Thursday, November 3, 2016

Author Skypes with Picture Book Expert Laura Murray by Tina Cho

I have a special guest for you today--picture book author, Laura Murray, who writes the award-winning Gingerbread Man series, starting with The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School. Recently, Laura did an author Skype with my students in South Korea. I was impressed with her organizational skills and thought I'd let her share her experiences with our Grog blog fans.
Author Laura Murray
1. How did your Gingerbread Man become a series? Was that your idea? Your editor's? Do you get to come up with each book or do they?

The Gingerbread Man Loose at School was written as a stand-alone picture book, but after it came out, I happily offered to write more Gingerbread Man adventures if my editor was interested.

I was a teacher before becoming a writer and I had fun drawing on that experience for story ideas. My hope was to mirror some of my student’s favorite activities during the school year, with the GB Man’s adventures.  I proposed a GB Man/community helpers idea next, and the publisher suggested a more specific Fire Station setting. So the GB Man & his class went on their first field trip in The Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck!

Later my editor asked if I’d be interested in two more in the series, one with a holiday theme, and the other being my choice.  So the topic of The Gingerbread Man Loose at Christmas’ was their suggestion and The Gingerbread Man Loose at the Zoo was mine.

There is also a fifth adventure coming in 2018 that includes a feisty new character for the GB Man to match wits with. More on that later in the post J

2. My school really enjoyed your author Skype. You  were very organized from sending out emails ahead of time with expectations and things the school should do. What advice would you give new authors regarding Skype presentations?

Thank you! I thoroughly enjoyed reading to and talking with your smart cookies in their cute GB Man hats!

Being able to connect with classes all over the world is such a thrill – I love to spread enthusiasm for reading and writing, but I also love hearing the student’s ideas and connections!  I would encourage new authors to start with 15 minute free Skypes for classrooms and do some research online as to how other authors have organized their Skype Visits.  To get started, take a look at Kate Messner’s Skype guidelines 
Tara Lazar and Bruce Hale also have Skype information/blog posts on their sites.

 Here are a few possible questions to send out to teachers/librarians to help organize the details of the virtual visit ahead of time.

·         Name:
·         Email:
·         School:
·         City, State:
·         Time zone:
·         Skype Username:
·         Cell Phone or classroom phone (used to reach you in case of tech difficulties):
·         Grades at the visit:
·         Approximate number of students:
·         Three dates when your class can Skype:
·         Three times or blocks of time when your class can Skype:

Next steps:

o   Let the T/L know your Skype and contact information, as well as general format information.
o   You can also ask if the students are interested in ordering books (you can send signed bookplates.)
o   Double check any time zone differences.
o   While Skyping remember to look at your computer camera, talk slowly so the audio is clear, use props if you have them, and be enthusiastic!
o   It’s a good idea to test the Skype connection beforehand if possible.
o   Follow up with a thank you. And shout-outs on social media are always fun.

3.  About how many school visits or author Skypes do you do each month?  Do you "market" yourself to schools or wait for schools to contact you?

I thoroughly enjoy doing school visits, and my in-person and Skype school visits vary monthly. With the Gingerbread theme, I often do back-to-back in-person school visits in November/December.  Other months vary depending on my writing schedule, conferences, family events, etc. I generally stick to 20-30 in-person visits per school year, and about the same amount of Skypes.  I typically reserve January - March to focus solely on my writing, so I usually don’t do in-person visits then, but I do schedule a few Skype visits during those months.

This year I’ve planned three seasonal Skype days via my website Activities Newsletter, where I schedule a full day of free 15 minute Skype Visits. If a teacher/librarian is interested, he/she can join the newsletter and receive those dates, along with seasonal printables & classroom activities. A new Skype winter date will go out in the Nov./Dec. Activities Newsletter soon.

As for outreach, I’ve found that many librarians hear about my presentations through positive word-of-mouth from other schools I’ve visited, and through my website. I also try to seek out new opportunities to support reading. Last year I participated in author Kate Messner’s initiative to support World Read Aloud Day through volunteer author skype visits. It was such a great way to connect with students about reading/writing that I plan on participating again this year. Thanks, Kate! 

