How to Engage Kids: The ABC’s of Author Talks at Schools

By Kris Maze

 How to Engage Kids: The ABC’s of Author Talks at

One author perk is the joy of sharing your writing with readers, and it can be extra special to work with a younger audience in a school. But if you hold an author talk at a school, it’s important to set up expectations in advance to insure a successful event. Speaking to younger readers can be challenging, if one isn’t prepared well enough.  In a school setting, there are a few ways authors can make a positive impact, engage on a deeper level with students, and make a lasting impression that gets you invited back year after year.

Guest Speaking at a School

What reasons would you be invited to a school? Authors can get invited to talk to students for many reasons.  Here’s just a few.

Job connections for future writers

Students are in the business of figuring out what they want to do when they grow up.  And it is helpful for young people to see adults doing the work they too may want to try.  Sharing what it is like to be an author can inspire young readers to share their own stories some day.

Foster a love for story, reading, and writing for students

Teachers invite guest speakers who are experts in a field to share unique insights with their students.  As an author you have an expertise in writing conventions, story telling, and other parts of running an author business.  Find out what focus your teacher expects you to talk about and prepare a presentation that will help students appreciate stories.

Add depth to curriculum and standards-based learning

Teachers have specific expectations as to what they are to teach and you can add value to your visit by covering topics that relate to the work students are doing (and increase your chances of returning for another speaking opportunity.) Perhaps the students are studying plants and you have a story about a boy who grows a garden.  See if part of that book could help foster interest in a seed growing lesson or other related topic the teacher may be teaching.  The more connections the author can make to the work already happening in the classroom, the more connections to learning they can make.

Author Benefits for Guest Speaking at a School

Want to improve your author talks with young readers?  Read on to find out how you can connect with the school and get the most from your presentations.  

Students will learn from your presentation, but it can enhance your writing career too.  Look over these ways working in a classroom can improve your writing career.

Working with students can inspire YOU, dear writer. 

Their innocence and/or lack of inexperience can help a writer reconnect to that age and stage in life.  It makes you more accessible to what life was like in that time and perhaps add to characters in your own novels.

Creating interest around reading and stories creates future readers. 

This seems logical, and in the digital age students still consume a lot of written word.  They may choose to buy your books, or request them from parents, teachers, and librarians. Students also grow up and may want to read your work later, based on the fact that you were a cool guest speaker that they got to hear once.  It could be that they were always an avid reader, or the kid who never cracked open a book who was just happy to not have to take a math test, but the impact an author can make can last and influence future reading habits.

My Recent Author Talk with a Young Writers Club

In October, I presented to a Young Writers Club in Wisconsin.  The teacher had me speak to his 5th grade class in the past and invited me back to speak to this club.  The students meet on Tuesdays after school and have a range in age from 3rd to 8th grade students. 

Due to being on the West Coast, I had to pre-record a message.  In the video I made for these students, I addressed the questions they asked about me. I was able to have broad answers and made the backdrop for my talk a spooky, Halloween themed décor.  I had fun with it and kept the presentation light.

Another aspect of this talk was my invitation to writers to make handwritten letters.  I offered to hand write a response to each student who sent a letter.  The teacher said he would facilitate this and send their letters to my mail box. 

Here is a link to the video from that presentation.  Consider making one for your next presentation.

Advance Communication with Teacher

Teachers are incredibly busy people and most appreciate good advance planning.  A month before your visit I recommend reaching out to the teacher and finding out details of your visit.  Showing that you are asking in advance demonstrates that you are prepared and interested in the students.  It also shows that your presentation will be valuable to the students and helpful to the teacher.

Questions to ask –

  • What is the topic of some of the stories you are currently reading?
  • What themes the students examining in your classes?
  • What other subjects and topics could you talk about that cover curriculum? 
  • Would the teacher prefer a preset general talk about being an author or about the books they have written?
  • Should the focus be on writing as a profession or writing as a craft?
  • How much time will there be? (always over-plan but expect to have less time than allotted.)
  • Is there technology available if you plan to do a visual presentation such as power point, google slides, or short video clips on YouTube, for example?

Be aware of your kid audience’s needs Attention spans

Students have varying attention spans at all ages, but there is a rule of thumb to consider. Check into what age group you will primarily speak to and plan to keep a talk to under the limit. Find out the age and multiply it by 2.  This tends to be a good estimate for attention spans.

Engage the 5 senses

Add videos and other activities to break up the time and keep the students engaged throughout.

  1. Think of using digital media to break up the activities.  Video clips of 30 seconds to 2 minutes can enhance a presentation.  These activate different sensory parts of the brain and keep students engaged longer.  Long videos will also lose their attention, so have a variety of things to choose from.  If one activity isn’t working, you may want to shift into another one.
  2. Ask about bringing in food. Student allergies can limit what a presenter could share with a class.  Food and snacks are usually a fun addition to any presentation but ask the teacher about special needs and school policies on food in classes first.
  3. Offer manipulatives and other hands-on activities.  Perhaps your groups get seeds to plant.  Or they work on coloring a bookmark.  Or dress up and act out a scene.  Using props helps engage students.
  4. Bring Help.  One author I know uses a sock puppet named appropriately, Sock Puppet Tim.  He always gets a smile and student attention. Try bringing in a prop that you can use while presenting.  It can also take pressure off you as a speaker if you are shy or new to speaking in public.

Connect to current learning Ignite imaginations

Bring the wow factor. Bring a variety of things you think will be ‘cool’ and let students explore your fun props. One doesn’t know which thing will resonate, but ultimately they will be impressed by your interesting career. 

Be inclusive

Schools welcome students of all abilities, social strata, backgrounds, and cultures. Check your materials for wording and visuals that show a variety of cultures and peoples in a positive manner. Your presentation will be received well if it attempts to show students of all backgrounds that they are included and accepted. Talk to the teacher if you have more questions regarding how to structure your presentation to best suit your young audience.

Let kids lead and promote their writing skills Writing prompts

Use writing prompts. Writing prompts are a good way engage students in writing.  Ask the teacher for some or write a few that kids would relate to.  Be sure that they connect to your book or work you are presenting.

Writing workshop

Hold a mini writing workshop. Pick aspects that work with the current or previous lessons and let students show off what they have learned.  Add to their learning with a specific focus, adding adjectives, self-editing, offering feedback, or describing people or animals with details as examples.

Class reading circle

Have students engage in your work while reading.  Here are some suggested methods.

  • Students read segments of your work.
  • If you have speaking characters, take volunteers to read parts and do a theater in the round.
  • Do a silent choral read.  Students hold up a hand when they have an emotional response to a line or segment of what you are reading.  The visual effect of this activity is amazing and worth a try.
  • Say One line. Students read from their own work.  Try having them say one line from their work they used to open a story, paragraph, end a story, most descriptive, character action, etc.

Suggestions for your interactive time:

  • Do a pass-a-prop to ensure one speaker at a time.
  • Establish good listening expectations before starting.
  • Have students think through and round the circle a second time. This time

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