Saturday, September 3, 2011

Speaking at Schools with Tania McCartney

A warm welcome to Tania McCartney - author, editor, publisher and founder of well-respected children’s literature site, Kids Book Review. 

Besides being an experienced speaker, magazine and web writer, photographer and marshmallow gobbler, Tania is also the author of the popular Riley the Little Aviator series of travelogue picture books, and is both published and self-published in children’s fiction and adult non-fiction.

I've invited Tania and Riley the Little Aviator to stop by Under the Apple Tree on their whirlwind blog tour of Riley's latest travel adventure, Riley and the Grumpy Wombat. And Tania has kindly agreed to share below some tips on speaking at schools.

Riley and the Grumpy Wombat Blog Tour
Riley and the Grumpy Wombat: A Journey around Melbourne
Tania McCartney
illustrations by Kieron Pratt

Riley has discovered a wombat in his nanny’s garden. But why is this furry creature so grumpy? Join Riley and his friends from books one, two and three, as they zoom around the stunning sights of Melbourne in search of a wombat that simply needs a place to call home.
Featuring gorgeous black and white photos of Melbourne and surrounds, Riley and the Grumpy Wombat combines photos, illustrations, adorable characters, humour and an adventuresome storyline in a travelogue-style book that showcases Melbourne at its very best.

Congratulations, Tania, on the release of the latest Riley the Little Aviator adventure. Riley and the Grumpy Wombat is the fourth book in the series. You must enjoy taking your books out to schools and introducing the characters to new readers.

One of the best things about being a children’s author is reading to kids. Sure – it can be exhausting and I always have a stash of headache tablets on standby! – but I honestly have never enjoyed the children’s book process more than when I am reading aloud to a bunch of poppets.

Riley and the Sleeping Dragon was the first book you wrote in the series. How was it received the first time you read it to a class?

I remember the first time I ever read Riley and the Sleeping Dragon to a class of school students. The thing that struck me the most was that they just GOT IT. They understood. They reacted EXACTLY – to the precise points – I wanted them to in the story. Watching their eyes light up, seeing their light bulb moments flash behind their eyes, seeing their brows knit in curiosity – oh! – sheer literary heaven.

I've just experienced my first Children's Book Week as an author visiting schools. Do you have any advice on keeping up with the kids?

Although they are a joy, you need a lot of energy to read to kids, especially younger ones. A lot of stamina. And you must be prepared for curly questions. I’ve had them all. My favourite to date: “Do you ever have writer’s block or mental breakdowns?”

My answer?


His eight-year-old response? “How do you deal with them?”

Unfortunately, I couldn’t say “vodka”, so I rambled something more appropriate – about “just pushing on through”.

My other favourite questions have been: “I like your dress.” and “My cat pooped in the laundry basket.” (True!)

All funnies aside, reading your books at schools is not only a glorious way to get your work out into the community, it’s incredibly rewarding and loads of fun. Here are my tips for making your school visit the least headache-inducing.

Approaching schools

You can either approach local schools directly or go through a speaker’s agency like CreativeNet Your local writers’ centre may also help, as can your local CBCA branch.

Book Week is the perfect time to visit schools, especially if you are new to it. If you are not well-known or have not developed a reputation yet, you should understand that teachers and librarians may be wary about having you speak at the school. I have heard enough horrors stories to know not everyone is born to speak to kids in an entertaining or appropriate manner. You may struggle to ‘prove’ yourself, but if you present with panache, energy and commitment, you’ll soon develop a positive reputation and be asked to speak to more schools.

Insurance and background checks

You will need pubic liability insurance to speak in schools – $10 million dollars’ worth. I know. But there’s no getting around it. I go through AAMI, which offer affordable cover on a monthly debit basis. Some states may require you to provide a Working With Children police background check. You can ask the school their requirements.

Who are you speaking to?

The most important thing to ascertain before your talk is who you are speaking to. What age group and class size? You may want to start out small and speak to a handful of kids to start – or you may feel confident with a larger group. Schools want to maximise your time with them, so you will probably find yourself talking to over 100 children at a time. This is easy to do with powerpoint presentations. You can even put your book pages on a powerpoint screen to project for the children – I always do this.

What are you speaking on?

Talk to the teacher about their needs. What are they looking for in a presentation? Do they want you to cover a certain topic, like story structure, or can you have free reign? Make sure you clearly outline what you will perform, how you will perform it, how long it will take and what is involved.


Check in advance what equipment the school will provide and what you will need to bring. Most schools can provide a smart board or projector, so all you will need is a USB stick with your presentation on it. Check they have the capabilities for your software.

Ask if the school can have a techie on hand to help you set up the smartboard/projector. Up to eighty per cent of the time, there’s a technical glitch – without a word of a lie – and you don’t want this drama, especially if you are on a time schedule.

If doing multiple sessions, ask the school to provide ONE venue for your presentation, to save you moving around.

If you are doing an activity with the kids, ask the school about providing resources. When I fold paper planes with younger students, the school happily provides red A4 paper.


If I have multiple sessions, I always ask the school to book them back-to-back, with little break in between. This means I may be at a school only 4 hours all up rather than an entire day (which is a lot of time when you have other things to do, like write more books or wash your hair!).

Don’t hesitate to negotiate a time that suits you when visiting schools. Most of the time, I’m happy to accommodate schools as I know timing is hard for them, but if I need to travel far, I request a later start time to avoid traffic. I always request to be finished by 3pm, too, so I can be home in time for my own kids.

You will need to add 15 – 20 minutes to the end time of any session, just to factor in autograph requests from kids or any delays.

