Tuesday, 2 September 2014

10 Top Tips for Great Virtual Author Visits

Are you Skyping comfortably? Then I'll begin.

A couple of years ago two school children in North Carolina emailed me to ask if I’d make a Skype visit to their elementary class. The class had read my picture book The Princess and the Pig and wanted to ask me some questions about it. I’d been thinking about offering Skype visits for some time, so I agreed. The visit went really well. I read the book to the children who had prepared some great questions to ask me afterwards. The visit had been very quick and easy to arrange and although I’d only spent half an hour talking to the children it was obvious they'd become very enthusiastic about my books as a result.

Skype author visits are very popular in the US with many US children’s authors offering short virtual visits for free as well as longer visits for a fee. It seemed like a great way to connect with young readers both in the UK and beyond, so in June last year I started offering a limited number of free Skype school visits through my web site.

One of my virtual visits to a school in Wisconsin

I did my twentieth virtual visit last term and already have another five lined up for this autumn. Some of the schools I've visited have not had an author visit of any kind before and every school has been very appreciative. Teachers often follow up with classroom activities and schools have sent me letters, drawings and even an ebook the children created in response to my visit.

Although the technology is in place, virtual visits don’t seem to have caught on in the UK in the way they have in the US and only three of my virtual visits have been to UK schools. I think their popularity in the US is partly due to web sites such as the Skype an Author Network and Kate Messner's “Authors who Skype” web page which lists authors offering free Skype visits to US schools. So in March this year I set up virtualauthors.co.uk a directory of UK authors and illustrators offering free 15-20 minute Skype visits to UK schools.

The Virtual Authors site includes a page of advice for authors and illustrators on how to set up virtual visits, but I thought I’d offer some further advice on this blog. So here are 10 top tips for great virtual author visits.

Arranging the visit

My virtual visits page

1: Set up a web page for your virtual visits

Since I don't charge for my virtual visits, I like to keep the admin time to an absolute minimum and most of my visits are arranged with one or two short emails. The virtual visits page on my web site attempts to answer all the questions that schools might want to ask such as ‘how long does a visit last?’ or ‘is there a minimum group size?’. There’s also a booking table showing which dates are currently available. If this information wasn’t on the site I’d have to spend time responding to these questions by email. Similarly, you can ask schools to email you their visit requests, but a visit request web form with ‘required’ fields is a good way to ensure that schools provide you with all the information you need in one go.

2. Confirm the school’s Skype-name in advance

One of details you need to get from the school is their Skype-name. Teachers sometimes get this wrong, so it’s worth making sure you have the correct Skypename by sending a “contact request” via Skype in advance of the visit. I usually do this as soon as I receive the booking request to get it out the way. Ask the school (via email) to make sure that they accept the contact request and then check that they've done so a couple of days before the visit. This eliminates any problems with making contact on the day.

Five minutes before the visit

3. Make sure you'll be presentable and in frame

On a real school visit, if you have spinach in your teeth or your flies are unzipped, someone will probably point this out to you before you appear in front of a room full of children. The first time anyone will see you on a virtual visit is when you appear on the screen, so take a quick look in the mirror to check that your hair’s not sticking up at an outrageous angle or make sure you haven’t got toothpaste smeared across your chin – unless that’s the look you’re going for!

You might also want to check that your webcam is angled so that the children can see your whole face and not just the top or bottom of your head! You can check how you'll appear on your webcam by using the preview window in Skype's preferences. On a Mac, click on Skype on the menu bar, then Preferences > Audio/Visual. On a PC, click Call > Video > Video Settings.

Don't look like you've just crawled out of bed and check that your face is well-framed.

