Wednesday, June 5, 2013

MY FIRST SCHOOL VISIT: An Alarming Experience, and a Book Fair

I’ve always dreaded public speaking. Serenading an audience of thousands? Easy by comparison, with a guitar and mic as props. Book signings? No problem meeting people one on one, while the book sits there looking pretty. But talking to even 20 people in a room, let alone a whole assembly full of students? Eep. I’ve known for some time that as a published author, I’d have to face this big fear (aka, terror) sooner or later. “Later” being the option my Inner Procrastinator kept whispering. Deal with this in the fall, it soothed. Build up to it! 
Destiny, however, had a different plan. Through Bonnie Lynn Wagner, a book blogger who’d hosted a stop on my blog tour (you can see Digby’s character interview here), I connected with Elizabeth Ullmer, the Community Relations Manager at the Barnes & Noble in Bensalem. “Ask her about book fairs,” Bonnie wrote me. “Better than signings.” Book fairs? I didn't know what they were, but fairs are fun, right?
Pretty, but don't be fooled
I called Elizabeth, who was delightful and enthusiastic. Within hours, she called me back. The New Foundations Charter School in NE Philadelphia were excited to have me do a school visit on May 29th if I was available, followed by their book fair that evening at the store. Wait…what?? A book fair involved doing a school visit? A zillion grubs in my stomach instantly hatched into mini butterflies. “Sure!” I blurted, before Inner Procrastinator could come up with any excuses. “Tell me more!” It would involve 2 presentations each about 30-40 minutes long, Elizabeth explained, to an assembly of about 225 kids at a time.
225 at a time? Uh…really? Not a mere 20 or 30 (gulp) in a classroom? And I didn’t even know PowerPoint yet! Amazing how mini butterflies can grow into carnivorous, stomach-gnawing Papilia really fast.
Well, what else to do but prepare? I learned PowerPoint (aka hubby learned it, then showed me how) and put together a presentation full of the typically Brit castles, cottages, and general spookiness that found their way The Flame in the Mist. I rehearsed to an audience (aka hubby, a few stuffed toys, and the imaginary crowd in my head, all listening patiently). I actually began to look forward to The Day. And then, it arrived. 
I met Elizabeth for a quick breakfast before we drove down to the school. She was as lovely in person as on the phone, and put me at ease. Tum-butterflies fluttered gently, as if playing around a sunny flower garden. At the school, we were warmly welcomed by Bobbie Tyndall, who organizes the school’s author visits. My laptop connected easily to their projector. The sound worked. Bobbie took goofy snaps. Everything was going perfectly! No glitches! The first group of kids began filing in. Some smiled. Some looked curious, others skeptical. A few more virulent butterflies flew in with them. Never mind. I was ready. This was It!
And then...the alarm rang. Fire drill! Only it turned out it wasn’t a drill. Grabbing handbag and laptop, I filed outside along with the kids, and Elizabeth and Bobbie. What were the chances—a fire alarm, on the threshold of my Big Event? Saved by the bell! Sigh of relief? No. I was disappointed. I'd been raring to go! By now, excitement had totally squished any remaining tummy 'flies. 
A mysterious cause for alarm
We stood in the school yard for an eternity – at least 10 minutes. The fire department came. Elizabeth and I laughed at the absurdity of timing. I wondered whether nerves would ramp up again, but they didn’t. All I wanted was for there to be time to give both presentations, and experience the kids’ reactions. What would they think? Would they enjoy it? After all the build-up, would I even get to find out, when goodness knew how long the firemen would be milling around? Finally, the mysterious cause of the alarm undiscovered, we were all allowed back inside. By 9:10, the kids were in their seats again. Bobbie introduced me, and off we went.

Rehearsals paid off. So did getting the kids to say “Wooo!” every time I said the word “spooky”. Several times, they caught me out. (Who knew I said “spooky” so much?) Booing the Agromonds went down well too. Time being shortened, I had to clip through a few sections, but still showed the trailer at the end. The kids cheered. They cheered! Wow. 
I anticipated that the second group, being older (through 8th grade) would be more reserved, more hesitant about joining in with booing, woo-ing, and shows of hands. But if anything they were louder. Again, cheers after the trailer. I was floored. As nervous as I'd been in the weeks before, then as fun as it had felt giving the presentation, I could never have imagined that happening. Let alone the message that turned up later that day on my YouTube trailer page: “omg, you came to my school and you were amazing.”
Book fair at B&N

At the book fair that evening, The Flame in the Mist found a lot of new homes, helping it become the store’s best selling children's book last week. None of it could have gone better—even the alarm was part of the perfection! But nothing beat seeing the look of excitement on kids' faces, their anticipation of reading a book they’re excited about. And to think I’d been so scared, I’d have avoided this if I could. So thank you, Destiny, for shoving me in the deep end; and thank you, Elizabeth and Bobbie, for helping me swim; and thank you, Bonnie, for being the hand that gave that first nudge. And thank you, New Foundations students, for making my first school experience so great!
As to my next school visit, no more cause for alarm. I can’t wait.
Even Inner Procrastinator agrees. 
-->With thanks to Elizabeth Ullmer and Bobbie Tyndall for the New Foundations and B&N event photos


  1. Loved this tale! And what a fiery entrance - well, thank goodness it wasn't really with the firetrucks! Love the pics too. Oh I bet these kids will be talking about you and FLAME IN THE MIST for quite some time! YEAH - now here's to many more school visit, Kit!

  2. Thanks so much, Donna! It really was a special event, and a huge hurdle to overcome. It now feels more like a milestone. A lovely first foray!

  3. Sounds like you were a natural. Great ideas for audience participation! And the fire drill—nice touch. I'll never tell that you were the one to pull the alarm—OOPS!

  4. Ha ha! Nice try, Kathryn. I saw you driving away at high speed...