4. Could you give new authors a timeline of what they should be doing up to the day of the author event?

Well, it depends on the event. In-person school visits, book launches, book store or library visits, conference presentations, and Skype Visit all have common elements, but can vary greatly in terms of preparation and audience. Since we are talking about Skyping, I’ll stick with the topic of Skype event planning. :) 

It’s generally good to plan a Skype event at least a month in advance. Start organizing by sending organizational questions to the teacher/librarian, and giving them time to return the answers. If you’re planning a whole day of Skype visits, organize a schedule (with time zones in mind,) and then send out Skypes times and reminders about tech & connection to all the schools. Add the school Skype name as a contact in your Skype account. I often send a few book-related printables and activities to the school via email a week before the visit. The day before the event, it is good to do a quick check of the connection between you & the school.  On the day of the event, you want to make sure your computer, Skype account, props, etc. are all ready, but you can still wear your bunny slippers ;). 
Laura's Skype with my school

5.  How do you make your presentations interactive?

Student involvement is super important, so that you are not just a “talking head” during a Skype Visit. I try to involve the students in helping me read the book through a call and response of certain parts.  I ask questions, and either request a whole group answer or ask the teacher to call on students to answer. I love to use props. The question and answer session at the end is one of my favorite parts because I get to hear the students’ creative ideas too!

6. How many years have you been writing?
I’ve been writing for about 11 years now :)

7. You said you're working on a MG novel. Do you think writing a novel is harder than a picture book? As a pb writer who has to use a sparse amount of words, do you find it difficult to write a novel with lots of description and details that a picture book doesn't need?

I’ve been working on a Middle Grade novel, but had to put it away for a bit to focus on the Gingerbread Man stories and a couple of family moves.  I’m pulling it back out this year and moving forward with the writing, along with a few picture book ideas as well.

And yes, jumping to a new genre definitely has “its positives and its challenges.” I’m sure I’ll have more than a few hurdles to clear on the MG because it is my first one, but there is also something thrilling about trying something new, and freeing about having more words to play with.  I’m hoping that as I write the MG, my PB experience will continue to come into play when choosing the right words and whittling them down to exactly what needs to be on the page, with no “filler.” :)

8. You have worked hard to create followers. Could you let our readers know some of the tactics you use? (newsletter, blog, teacher resources...)

I genuinely enjoy connecting with people who love books, reading, writing, children, and teaching. I have a great deal of respect for children and an admiration for their sense of wonder and creativity.  Being a former teacher, I know how hard educators work for their students, and it’s that teacher in me that loves to provide fun lessons/activities for student engagement and connection.

·         Website – Includes MANY book-related GB Man printables, mentor text lessons, teacher’s guides, book trailers, reader’s theater, activities, school visit information, etc.
·         Activities Newsletter – Sent 3-4 times a year. Highlights new activities & printables, Skype Visit dates, events, and fun teacher-submitted ideas
·         Blog – I’ve just started to post little blog tidbits on my website. They often highlight curriculum connections, writing themes, pictures of class GB Man hunt ideas, etc.
·         Connections – I try to make genuine connections with educators and “kidlit people” on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest, as well as making personal connections through school visits, book events, and book/writing conferences.

Gingerbread Man Hats I found on Laura's website and had my students make

9. What's in store for the G'man for the future? 

The Gingerbread Man & the Leprechaun Loose at School will be fresh out of the oven in 2018, and is based on our own mess-making classroom leprechaun.  A mischievous little leprechaun is wreaking havoc throughout the school, and the GB Man and his class are determined to protect their classroom from this cheeky chap with a very clever homemade trap. 

10. For fun:
favorite color:  Sunny & bright colors: Yellow, Robin’s Egg Blue, Red
favorite food:  Warm cookies with a bit of icing ;)
favorite children's author:  I have SO many favorites, but if I had to pick just one -  JK Rowling
favorite book:  Harry Potter Series, but again - SO hard, as I could list pages in each genre!
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?  Italy and France – We love to travel and would like our kids to start to experience the wonder of different cultures, different languages, and different ways of life. 

