©1987 by Vicki Cobb
As an author of science books for children, I have been the guest speaker at many schools across the country. Because I was a teacher, I don't do the typical program of discussing how I write. Instead, I do a performance designed to get kids interested in science. Usually my books are sold at my appearances. But there are a few places where they have not been sold and I have come across a negative attitude toward the selling of books at an author's appearance that prompts this article.
There are all sorts of reasons to bring an author to a school both on the part of the children and the author. An author's appearance "makes books come alive." It shows kids that "authors are real people." Authors have enough visibility to pass as "famous" in our celebrity-crazed society, thus making the visit a special event. They are usually articulate and can present an entertaining program that reinforces interest in their books. for authors, school appearances promote their books and have a residual effect, putting their name on the map in a school for many years to come. It also gives them feedback on their readers' reactions. But, in my opinion as an educator, there is only one truly important reason to have an author come to a school: namely, to motivate kids to read. Presumably, meeting an author in person can create a demand for his or books, particularly when the author writes, as I do, on less popular subjects. If an author excites and interests kids, the author is invariably asked, "Where can I get your books? If the books are not at hand, the moment is lost. What baffles me is why a school that has spent some of its limited resources to bring an author to the school, obviously caring about "enrichment," does not understand how to optimize the educational experience it has created.
One argument against selling books is simply school policy: nothing is sold to kids at school, period. Any exception to the rule would somehow open a Pandora's Box of ills. In this kind of thinking, kids are characterized as avid consumers, easily manipulated by the excitement of a performance to spend money they don't have on a frivolous impulse. The schools' role is to protect them from such exploitation. A superintendent recently said to me, "If you were a rock star, the kids would want to buy your CD." I found myself in the ludicrous position of having to point out to the educator that I am not a rock star, and it might do some good in the fight against boredom, video games and drugs to create a demand for science books along with the opportunity to fulfill it.
Another argument is, "We live in a mixed socio-economic district and we don't want to put pressure on poor kids to buy things they can't afford." My most popular books are paperbacks that can be offered in schools at a discount, priced at under $3.00. From what I hear about certain poor districts, kids have money for Nintendo, VCR's, candy bars and sometimes drugs. Why not put pressure on them to buy a book? I once signed a book for a poor child in a small village in Alaska. It was a hard cover and I didn't know he hadn't yet paid for it when I wrote his name in it. When he realized he didn't have enough money to pay for it, he was offered a less expensive book, one he could easily afford. But no. This was the one he wanted. He would bring in the money the next day. The librarian told me that there was no way his parents would give him the money to buy the book. Yet the next day he did, in fact, return for it. It was clear that this book was precious to him. Imagine! A poor child valuing a book! A small event yet one with enormous implications for the thesis that education is a way out of poverty. One reality of society is that often we think things are valuable only when we have to pay for them. And if this is yet another way to instill a value for books in children, we are remiss if we don't offer the opportunity.
Finally, there is the unstated insinuation that we authors are money-grubbers who want the royalties as part of our fee, and the schools will have no part of such greed. Personally, wearing my educator's hat, I don't care if only the $3.00 books are for sale at my appearances. Every book sold frees up the library book for a kid who truly can't afford it. The royalties will hardly amount to anything, let alone make me a rich woman. In fact, a career as a children's book author is hardly a get-rich-quick scheme. On the other hand, children's book authors are often viewed at schools as career models. If we make our living writing books, should we then be put in a position of apologizing for the fact that they are for sale?
In the real world, people earn money selling something of value, whether it's a product or a service. My fee for a day's school appearance pays for three entertaining, highly motivating programs for hundreds of children. If books for sale are not made a part of the day, the library cannot handle the demand. I become simply another entertainer for a passive audience of kids all too accustomed to being entertained. That momentary flicker of interest in reading a book quickly dies for most kids if it is not immediately reinforced. At a time when our educational systems are under fire, when students are turned off and dropping out, we can't afford to waste any opportunity to involve kids as active participants in the learning process.