting to us and inspiring me.”

This. This is what it all comes down to.

Everyone should (and can) benefit from an author visit. I want each kid to walk out of there with something. Some little tidbit that they’ll think on, that they will use in their life. I want them to believe that anything is possible. That they can accomplish their dreams and goals, even when those dreams seem impossible.

And most of all, I want them to enjoy their journey in life.

Cynsational Notes

For information on author visits with P. J. Hoover, contact Carmen Oliver at The Booking Biz.

P. J. (Tricia) Hoover wanted to be a Jedi, but when that didn’t work out, she became an electrical engineer instead. After a fifteen year bout designing computer chips for a living, P. J. decided to start creating worlds of her own. She’s the author of Tut: The Story of My Immortal Life and the forthcoming Tut: My Epic Battle to Save the World (Feb. 2017), featuring a fourteen-year-old King Tut who’s stuck in middle school, and Solstice, a super-hot twist on the Hades/Persephone myth.

When not writing, P. J. spends time with her husband and two kids and enjoys practicing kung fu, solving Rubik’s cubes, watching "Star Trek," and playing too many video games.

5 comments:

LinWash said...

Love your school visit strategy, P.J. I'll bet the students enjoyed your visit. You're so right. Making a connection with them is so important.

PJ Hoover said...

Thanks so much, LinWash! They are so fun to connect with, too :)

Rick Starkey said...

Thanks for this. Getting ready for my first school visit as an author. This was great!

PJ Hoover said...

Best of luck, Rick!!!

Kristin Lenz said...

I'm just now seeing this after being out town. Very helpful - especially the 5 (covert) messages. Thank you!

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