"Today, children, we have a very special guest...."

With those words, I'm introduced each year to some 10,000 students at 50 schools across the country. Because I write and illustrate children's books, I have the good fortune to be invited to visit schools and to share my books with students and teachers. Many times, the school's PTO foots the bill for my speaking fee and expenses and I get to see first-hand how hard the parents, teachers and students work to raise money. Everyone's enthusiasm and generosity always amaze me, and I'm humbled when they choose to spend a portion of that hard-earned money on my visit.

What confounds me, however, is how often PTOs and schools drop the ball when it comes to author visits. Knowing how hard everyone has worked to raise the money, I'm saddened when the schools fail to get an appropriate "bang for their buck." The stories would amaze you. I've arrived at schools where the students and teachers didn't know who I was or why I was there. I've begun my presentation and learned that students had not been shown any of my books. These groups would be getting a much better return on their investment if they had only prepared for my visit ahead of time.

On the other hand, I visit schools where I am welcomed by the principal and the PTO president upon my arrival. The students at these schools are familiar with my books, have created wall-size reproductions of some of my illustrations and have written and illustrated books of their own. There has been a buildup of enthusiasm that culminates in my visit. Following my presentation at these schools, there's a large stack of my books that are available for sale and autographing. Local media representatives are there to ask me about my school visit and how I enjoy working with the children and teachers. These schools have squeezed all the value they can out of their significant investment.

I've talked with other authors and illustrators and many of them have similar stories. With this in mind, I'd like to offer a few suggestions for PTOs and schools to consider when planning an author visit:

  1. Put it in Writing
    After you contact the author about visiting your school, write a letter confirming the details. It doesn't have to be a legal contract. A simple letter on school or PTO letterhead will suffice. Make it clear what you and the author are agreeing to. Clearly state the date and time of the visit, what fees and/or expenses will be paid, if you want the author to autograph books, etc.
  2. Build enthusiasm
    Work closely with your school's teachers and librarians to build some excitement for the visit. If you do, it will make the author's visit much more meaningful for your students. Have the author's books displayed in the library. Encourage teachers to read portions of the author's books to their students. If the author will be speaking to your PTO group during his or her visit, send out a notice to the parents and encourage them to attend. Advise the local media. Most authors are happy to do interviews, and it's great publicity for your school.
  3. Double-check the AV equipment ahead of time
    If you're providing audio/visual equipment for author, make sure overhead projectors, slide projectors, microphones, etc. are in good working order. Have back-ups available just in case something goes wrong. This is especially important if the author is also an illustrator who plans to show slides of his or her work.
  4. Remember that authors are human
    There's a limit to how long an author can maintain a bubbly personality. I've had groups ask me to meet with the faculty for breakfast, conduct two morning presentations at the school, eat lunch in the cafeteria, sign books after lunch, conduct two more afternoon presentations and then go out to dinner in the evening with the PTO officers. That's too much. Build in a little time during the day for the author to "recharge" his or her batteries. Find out if he or she would prefer to eat alone and/or away from the school.
  5. Sell books.
    The number of schools that invite me to talk about my books and then fail to offer my books for sale following my presentations always amazes me. This is a fund-raising opportunity lost. Many publishers will allow your PTO/school to order books at up to a 40% discount as part of an author visit. If your school sells 100 books at $12.00 each and gets 40% of that amount, you've just earned $480.00. Plus, your students and teachers will have an autographed book as a memento of the visit.
  6. Pay the author.
    Most people expect to be paid after they do their work. Authors are no exception. If you've agreed to pay the author following the last presentation of the day, make sure the check is ready ahead of time. Have the check ready when the author arrives. If you need an invoice before you can pay, advise the author in advance so he or she can have an invoice ready. Pay the author the speaking fee before he or she leaves your school. Expenses can be paid later if necessary.

And here's one other tip: Don't be discouraged if the author's fees seem out of your price range. There are lots of creative ways to book an author visit. Many authors will "split" a day between two nearby schools. If you can find another nearby PTO/school that would like an author visit, you can split the fees and expenses. Watch for local reading conferences and workshops. If an author is going to be in your area for a workshop, he or she might be willing to piggyback a visit your school for a reduced fee. I do it all the time. There's also an amazing amount of "Arts in Education" money available on the state level and often federal programs such as Title I can contribute funds for author visits.

Author visits and enrichment performers are a great investment in the educational experience of young children. When done properly, they're one of the most productive ventures a PTO can undertake. Planning and enthusiasm are the key ingredients—and most PTOs have plenty of both.

Mike Artell is an award-winning children's book author, illustrator, cartoonist and conference speaker. He has written and illustrated more than 35 books for children, parents, and teachers and has hosted his own cartooning TV show. More information is on his website at www.mikeartell.com.