About Laura...
Laura Murray was a teacher before becoming an author and had to deal with many an escaped Gingerbread Man in her time. She is the author of the award-winning rhyming picture book series – The Gingerbread Man Loose in the School, The Gingerbread Man Loose on the Fire Truck, The Gingerbread Man Loose at Christmas, and The Gingerbread Man Loose at the Zoo.  Laura lives with her family in northern Virginia and loves speaking at schools about reading, writing, and creating. Visit her online at for fun educator resources, and on Twitter @LauraMurrayBook.


  1. Laura Murray on the Loose!
    But in an organized fashion.
    I luv all these tips, but especially appreciate how her joy & enthusiasm shines thru.

    A question on the props... Did she find/create a Gingerbread Man puppet?

    A question on the MG - is the novel school based, or set at another time of year. Just curious because of her great education her background. Good luck with it Laura!

    Thank you Tina & Laura.

    1. Thanks, Jan. I'll let Laura answer your questions.

    2. Hi Jan – Thanks so much for your very sweet words, they put a big smile on my face this morning. As for props – I use a GB Man Loose plush/puppet character that was made by Merry Makers a year or so ago. Unfortunately, they are discontinued now. But I plan on making a paper bag GB Man puppet/template to include in the Nov./Dec. Activities Newsletter that would make a fun prop & craft too. I often use first and second round sketches of the books to show the process. I also have GB Man felt hats that I made from a reindeer hat I found at Michaels. I took off the reindeer pieces and added the GB man features. I use these during my “game show” at the end of my in-person visits as well. And my dog is a fun “prop” as well – she stays in my office when I write to keep me company, and little ones are often surprised that I am a “real” person with a real pet. The middle grade novel isn’t in an education setting, it’s an adventure/mystery currently set in Charleston, SC with a scavenger hunt element to it. Thanks for your comment and your questions, Jan :)

    3. Oooh, a mystery in Charleston. That's already a winner. I taught high school English and drama in Charleston long years ago, and we have a little house at nearby McClellanville.

  2. Great interview, Tina. Loved getting all these details from Laura!

  3. This is an oustanding post filled with excellent tips for a successful Skype visit. Thank you, Tina. What an excellent teacher you are as your students must have been filled with excitement and wonder.

    The many adventures with Gingerbread Man are loved books that are shared with my after reading & writing buddies. After a thirty-five year career in education, I continue to share the love of reading with students during after school and summer school lessons.

    Thank you, Laura, for many fantastic ideas to create a successful Skype visit that is more than a "talking head".
    ~Suzy Leopold

    1. That's awesome, Suzy, that you're still working with children and giving them the Gingerbread Man experience!

  4. Wonderful tips throughout. Thanks for the great post. I am a big fan of the Gingerbread Man books.

  5. Great information. Thanks for sharing. Makes me wish Skype had been available when I taught K-2.

    1. With your debut pb, you can try Skype, Ev!

    2. Yes! I hear you, I wish it was available back when I was teaching too :). But, yes, it would be fun to use with your debut pb as well!

  6. Great post full of tips. Thanks Tina and Laura.

  7. Tina, it's amazing to think one can connect via Skype anywhere in the world. It's great to hear your students benefit from authors like Laura.
    P.S. I love gingerbreadmen and gingerbreadwomen. :-)

  8. Thanks for sharing so much about Skype visits. I have been a fan of your gingerbread books for a while. In fact, when I first got serious about writing for publication, THE GINGERBREAD MAN LOOSE IN THE SCHOOL, is a book I kept going back to for several reasons. I love twists on originals. Especially when done this cleverly. I loved the rhyme! Also, it inspired me that Laura was a teacher first...just like me. And our students always had a big gingerbread hunt through the school so her book was perfect for sharing.
    I can just imagine how exciting it is for students to meet Laura!
    Thanks again for a great post, Tina and Laura :)

    1. Thank you, Penny. And I read YOUR book to my kids. They loved it.

    2. Thanks for letting me know they loved it, Tina. That makes me very happy :)