4: Be seen in the right light

You don’t want the children to see you as a sinister silhouette, so make sure your face is adequately lit when you’re on camera. If you're Skyping during daylight hours, dalight from a window will often provide the best lighting. If you’re using a Mac or a PC with a large screen to Skype, bear in mind that the screen itself is a light source. If the desktop on your computer is bright green and there’s not much light coming from your surroundings, your face may be bathed in sickly green light. This might be perfect if you’re reading a horror story, but if you're not then a neutral-coloured desktop (or a blank white document) behind your Skype window will illuminate your features without a colour cast.

Unless you're deliberately going for sinister, make sure you're seen in a good light.

5. Take the phone off the hook

You don’t want anything distracting you while you talk to the children, so five minutes before the visit take your landline off the hook and switch your mobile to silent. You might also consider quitting or turning off any alert sounds for your email and Twitter accounts.

Eliminate any distractions before you Skype

6. Know who you're talking to

Even though it’s a virtual visit, you want it to feel as personal as possible. So if like me you’re not very good at remembering names, write the name of the teacher, the class or year group, the school and the school’s location on a small piece of paper and stick it right next to the camera where you’ll be able to read it without looking away from the screen.

Some tips on how to set up your screen

During the visit

7. Look at the camera – not the screen

One of the things that can make Skype conversations feel less real than face to face conversations is a lack of eye contact. Skype users tend to look at the other person’s face on the screen rather than straight into the camera. Most authors will be using a webcam that’s built in to their laptop or desktop PC. It’s tempting to make the Skype window full screen so that you get a bigger image of the children, but if you have a large screen it’s worth keeping the Skype window relatively small and right next to the camera (see screen photo above). That way you can see the the whole class while keeping your eyes close to the camera, which will look a lot more natural from the children’s point of view. When I’m reading a picture book, I try to look straight into the camera for most of the time so that the children will feel I am reading directly to them.

Try to look straight at the camera when you're speaking to the children

8. Don’t shout

Try to speak at a natural volume. If you find yourself shouting without meaning to, it may be because you have the speaker volume set too low on your computer; the children sound quiet so you subconsciously raise your own voice to compensate for the apparent poor connection. Similarly if you’re Skyping to a large hall full of children there’s no need to raise your voice so that they can hear you at the back (as you'd do if you were there in person). If your audience can’t hear you, the teacher can turn up the volume at the school's end.

9. Ask the teacher to prompt the children's questions

My Skype sessions usually include a question and answer session. On my actual school visits I can select which children ask questions by pointing at them myself. This isn’t practical on a virtual visit as the class can’t accurately judge who you’re pointing at from your screen image. An easy way around this problem is to ask a teacher to pick and prompt each questioner in turn.

10: Take advantage of being at home

A virtual visit is no substitute for a real school visit, but speaking to the children from home does have some advantages. For instance, if you’re able to move your camera around, you can give the children a guided tour of your office. I only take a small selection of my books on my actual school visits, but on a virtual visit I have them all at hand. So If a child asks me about the first book I ever wrote or my favourite picture book by another author, I can take a copy from my bookshelf and show it to them!

Show don't tell!

I hope this post has made some of you – authors and teachers – want to give virtual school visits a try. If you're already an experienced virtual visitor and have any tips of your own, I’d love to hear them, so please post them in the comments below!

And If you’re a traditionally published author or illustrator that would like to be listed on virtualauthors.co.uk, please fill out the form on this page. Most of the authors that are currently listed on the site write for older children, so it would be great to have a few more picture book authors and illustrators.

Find out more about Jonathan Emmett and his books at his Scribble Street web site or his blog.
You can also follow Jonathan on twitter @scribblestreet.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

M-O-T-O-R-C-Y-C-L-E: Thoughts on SOUND Effects in Picture Books by Laura Sassi (Guest Blog)

What's the noise of a motorcycle?!
A few years ago, my husband and I were eating a lovely supper with our son, age three, when one of us, who shall remain nameless, passed some extremely audible gas. Before anyone had a chance to be mortified, my son squealed with delight: “M-O-T-O-R-C-Y-C-L-E!” I share this because it’s a perfect example of the magical effect sounds have on young readers. They’re so mesmerized by sounds that, even when sounds aren’t emitted naturally (as above), they create their own. Eavesdrop on any small child playing and quite often you’ll hear the putt-putt of imaginary cars, the whoosh of imaginary jets, or the tippa-tap of invisible fairy wands.

