Tuesday, November 8, 2016

A fun and informative "School Visits" interview with the talented Russ Cox!

Oh man!  This is exciting.  Not only do I get to chat with my friend, I get to introduce you to his humor, is amazing art and maybe if we are lucky his banjo playing.  There must be a YouTube video of it out there…
So, this is Russ Cox!

 Russ is amazing.  As I said, an artist, a writer, a banjo player an all-around entertaining guy. I had the pleasure of running into Russ (I can’t recall nor do I want to do the math) years ago at my first SCBWI New York conference.  What a treat.  He folded me into his merry band of awesome people (Hazel Mitchell, I’m pointing to you) and became my far away creative friend who as many times offered support, critiques and honesty when I needed them most.

But first, before I start with questions you HAVE to read his Bio on his blog.  It will help you get in the mood. 

I was raised by a pack of crazed hillbillies in the back woods of Tennessee. Without much in the way of modern conveniences, like a television set or running water, I spent my time drawing, whittling, and throwing dirt clods at my cousins. Having been born into a family with a flair for racing, I had hoped to be the next Bobby Allison or Richard Petty. But after dismantling my grandfather's lawn mower engine, and without a clue on how to get it back

together, I soon realized that I did not have an automotive bone in my body. Back to the drawing board I went with my pencil and paper (and sometimes the barn wall), drawing for hours. When not drawing, I would watch endless hours of monster movies, Warner Brothers cartoons, and reading comic books. Wyle E. Coyote and Daffy Duck provided me with new ways to torment my evil cousins. While in high school, I developed an interest in graphic design and a passion for music. Upon hearing this news, the school's automotive shop teacher threw a celebration party. After graduating high school, I got a degree at a local art school. With a portfolio in my hand, I ventured into the world of design and illustration where I worked for various design and advertising agencies until coming to my senses. With my wife giving me a swift kick-start in the rump, I opened my own studio, Smiling Otis Studio, where I presently specialize in illustration for the children's market and children's books. I also found time to teach various classes at Pennsylvania College of Art & Design for several years. Recently me and ma packed up the wagon and headed to the wilderness of Maine where we have setup a homestead in Pittsfield. When not drawing, running amok in the snow, or training our four cats to yodel Slim Whitman's greatest hits, I enjoy some quiet time with my banjo while taking in the beauty of Maine. My poor wife would prefer me to play the triangle. or build a sound proof room.

So, now that you are in the mood let’s get down to business-

L.C.- Russ, you are an entertaining person, it is useless to deny it. I am so looking forward to these answers!

First, name three things you are PASSIONATE about.

R.C.- Hmmm, good question. There are the obvious answers like family, books, etc. Only three? Rats. Okay, here are my answers. The environment, food/cooking, and music. Oh wait, there is vintage robots, monsters, and movies. Did I mention travelling? Am I up the three? Just go with the first three. I need a nap.
L.C.- Now, I want to pick your brain, not literally, about- How to have a successful School Visit!
R.C- That is some slim pickings.

L.C- Do you like doing visit? And what’s been the best experience you have had at or after one?
R.C- I really do enjoy doing the school visits. I did not think I would but I was pleasantly surprised. There’s a lot of work involved before the visit but, they are worth every moment. Engaging the kids and getting them excited about what we do, is such a rush.
I’ve had so many wonderful experiences so that is hard to answer. I enjoy getting the “Thank You” notes and drawings from the classes after the visit. I save every one of them.


L.C.- Your perspective is an interesting one because, you are both an artist and writer. So, when you visit a school, I assume you meld the two together in your presentation, or do you?  If you focus on one or the other for a visit, how does it change your presentation, your preparation?
R.C- I do focus on both. Lately, I have been pushing the writing part more in the hopes of getting the kids excited about the writing process. In my PowerPoint, I’ve added more information on writing including some unexpected places where writers are needed, like video games, commercials, and comic books.

L.C.-  I hate to ask but, I’m curious, what was the least fun visit you had and why? How or what did you do to change your presentation for the next visit?
R.C- I have not had one so far, knock on wood.
If I’ve been to a school before, I will do sketchbook/journal workshops, drawing demos, and maybe some digital demos as well.
  For the younger kids, I will bring in dummies that are in the works and get their feedback. They love knowing that they get a sneak peak of a possible book. Often schools want me to do what I talked about in the past to a newer audience but I will change it up some so it is still exciting for me.

L.C.- Ok, can we get down to the Nuts and bolts of School visits- Once you have set up a visit- How do you prepare? R.C- I will go over my presentation to make sure I am covering what the school requested me to chat about. I will also spend a few hours rehearsing the presentation just to have the nuts and bolts down but I do not adhere to a set script. Kids will always through monkey wrenches into your visits.
There is a check list of things I need to bring like handouts, computer, postcards, etc. so I pack everything up the night before. Also, I will review the contracts and schedule again in case I missed something and usually touch base with my contact at the school in case something may have changed.
One important thing to do, especially living in the northeast, is to get a flu shot a few weeks before my first visit. Those walking petri dishes can make you sick very quickly.


L.C.- Is there information you send to the teacher? R.C- If it is requested. A lot of my information is on my website.

Sometimes I will send my presentation, as a pdf file, for the school to review along with my workshop plans. I know that they must have certain things covered by me according to their curriculum requirements.

L.C.- Are there packets you send for the kids? R.C- Not ahead of time. I want to work the kids while I am there.


L.C.- What is your favorite thing to do on a school visit? R.C- Showing my artwork and doing a drawing demo is a ton of fun. The kids love seeing the drawing process and hearing me chat about my approach.  BUT, I like seeing them write and draw. It is amazing what they come up with. Often very bizarre, but also very creative and funny.

L.C.- How interactive are you with the students? So, you read/draw get them to read/draw? R.C- Again, I do drawing demos and talk with them during the 45-50 minutes but it is more about them writing and drawing. Showing each of them, that they are creative and can do both with a little practice and work. Depending on the age of the group, I will show how I create a book and tie it in with an exercise for them to do.

L.C.- How do you use technology in your presentation, or do you?  For example, Skype? Do you use it for a school visits?  And if so, how do Skype visits differ from your in-school visits, for preparation and presentation? R.C- Mostly I use a laptop, with a remote and laser pointer, that is hooked up to a projector or Apple TV screen. During my drawing demos, I use an overhead projector.  I request that the school provide the projectors but eventually I will invest in both. For a large, general assembly, I use a microphone and PA system.

L.C.- My last question, I promise- What advice would you give to a writer/illustrator just starting out about to jump into School Visit?

R.C- I think teaming up with an author/illustrator, or do a group visit, is a great way to learn how it is done. I was very lucky to have teamed up with Lynn Plourde who took me under her wing and guided me through the process.  Having master school visit friends like Marty Kelley, David Biedrzycki, and Michelle Cusolito really is helpful. I often picked their brains about their process and always get a ton of tips.

Also, going to SCBWI conferences and taking school visit workshops will help.

L.C.- Awesome!  Thank you so much Russ.  I love your idea of teaming up.  Hopefully I will be able to find someone to do that with out here on the West Coast.  Wish we lived closer because I would LOVE to see you in action. 
To find out more about Russ, all of his books and even his fun sketch posts (which are a real treat) visit:

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