Coming Soon to a School Near You: The Authors and Illustrators Behind Your Favorite Kids’ Books

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(Lennon and Maisy Stella singing to schoolchildren about their book, In the Waves)

Attention, please! Could we all take a moment to shower thanks and praise upon teachers and school librarians who bring the love of reading into young people’s lives? 

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Excellent! Now, Nashville parents: many of your local schools have sent us their summer reading lists. We’ve put those lists on display in our special summer reading section, and we stand ready to help you round up all the books your kids need.

Incidentally, this is also the time of year we get a lot of questions about planning school author visits: How does it work? Why did that famous author go visit my neighbor’s kids’ school and not ours? How can my school get in on that action? Here’s a behind-the-scenes Q&A with Stephanie Appell, who manages our young readers section and handles author visits, about how it all goes down:


Q: How many times a year does Parnassus set up author visits in schools?

A: It varies, based on how many authors and illustrators we’re offered by publishers. We never know when a publisher will call and say we have the chance to take a writer or artist to a Nashville school. About 10-20 per year is the norm.

Q: What kind of feedback do you hear from authors about doing these visits? 

A: You know, I was just listening to the fabulous podcast created by The Horn Book magazine, and they asked Mac Barnett, who does more school visits than just about any children’s author I can think of, this very question. He said (I’m paraphrasing here) that what he likes is meeting kids and hearing what they’re into. He said he can tell when a children’s author stops visiting schools, because the fact that they aren’t out there listening to actual kids is reflected in the books they create. And that’s what we hear from most children’s authors and illustrators: They love meeting readers, and meeting readers makes them better writers and creators.

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Author Jake Halpern takes questions from Ensworth students about how he created his book, Nightfall.

Q: Are these visits different from when a school pays a speaker’s fee and hires an author to come for the day? (And in that case. . . who pays for them?)

A: Yes! So, sometimes a visit will happen because a school hires an author directly to come visit. Many children’s and YA authors have their school visit rates on their websites, and those rates vary according to factors such as whether they’ll be able to drive to your school or if they have to fly and stay in a hotel overnight. It’s important to remember that being an author is work. If someone is getting on a plane, staying in a hotel, eating on the road — to say nothing of missing a day of writing — to visit a school, the money to pay for these things has to come from somewhere.

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Look out: it’s a roomful of sharks to greet Clark the Shark author Bruce Hale.

However, the kind of school visits Parnassus runs usually work differently. Most of the time, we’re offered the opportunity to arrange visits where the expenses are being paid by the author’s publisher. They’re paying for the author to travel and visit schools in select cities across the country with two goals: (1) To promote and sell copies of the author’s new book, and (2) to create “exposure” for the author. That means the visit costs nothing for the school to host; but the publisher arranges the visit through Parnassus in hopes that the order forms we send home for the author’s books will generate book sales. In fact, the main way publishers decide whether or not school visits we arrange are successful (and whether they’ll offer Nashville their next one) is by calculating how many books were sold through those book orders. If we don’t sell enough, they might decide not to send the next author or illustrator to our city. So it’s “free” in that there’s no speaker’s fee, but there is an expectation of some book sales through the event.

Q: When those book-order forms come home in bookbags, there’s no purchase required — so why would parents consider ordering the book(s)?

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Diary of a Wimpy Kid books ready to be signed and sent home with students during a school visit by Jeff Kinney.

A: That’s a great question! All the books that we offer in conjunction with author visits can be autographed or even personalized to your child (and we would never “upcharge” for this — the book costs the same as if you had just picked up an unsigned copy in the store). A signed/personalized book makes a great addition to a home library, and parents often purchase additional copies to give as birthday gifts. I think there’s also something pretty incredible about a young person meeting an author and realizing that a real, ordinary person created this story or these pictures that they love — and then having this tangible object that represents that connection, which prompts them to think, “Hey, if Stuart Gibbs or Kate DiCamillo, whom I just met at my school, could write and publish their story, maybe I could do that too.” It humanizes the creative process in a way that helps children visualize doing it themselves.

Also — just like shopping at Parnassus instead of ordering from a big-box retailer shows you want to keep that bookstore in your town — when you order a book from that school visit form, you’re saying, “It is important to me that authors make books and visit my child’s school. I want to see that continue.”

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Anna and the Swallow Man author Gavriel Savit discusses writing and editing with students at Meigs Academic Magnet Middle School

Q: What does the school get out of these events?

A: Well, to be super-literal about it, schools get a speaker visit that’s worth thousands of dollars for the price of sending home and collecting an order form. But what I think this question means — and what schools are really getting — is something you can’t put a price on, something that some kids go through 13 years of education and never get, which is an amazingly memorable way to inspire their students to become lifelong readers. Hearing someone like Jon Scieszka or Dav Pilkey or Sharon Draper share their story and talk directly to kids about what being a reader and a writer means — not to sound like a Mastercard commercial, but it’s priceless. It’s a really cool interactive opportunity that complements what schools are doing in classrooms and libraries.

Q: OK, so — logistically, how does this work? Do schools set all this up in the summer before the school year starts or do these opportunities pop up at the last-minute?

A: Oh, I wish I could set them all up in the summer before school starts! The way this works is that usually about two to three months before an author becomes available, I get a call from a publisher saying, “So-and-so is heading out on book tour, and we’d like to offer them to Nashville on such-and-such date; could you arrange for them to visit some schools?” I almost never have a say in the date being offered, and sometimes I have even less than two months’ lead time. What I do after I get that call is immediately start calling around to area schools to see who might have the interest, space, and flexibility to be the host school for that author’s tour stop. I try to make things fair and even by rotating my call list and making sure to reach out to schools of various sizes in different parts of town, so everyone gets a chance to have one of these events if they want one.

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Young readers channel their inner Fancy Nancy to meet real-live book author Jane O’Connor at school.

Q: Anything else you want schools to know?

A: We are always looking for new schools to work with! There are hundreds of schools in Davidson County alone, and I’d love to be able to say we’d arranged author visits for all of them. Offers to host authors for the 2017-2018 school year have already started to come in. If you’d like me to contact your school, click here to fill out the form that collects some of the information I need to match authors with schools.

We’re in awe of the work teachers and librarians do, and we’re always looking for new ways Parnassus can support the vital role they play in the literary landscape of Nashville. Be sure to check out the educator page on our website, or come by the store and ask for me, Steph. We’ll be putting an educators’ night on the calendar soon, so we can get together and share ideas and resources.

Q: And parents? 

A: We get it — kids don’t come with instruction manuals. Let us help you! We’re experts in what kids are reading, whether it’s for school or for fun. Bring in the whole family and we’ll help everyone find a great book this summer. (And keep an eye on our events calendar for summertime author events and storytimes!)

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