As writers for the very young, we can enhance our stories by tapping into this intrinsic love and infusing our texts with sound words. Technically called 'onomatopoeia', sound words can add richness to any writing, but especially to picture books. Indeed, one of my intentions in writing my debut picture book, GOODNIGHT, ARK was to infuse it with as many ear-pleasing sound words as possible. Thus the hail in my story goes pop pop and ping ping and the lightning flashes with a zip and a zing. The wind goes whoosh and the sheep baah as they dash into Noah’s bed.

Goodnight, Ark by Laura Sassi, illustrated by Jane Chapman,Zonderkidz (2014)
I’m so keen for sound words that when no perfect translation exists, I come up with my own. Here are some examples of ear-pleasing phrases I’ve concocted to capture special moments. See if you can guess what they are. Answers at end of post. NO PEEKING!:

A. Vroom! Pt! Ptta! Clack!

B. Flump-flump! Flurp-flurp!

C. Sloggle, sloggle…

Here's another idea for sounds. Are you a collector? You know, the sort who collects shells, or bottle caps, or little toy cars (as my son used to)? Yes? Then perhaps you’d like to join me in a challenge. This week, with ear-pleasing wordplay in mind, I plan to collect sounds as I go about my day and then translate them into creative sound words for possible use in a future picture book or poem. I’ll be collecting my words in my writing journal, but any repository will do.

Need a little inspiration to get you started? Here are two great examples of picture books in which the authors splendidly incorporate sound words, often made up, to add hilarity to the text.

Please Say Please!  (Penguin's Guide to Manners)
by Margery Cuyler, illus by Will  Hillenbrand
In PLEASE SAY PLEASE! (Scholastic, 2004), author Margery Cuyler does a splendid job of infusing fun sound words into her story about a little penguin who invites his friends to dinner. Each spread depicts a humorously horrendous manner, with the more polite, preferred alternative depicted on the page turn. This book was one of my daughter’s favourites when she was little and includes sound words such as hee-hee, splat, and wheee. My daughter’s absolute favourite bit, however, involves a hearty bur-r-r-r-r-r-r-p!

Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!
by Candace Fleming, illus by G. Brian Karas
Candace Fleming’s MUNCHA! MUNCHA! MUNCHA! (Atheneum/Schwartz, 2002) about three persistent rabbits trying to get into Mr McGreeley’s garden is also rich in onomatopoeia. As the story builds, Mr McGreeley takes ever more drastic measures to keep the rabbits out. Each time the rabbits outwit him, Fleming humorously celebrates their triumph with a repeating, sound-pleasing, growing refrain that begins 'Tippy-tippy -tippy, Pat!' and ends with 'Muncha! Muncha! Muncha!' In between, she adds sound words that reflect their success in overcoming the latest rabbit-thwarting barrier created by Mr McGreeley. For example, after Mr McGreeley installs a wire fence around his garden to keep out the rabbits, Fleming adds a 'Spring-hurdle, Dash! Dash! Dash!' to the interior of the refrain. Later, when Mr McGreeley builds a moat, Fleming adds a 'Dive-paddle, Splash! Splash! Splash!'

Happy sound hunting and word building all!
Laura Sassi

Answers to Onomotopoeia Challenge:
A. The sound of our vacuum cleaner picking little toy bits.
B. The sound of a little wingless chick trying to fly.
C. The slurpy sound little paws make when trying to trudge through a muddy puddle.

