04 Jan

“My teachers thought it was an amazing use of time!” and other feedback on my school visits

From my first author visit of 2019-20, at an elementary school in Dripping Springs, Texas

As a human who would love to occasionally experience an interaction with my fellow humans without receiving an emailed survey afterwards, I have mixed feelings (to say the least) about sending out surveys of my own after school visits.

But I do send them. Every month, I have a survey company email all my recent host librarians to ask for their feedback — not just on my performance, but also on communication, logistical support, etc.

I know that nothing is stopping librarians from reaching out directly to me with feedback after my visits. But I have much more to gain from receiving that feedback than librarians have from providing it, and I see requesting it as just good business for visiting authors and illustrators.

I figure, there’s a difference between the office supply place asking about my experience buying a $20 package of padded mailers and me asking how one of my hosts felt about a much larger investment of a school’s time and resources.

When I receive constructive feedback from my hosts, I reflect on what they tell me and how it ties into feedback I’ve received previously, and I consider how I could do better at future visits.

That sort of response is even more valuable than the warm, fuzzy feeling that I get from a host librarian’s praise, because it can lead to a concrete way to improve at what I do.

Still, I do really, really, really like it when I hear that I hit the mark, and I recently began routinely asking those I survey for their permission to share their anonymous feedback in places like this post.

A few examples that made my heart sing:

He was very engaging. I liked that he talked about never giving up.

Chris took special care to really interact with the students.

The communication was easy and stress-free.

Kids were excited to meet him in person.

Chris was very clear as to what he needed to make the visit run smoothly.

I loved the way both the writing process and the love of books were emphasized.

My teachers thought it was an amazing use of time!

My students loved it and are all dying to read every book.

My administration said she heard great things and was pleased.

I always received immediate responses and the pre-planning was great!

Loved the discussion about how each child has a talent to develop.

The students loved hearing him read his own book.

All of which is to say that, in the end, I’m glad I ask for that feedback from my customers. I appreciate their honesty, and it gets me past any reluctance I might feel about sending out surveys.

I still delete the vast majority of the surveys I receive, though, because who has time for that? But in case anyone from Office Depot asks, those padded mailers are working out just fine.

31 Oct

What do you do with a Bluebonnet book like that?

You celebrate it!

It was a thrill to be in the audience in Austin last Saturday at the Texas Book Festival for the announcement of the Texas Bluebonnet Award Master List books for the 2020-21 school year:

I try to attend the announcement every year, but it was especially exciting this time because among the 20 titles on next year’s list is my picture book biography What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (Beach Lane Books/Simon & Schuster), illustrated by Ekua Holmes.

Ekua Holmes and me in Austin, the day before the announcement

As a native Texan long residing here in our capital city, I am beyond delighted that this biography of an inspiring hero from my home state will reach so many readers participating in the Texas Bluebonnet Award program during the next school year.

I think the world of this program, and I am honored and immensely grateful that the selection committee chose to include What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? Among students and classes that invest their time in voting for their favorite Bluebonnet books, the excitement — not only for those titles, but for reading, writing, and literacy in general, all of which contributes to greater academic achievement — is palpable, and I’m so proud to again be a part of that.

From my two previous stints on the list (both times with books illustrated by my friend Don Tate), I know that having a Bluebonnet author or illustrator visit a school is a powerful way to generate student enthusiasm and drive participation. And I appreciate the fact that my being based in Austin means lower travel costs for my hosts here in the Lone Star State.

While I do still have some author-visit dates available in winter/spring 2020, I am already beginning to actively schedule visits to Texas schools for September 2020 and beyond.

With two new picture books next year — All of a Sudden and Forever: Help and Healing After the Oklahoma City Bombing and Fire Truck vs. Dragon (a companion to Shark vs. Train) — along with my third appearance on the Bluebonnet list, there will be lots for students and me to talk about.

If you’d like me to visit your school, or if you have a friend or colleague looking for an author to host, I’m more than happy to start having that conversation. Here’s a good place to start.

27 Aug

Knowing where I’m going, and who was there before

I’ve added a new step to the planning I do for my school visits and appearances at conferences and festivals: using the map tool from Native Land Digital to learn about the Indigenous histories of the places I go and current information about the nations represented.

So, for instance, over the summer I appeared at a university whose history, according to Native Land Digital, included Massawomeck and Manahoac people. My first visit in 2019-20 will be at a school where the history comes up as Tonkawa and Comanche.

Again, my goal is to learn this for every school I visit, every conference site, every festival location. I’m going to learn a lot.

15 Mar

My first-ever New York State school-visit trip

I did my first New York State school visits last week, outside Rochester, so the first thing I needed to do was head northeast. Here’s what that looked like:

All week long, I saw terrific examples of the preparation and investment of time and energy on the part of these schools — from kindergartners to administrators — as they made the most of the opportunity to have an author visit and talk with their students. The most evident sign was in the artwork I saw throughout the schools:

Also: It was supercold last week, at least by my Central Texas standards. We’re talking 10 degrees Fahrenheit at some points, and not all that much warmer until my last afternoon, when it got all the way up to 34. And the skies were blue, and I had some free time before catching my flight home.

My dilemma: Do I seek out the local Rochester delicacy known as the “garbage plate,” or do I commune a little with nature and history?


Yep. I opted for a walk through the Mount Hope Cemetery. I’ll just have to return to Rochester for that garbage plate.

24 Jan

A great day with My Favorite Author in the Whole Wide World

Yesterday was pretty terrific, because I got to spend it visiting schools with my wife — and, as it happens, My Favorite Author in the Whole Wide World — Jennifer Ziegler.

Even better, we were not presenting at the same time, so Jennifer and I got to watch each other at work. This was such a treat for me, y’all, because she is so good at what she does. Jennifer has a great rapport with kids —

— and is generous as can be about sharing her writing advice, messy/marked-up drafts, and egregious typos.

We spent the day at schools in the Houston area. “These are some of my books,” Jennifer told her audience. “They are all set in Texas, because when I was growing up, all the books I read were set in New York for some reason.”

Then she told them about the time a New York copyeditor marked on a manuscript, “Tacos are not a breakfast food.”

This being Texas, where breakfast tacos are indeed a thing, 500 sixth-graders gasped.

But, she assured them, she stood up for breakfast tacos, and that’s what the Brewster Triplets ate in Revenge of the Angels.

At that point, a cafeteria full of sixth-graders cheered for Jennifer Ziegler. And for breakfast tacos.

Just to prove that I did indeed do a presentation of my own, here are a few photos of me discussing my What Do You Do with a Voice Like That? The Story of Extraordinary Congresswoman Barbara Jordan.

But I like the pictures of Jennifer better — I could watch her talk to students all day, and I highly recommend that you give it a try.

08 Jan

“How do you get the information for all your nonfiction books?”

At a recent school visit, a student asked about my research process for my nonfiction books such as Whoosh! and Dazzle Ships: Where do I get all that information from?

There’s a lot to say about that, but here’s how I often get started.