What to prepare

I always take a few books with me when I visit schools, even if they have requested no book signing. The school often asks to buy a few copies and I use them for display purposes and to show the children during my presentation.

I take my USB presentation stick and any extra paraphernalia, like printouts, but more often than not I email these through beforehand. I also email through my web links, book covers, an author photo and bio.

I take easily-gobbled, non-messy snacks, a large bottle of water and some peppermints.

I take my Riley doll, the appropriate soft animal toy, my Riley aviator scarf, the red tin plane and any other props I can find, as well as any giveaways I have on hand.

I take my Grumpy Wombat mini cards with the book cover on the front and a blank back so I can use them for autographs.

I take books and change if I am going to be selling. If I’ve had heaps of book orders, I sign some books in advance, then add a personal message later.

Lastly, I take a printout with all addresses, contact names, phone numbers and session times. Oh – and a street directory. If I’m doing multiple sessions, I print off pages from the directory for quick and easy directions.

Your presentation

At the moment, I present a visual powerpoint presentation on how I quite literally put Riley and the Grumpy Wombat together, but I change it up every 6 to 12 months as new books come out.

I create the presentation in a way that allows me to do lots of talking in and around the pictures (visuals are the focus). This allows me to not only engage the children well but to tailor the same presentation to suit the age group in question. For younger kids, I can whiz through the pages without elaborating. For older kids, I can pause and go into greater detail.

There is nothing worse than text-heavy presentations for kids of any age. Make them interactive, fun, fascinating and funny.

Presenting tips

Be animated when you talk to kids. The younger they are, the more like a monkey you will need to act. This helps engage the kids and keep them focused and entertained. Yawning kids or kids that wander off = bad.

I have been known to bring on a headache with my presentation antics, especially when it comes to really young kids. Talk loud. Yell. Whisper. Use funny voices. Change your voice frequently. Clap your hands. Jump up and down. Dash. Run. Leap. Crawl on the floor, use props – do whatever it takes to engage the kids.

If kids begin to talk or giggle or lose focus, teachers should step in, and most of the time they do, but I’ve presented at schools where teachers have done nothing to help me. Thankfully, this is rare because it makes presenting extremely difficult. I usually stay silent and put one hand in the air, fingers outstretched. Kids usually respond and go quiet. Ask teachers to step in, if you need to.


The ASA has a list of industry fees on their website that you may like to follow but I have never achieved these kinds of rates. Schools simply cannot afford them, alas. If I am in book launching mode and heavily book-promoting, and the school will allow a book signing, I visit for a call out fee to cover petrol. During Book Week, the CBCA take care of my payments and I am able to charge a very decent amount.

If the school isn’t willing to have a book signing, I charge a set fee to cover my time – and you would need to set and/or negotiate your own fee. If you find no one is booking you, you may need to lower your fee but you can’t compromise your time, either. The fee has to suit you and what you are putting in.

Book signings

There is no harm in asking schools if they will host a book signing. Many oblige but many don’t. It’s about 50/50. It may help if you offer an ‘easy’ solution to host the signing. I offer pre-designed book order slips (in Word format so extra info can be added by teachers) that kids can take home, asking parents to send in the correct money and the name of the child they want the book signed to.

At the end of my presentation, kids who have ordered a book line up for signing and I take care of the money and change, if need be. It’s actually a lovely way to chat one-on-one with the students.

Book signings are a truly lovely bonus for authors who often earn little from school presentations, but you can’t rely on them. Consider them a bonus. As a thank you, I offer a free copy of my latest books to school libraries who allow a book signing.

Other Tips

Email or phone the school a day or two before your visit, to confirm you are good to go. Be sure to provide a mobile phone number.

Be sure to ask the school about parking and clear directions to the front office. I have spent 20 minutes wandering school grounds in the past. Seriously. Also ask for a mobile phone contact in case of emergency.

Each visit you make will be as unique as the school you visit. Sometimes you will be introduced to other teachers who will welcome you with a lovely chat and make you a cup of tea, sometimes you will be taken straight to a hall and left to fend for yourself. Each visit is completely different but all are enormously rewarding.

You will also find the students enormously different, but always a delight.

Consider travelling to remote or country schools in your region. These students are rarely treated to author/illustrator visits, and they backflip at the opportunity. Country towns also readily buy books, which is great.

I hope these tips and ideas help you on your own school visit journey. They are truly one of the highlights of my career as an author. If you have some of your own school visit tips – leave a comment below!

Thanks Tania! I so agree with the need to take lots of easy to nibble snacks. There never seems to be enough time between sessions. Your practical advice is invaluable for those authors who are venturing out into schools for the first time. 

Follow Tania and Riley on tour here: Riley and the Grumpy Wombat Blog Tour Dates

For more on Tania’s work, see and

Riley and the Grumpy Wombat - Ford Street Publishing A$22.95, hardcover


Tania McCartney said...

Thank you, my lovely friend! The post looks amazing! It was just so wonderful to visit your gorgeous blog. xx

Angela Sunde. said...

Thanks, Tania. It's such a pleasure to have you here and perfectly timed as I have spent the last week in schools. My readers will really gain a great deal from your advice.

DimbutNice said...

Your readers really have gained volumes Angela. Thanks to you both for an informative, useful and jolly post. It had me smiling, taking notes and nodding with that 'ah yes how true' feeling. :-)

Sandy Fussell said...

I thought I knew it all. I picked up a few more hints here.

Tania McCartney said...

Isn't it great to share our little tips and processes? I always learn something new when speaking to other authors. Love it.