Guest Blogger, Laura Sassi, has a passion for playing with words. Her picture book, GOODNIGHT, ARK, is a whimsical rhymer about bedtime on Noah’s Ark, published by Zonderkidz, a HarperCollins Company, and illustrated by Jane Chapman.

blog: http://laurasassitales.wordpress.com/
Twitter: @LauraSassiTales
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/LauraSassiTales
Blog Tour: http://laurasassitales.wordpress.com/2014/08/25/goodnight-ark-were-going-on-tour/

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Freelance Life - part two - The Downside - And how to handle it

For any aspiring Picture Book writers and Artists, it might help in your struggle to know that there are many wonderful positives involved in being a successful freelance writer and/or illustrator. The affirmation and adulation ;-)  (Well, not quite adulation but people saying nice things about what you do anyway). The satisfaction in knowing that you are making a half decent living doing the thing you are good at and love doing. The warm glow that comes with knowing that children all over the world have made your work part of their bedtime ritual, at least for a while. That kind of thing.

But if I may inject a word of caution, while enveloped in this happy haze it is easy to forget that the freelance writer's and illustrator's life has it's downside, and that coming up sharp against it can be a bit of shock.

You expect some tribulation on the way up as it were, but once a certain level of success has been achieved, you would be forgiven for feeling that once you have finally 'arrived', and the public like what you produce, this state of affairs is now set in stone and will continue ad nauseum. . . All you have to do is just keep it coming and all will be Hunky Dory.

Yeah right.
Bubble bursting time ;-)

Sticking with David Bowie for the sake of a bad joke, you may find things drifting away from Fame and starts heading towards Low. . .

Confidence is a fragile thing. Not so much self confidence, speaking personally anyway. I always assume, rightly or wrongly, that I will be able to come up with the goods, but confidence that what you produce will be what anybody actually wants is a fragile thing. I always say that an artist's best attitude, psychologically, towards the opinions of other's and towards possible rejection, is to assume that everybody else is wrong. "The fools don't understand my art!" kind of thing. This sounds arrogant and possibly delusional, but it keeps your self belief intact.

The alternative position - vis - "Oh God, I must be totally crap!" isn't useful in any way. It's not going to help you persevere with your endeavors. And you need to persevere. It's bloody hard. Strong self belief helps, justified or not.

The more alert amongst you might have detected a personal note in all this speculation about rejection and downsides. Well done ;-) yes, I am in the middle of what can be called 'A fallow period". Ideas rejected right left and centre, inspiration at an all time low. All that stuff. Not much fun.

For those who have never been there, you need to be aware that it is all too easy to get into a bit of a downward spiral. It's all connected you see, rejection hits confidence, saps morale and engenders negative thoughts like, "If nobody likes what I think up, why should I bother?", and "Why should I send this idea in? It'll only get rejected." This is never going to help the creative process or help shore up the reserves of positivity you will need to draw on. When there is more pressure on a new idea being 'right' because a lot hangs on it getting accepted, being relaxed and funny, the way you need to be to do what you do, requires superhuman acting skills. At the time when it is most important for you to produce good stuff, you can't. Things start to feel forced. The very thing that makes you stand apart from others in your field, becomes suspect in your mind. Ideas become safer, less 'you' because the 'you' in what you do is now under critical examination and you start to feel that it may be the thing that is causing your ideas to fail. The rug is being pulled from under your feet, but by slow degrees. And in strange way, it's you that's doing the pulling. . .

So what do you do about it? You carry on. You work through it. You analyze, and adapt if you feel it is needed. You draw on your inner strength and your faith in your own abilities, that's what.

You have to believe that it is just a passing phase, and that things will come together in due course. Though like most things, this is easier said than done.

Remember, you are in it for the long haul, and that time will take its toll. The low level anxiety and uncertainty of many years of freelancing can engender an unwelcome and unhelpful weariness sometimes. . .

But forewarned is forearmed. This kind of emotional attrition is part of the deal. If you want the good, (and the good can be very good) you have to accept the bad ;-)

But enough whingeing! Styles do go out of fashion. Editors want to create their own lists of artists and writers and not keep using the old guard ad nauseum. Of course they do and of course they should. It's the way the World works.

