Guest Blogger Teena Raffa-Mulligan writes books for children. While some authors cringe at the idea of going into schools and facing their fans en masse, Teena thoroughly enjoys school visits. She tells you why she likes talking to kids so much, and shares 5 tips on preparing for your visit.
Some people cringe at the thought of talking to a group of kids about writing. I’m not one of them. And that came as a surprise when I started out because I’m a mouse of the first order. I can’t pick up a phone and call a publisher directly, hiding instead behind the written word. As for self-promotion, that doesn’t come naturally. I’d rather my work sell itself on its merits. To make matters worse, I blush furiously when embarrassed. So how did someone who wanted to spotlight her work rather than herself come to find it fun to take centre stage and talk about books and writing?
It all began in 1981 when my first picture book was published and I was famous for about five minutes because of its stranger danger topic. You Don’t Know Me?, my tale about an elephant lad who isn’t sure if he should accept a lift from a tiger who says he’s a family friend, was endorsed by the WA premier, police and education departments of the day. Schools around the country picked it up and that led to an invitation from the local primary school to talk to kids about how I became a writer. It was nerve-wracking to front up to that first audience of eager youngsters. And the principal had brought the whole school together for my talk: hundreds of kids in one area, waiting to hear what I had to say. Did I mention I shake badly when nervous?
But something happened the minute I started to talk. These kids were interested in my story, and far from being a terrible experience my first guest author session left me feeling exhilarated and inspired. More invitations followed and I now rate school visits one of the best things about being a children’s author.
Over the years I’ve found out what works for me. I don’t do Power Point presentations — yet. Preparing a few is still on my to-do list. Instead, I have a wheelie case that is always packed ready to go and I take lots to show and tell: my books, some magazines featuring my poems and stories, story drafts at various stages of development, a publisher’s proof copy, a rejection letter, my first ‘novel’ written at age 14 in an exercise book.
The focus is on interaction, so I walk around a lot and ask questions such as where writers might get their ideas, what would happen if we did nothing about them, what we can do to make sure those ideas develop into stories. The kids get plenty of opportunity to ask their own questions about writing and my life as an author. Sometimes they surprise me, such as the child who wanted to know if I was JK Rowling and the little girl who asked if she could hug me.
My aim is to excite kids about books and writing, inspire them to believe they can write if they want to and encourage them to have a go. My picture book Grandpa Goes to Mars, long out of print, is a perfect example because it’s about not giving up on your dream. I also show kids the earliest draft of my picture book Big Nanna, Little Nanna, which is roughly scrawled in longhand in a notebook that is falling apart, so they can see my writing process is no different from theirs. My message is: if I can do it, you can too.
When I speak to children in the pre-school to Year 3 age group I dress up as Madame Amazia, the gypsy from my chapter book Getting Rid of Wrinkles. I deck myself out in a long swirly skirt, beaded waistcoat, floating scarves and coin belts from my belly dance phase that jingle jangle as I walk. This instantly catches their attention and gives me the chance to get across the idea that while I’m writing my stories I can be anyone, do anything and go anywhere in my imagination. If I find attention is flagging during a session I have a couple of activities that I launch into…you have to think on your feet and ‘read’ your audience, particularly when they’re children. For workshops I have my ‘box of tricks’, which includes a selection of interesting objects, pictures, fabrics and one-line story openers and closers to trigger ideas for students to produce a short piece of writing.
Talking to kids is great fun. They make wonderful audiences because they are generally enthusiastic and interested. But I’m very conscious that the young people I’m talking to these days are growing up with everyday access to communications technology that was beyond my imagination as a child. That got me thinking…why not set up a website specially for kids that was based around my author presentations. It would give kids background information about me and my books, but more importantly offer writing tips and activities and the chance to have their writing questions answered. I’d already set up a free website through Weebly.com to share my late father’s spiritual writing and that hadn’t been too difficult. So I set up http://teenawriter.weebly.com and started to load information drawn directly from the sessions I present to school groups.
My whole aim was to make the site friendly and fun. Weebly offers all sorts of options when creating your site, including loading video clips, and it’s a ‘drop and drag’ system so it’s easy. I’d been seeing quite a few book promos on line and thought they were a great idea. One of my fellow authors had mentioned a site called Animoto.com so I used it to create a simple clip featuring all my book covers and was happy with the result. Again, it’s really easy to use and there’s a great choice of themes and music. I’m now creating promos for three of my books. This time I’m using Windows Movie Maker so I can customise them and that’s proving a whole new learning experience. As soon as they’re complete, I’ll upload them to my site, which has been online since May but is still a work in progress. I expect it always will be. Further down the track I plan to record some short talks about various aspects of writing but my present focus is on letting schools know about my teenawriter website so their students can visit and I can get some interaction happening.
School talk tips
- Be yourself. Not everyone is a performer. Kids will know immediately if you’re trying to be something you’re not. Tell jokes and do tricks as part of your presentation if that’s your style. Otherwise, share your story simply and honestly.
- Be prepared. What do you need to do to feel comfortable about giving your talk? If you’re a planner, draw up an outline of your talk and the topics you’ll cover. Practise at home and take along a small card on the day with headings to jog your memory or prepare a PowerPoint presentation. I plan my talks mentally during the drive to the venue but I’ve been doing them for a long time. I start by asking the kids a question such as “Where do stories come from?” or “Where do you think writers get their ideas for stories?” and take it from there.
- Take along samples of early drafts as well as your published books. Kids need to know that writing is a process and writers don’t instantly produce word perfect stories like magic.
- Specify the preferred age group and size of your audience. Sessions for one or two classes of similar age work best for me. A whole-school group of students ranging from pre-schoolers to Year 7s in an assembly area is an entirely different story.
- Be clear about the school’s expectations — and yours. Do they want to offer the kids an insight into the writer’s life? Practical writing advice they can use when producing their own stories? A combination of both? From your perspective, you need an appropriate space for your talk and shouldn’t be expected to discipline inattentive children. Ideally the experience will be enjoyable for everyone involved.
Above all – have fun!
About Teena Raffa-Mulligan
Teena Raffa-Mulligan is the author of eight children’s books, and many of her short stories and poems for children and adults have appeared in magazines and anthologies.
When her first picture book – a stranger danger story called You Don’t Know Me? A Cautionary Tale for Children – was released in 1981 it was endorsed by the State education and police departments and used widely in schools around the country. A 21st century version of the story is now available.
Her first full-length children’s novel – a quirky tale about a kid who sells his dad – was released in 2010. She has completed a second and is working on a third.
Teena shares her enthusiasm for writing by presenting talks, workshops and creative writing sessions at schools, libraries and community centres.