Have you ever attended an author visit? I’m not talking about a big public event, like we are fortunate to experience locally via the NYSWI, when well read and inquisitive individuals file into a large space on their own volition. No, I mean an auditorium filled with hundreds of middle school students who are present because they’re a captive audience. Now that’s a whole different story, isn’t it?
Planning a school author visit is not an easy task, but I’ve witnessed the impact that one can have and will continue to work to provide this experience to my students. Generally speaking, landing an author and organizing their visit takes months of planning. The academic calendar needs to be considered and local facilities have to be available to host a large group. Conflicts with testing and other special events need to be avoided and faculty and administration must be supportive of a disruption to the daily schedule. Then you have to find yourself an author who writes books which inspire and excite young adults and who is available and affordable – not an easy task.
Big authors can cost upwards of $7500 for a day’s program. That’s a level of fundraising that is beyond what I can achieve with a Scholastic Book Fair, PTO support and grants, so my budget is substantially less than that amount. This year’s visit was the most expensive I’ve ever organized and my library club bank account is basically at a zero balance currently, however, I don’t regret spending nearly every last cent to have had the type of experience Vesper Stamper provided my students last week.
Last spring I read Stamper’s book, What the Night Sings, and was blown away. This historical fiction novel told a story which I had never before read – what happened to the concentration camp survivors after liberation? Where did they go? How did they build lives in the aftermath of the most deadly holocaust known to civilization?
I began researching almost immediately, locating the agency which represents Vesper and contacting them for information relating to her availability for school visits. Her honorarium was more than we have previously spent, but I believed the multidiscipline angles of her book, including Social Studies, Art, ELA and Music, provided a potentially rich learning experience for my kids and would prove a worthy investment. Over the summer (yes, teachers work on projects even in July and August), I locked down a date and started lining up faculty participation deciding that 8th grade would be the target audience due to alignments with curriculum topics and maturity level.
Prior to the publication of What the Night Sings, Vesper Stamper was known primarily as an illustrator and her original artwork in the novel is remarkable. We have an advanced Studio Art class in my building and I knew that I wanted Vesper to work with these students in a classroom setting. Time to talk with the Art Department. Music also plays a large role in the novel and the endnotes included a comprehensive list of works mentioned in the book. I spoke with our music department and was thrilled to learn that we have an incredibly talented student capable of performing a number of the incredibly challenging classical pieces. Awesome!
The next step was purchasing multiple copies of the book and getting the kids excited about the early fall visit. Working with ELA and Social Studies teachers I was able to read an excerpt of the book to every single 8th grade student in my building creating an anticipatory buzz – and a reserve list from which to circulate the book. We also contacted our local bookseller, I Love Books to let them know of the visit and facilitate the purchase of the novel by interested students.
Additional details included creating welcoming displays, complete with student artwork, soliciting teachers for recommendations for students to be included in our luncheon, ordering and shopping for said luncheon, distributing the day’s schedule to faculty, confirming necessary technology was in place and a couple of final emails directly with the author with regards to activities and logistics.
The day of the event was a blur. While there were a couple of unexpected hiccups, the visit went beyond my expectations. The art students were engaged and interested and Vesper interacted with them in an approachable manner filled with encouragement and comfort. The formal auditorium presentation to our entire 8th grade class opened with a stunningly beautiful musical interlude that brought the surprised author to the brink of tears and completely set the tone for the discussion which followed. She magnificently drew parallels between her historical novel and the contemporary plight of refugees and incidences of antisemitism which continue to be a global threat to Jewish people. Lunch in the library was relaxed and with lots of conversation. both serious and more casual. It was fantastic and worth every hour and dollar invested.
Time to start looking for next year’s visiting author…