For my part, I comfort myself with the thought that emotional connection with your audience doesn't go out of fashion, neither does humour nor using animals as protagonists. I probably need to take some time out to draw breath and reconnect with the reason I wanted to write and draw in the first place, then return, refreshed and full of killer ideas. Ho yes.

The funny thing is, that despite the angst ridden wallowing detailed above, the second you get an idea accepted you snap out of it like it never happened. . .

Chin Up ;-)

Monday, 18 August 2014

Do Hardback Children's Picture Books Lack Something? by Paeony Lewis

This blog is all about endpapers in hardback children's picture books (though you might not guess this from the first part of the blog!).

I wonder if others are like me. If  I'm going to pay almost twice the price for a hardback, compared to a paperback, then I want something more than a durable cover and sturdy spine. I think many hardback children's picture books lack what I call ‘gorgeousness’. At home, I have an eclectic collection of books, and the old illustrated books often include an elusive 'gorgeousness' that makes me want to murmur, ‘my precious’. Before I look at contemporary hardback editions of children's picture books, here are some of my old books (for all ages) that include 'gorgeous' extras:

Who can resist the spines of these Victorian fairy tales on my book shelf?
And the gilt/foil-blocked covers too

I’ve always adored tissue paper.
It’s as though I’m unveiling a secret.

Maps want to be copied. (and scrawled on - I was young)
18th-century marbled endpapers want to be caressed.

Simple, attractive endpapers also add to a book, such as these by H M Brock

With the growth of digital media (ebooks, picture book apps, and who knows what amazingness is around the corner), I feel 'gorgeousness' is something that publishers should capitalise on if they want us to continue buying hard copies of good books - especially hardback children's picture books. I want more!

I’d better say quickly that I’m not suggesting more book jackets. They’re an utter pain. Is it logical to put flimsy jackets on children's picture books? They just get damaged by small hands (and mouths and feet and the dog and hamster) because books are meant to be read. Mind you, an embossed cover hiding beneath a book jacket can be a lovely surprise. Even so, please forget the book jackets, or am I alone in this?

Why, oh why, are there book jackets on hardback children's picture books?

A lovely embossed/impressed cover hiding beneath the fragile jacket

So nowadays, assuming a brilliant story and captivating illustration, what adds precious gorgeousness to hardback children's picture books? Of course we want quality paper, good colour reproduction and a binding that won’t fall apart. On top of these essentials there are optional attributes such as spot varnish, embossmen, restrained foil blocking (never glitter!), or simple and stylish contemporary design. Whatever is used, I think one thing is definitely necessary: LOVELY ENDPAPERS!

NOT boring plain endpapers, or standard publisher publicity images, what I adore are illustrated endpapers. And for those not sure what I'm ranting about, endpapers (or endpages/endleaves) are double pages with one side stuck to the inside of the front or back of hardback books. They help hold the binding together and for a little more explanation I've just discovered this blog link that includes a diagram.

I’m really pleased that all my picture books have illustrated endpapers (thank you, publishers and illustrators). But there are still lovely picture books out there that only have plain endpapers, which add nothing to the experience of holding and reading a book. I won’t name publishers or books! Instead I’m going to guilt them by showing some examples of contemporary endpaper gorgeousness. I don't claim these are the best examples of endpapers, but they can all be found on my book shelves.

No More Biscuits by Paeony Lewis, illus Brita Granstrom, (The Chicken House). I've found children enjoy looking at these endpages and pointing out their favourite biscuits.Mine are the jam sandwiches!
No More Yawning by Paeony Lewis, Illus by Brita Granstrom, (The Chicken House 2008). The childlike images on the endpages encourage children to draw their own dreams.
Endpages don't have to be elaborate. These two are cute and simple and vary slightly between the front and back of I'll Always Love You by Paeony Lewis, illus by Penny Ives, (Little Tiger Press)

Some endpages are purely decorative and reflect the style of illustration in the book.
The Dawn Chorus by Suzanne Barton (Bloomsbury 2014)
The feather-like bark of trees at night appears throughout the book and  is echoed on the endpages of  Owl Babies by Martin Waddell, illus by Patrick Benson (Walker Books)
This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen (Walker Books 2012). The attractive seaweed endpapers may look like the illustrations inside  the book, but of course they're not precisely the same because that would be 'cheating'! 
Endpapers at the front and  back can reflect the beginning and end of the story.
As seen here in  Dinosaur Games by David Bedford, illus by Dankerleroux (Macmillan 2011)
The endpapers in Best Friends or Not? by Paeony Lewis, illus by Gaby Hansen (Piccadilly Press 2008) also reflect the story arc by showing the bears apart and then together at the end (friends again)

Whilst some endpapers contain tiny images that are fun to study. Here are lots of pepperpots from A Pipkin of Pepper by Helen Cooper (DoubleDay 2004)

And items from the antique store in Grandpa for Sale by Dotti Enderle and Vicki Sansum, illus by T Kyle Gentry (Flashlight 2007)

And here is a single lone image of a large city from Maude The Not-So-Noticeable  Shrimpton by Lauren Child, illus by Trisha Krauss (Puffin 2012)
These endpapers are an unusual delight. They contain the names of all the children who inspired  Quentin Blake to write and illustrate Un Bateau dans le Ciel (Rue du monde 2000) / Sailing Boat in the Sky (Red Fox 2003)

Here's a close up of the names. 

This Moose Belongs to Me by Oliver Jeffers (Harper Collins 2012) 
Have I persuaded some of you that illustrated endpapers add to a picture book? But what do illustrators think? I presume you’re not paid any extra to produce endpapers? If you’re given the opportunity to incorporate endpapers, do you relish it or sigh? Was the simplicity of the endpapers in that wonderful book This Moose Belongs to Me (Oliver Jeffers)  a conscious design decision or a ‘let’s do something quickly’ decision? Personally I think it was a design decision, and a good one. Endpapers don't have to be elaborate, though I feel they should reflect the book and not be blank unless this fits best with the rest of the design and isn't just a money-saving exercise.

You might mutter that because I write books I therefore notice things like endpapers, whilst the average book buyer or child doesn’t care. Maybe, though long ago, when I hadn’t thought about writing for children, I used to share the endpapers of Farmer Duck with my children. We would compare the seasons between the front and back images. They were an integral part of the book and reflected the social change on the farm. They added something extra.

Farmer Duck by Martin Waddell, illus by Helen Oxenbury (Walker Books)
With my children we'd study the differences between the seasons.

Sadly, the inside covers of paperback picture books are usually blank and white as they’re constructed differently. Even so, if a hardback version has endpapers then the paperback edition often includes additional pages that reproduce the endpapers, so they can still be enjoyed, albeit sometimes they're truncated.

Unfortunately, because of page number constraints in paperback editions, sometimes the original hardback endpapers don’t survive. This might be a story-length  issue, or it might be something I really loathe in paperbacks: advertisements. I think that replacing the original rear endpaper with an advertisement for other books looks cheap and nasty. Does anyone else agree? Or do I need to get real to the financial and marketing implications? Mind you, has anyone ever purchased a book because they’d seen it advertised in the back of a children’s picture book (now you’re all going to say ‘yes’!). I’ll admit I look at books listed in the back of novels, but not in the back of picture books.

I wonder what others think of my plea for gorgeousness. Do you rarely buy hardbacks? Would you buy more hardbacks if they weren’t just sturdy versions of paperbacks?  In particular, do illustrated endpapers add enough gorgeousness to encourage potential buyers? Does it matter? Is it just adults and not children who care? Am I merely a book snob and asking too much of publishers, illustrators and book buyers?

Paeony Lewis