The Great Book ‘Nobody’ Will Remember

Kenny Brechner - March 25, 2024

Going through a picture book frontlist as a buyer is a bit like being the teacher on the first day of school. We are at one time assessing, connecting and preparing for extended relationships with the books we select to attend the store.

Few things are more complex, more in need of a delicate balance between formal structure and creative expression than being an elementary school teacher.

In his equally masterful and delightful new book, The First Week of School, author and illustrator Drew Beckmeyer brilliantly succeeds in embodying those complexities and more, in a narrative as smooth, elegant and immersive, as it was undoubtedly difficult to create. To test this hypothesis about my favorite new student in the frontlist book class of Summer 2024, I caught up with Drew and laid the issue before him.

Kenny:  I was really impressed by your ability to sustain simultaneous interconnected narratives throughout the story. I felt that I had really gotten to know each of  the students, even the individual sports kids. Did you develop that particular mental muscle doing your day job of being a teacher?

Drew: Yeah, definitely. My access to what kids are thinking and feeling and yelling at each other is almost an unfair advantage. But after 10+ years of elementary school teaching, I feel like I’ve earned a couple free passes to write what I know. I had stories for a lot of the other background kids as well, but keeping six stories going at the same time was about as many as I could manage logistically and spatially in a picture book format.

Kenny:  Was Nobody a homeschooler before joining the class?

Drew: I hadn’t considered that. Hmmm. I suppose he would have to be, at least for the time that his parents are exploring the galaxy. I’d like to think that on his home planet he has a classroom full of gelatinous friends that are awaiting his return.

Kenny:  Does Pat remember the week? I admit that I am convinced she does.

Drew: This is an interesting question. I won’t say yes, but I do think of Pat as being able to see truth in an almost magical way. So if that means that she remembers, I’m ok with that interpretation.

Kenny:   I loved that nobody but Nobody and Pat were referred to by given names but rather by their primary activity. What, The Author, was your thinking there?

Drew: In my mind, only Pat has a name. Nobody is referred to as “Nobody” first because he is secretly sneaking around. Then it just becomes what we call him, but he never speaks or tells us his real name. I doubt the human tongue could make the noises necessary to pronounce it properly. The other characters don’t have names for a couple of reasons. It helps to get the ball rolling to know what each character is about on the very first page, so that when they start moving, the impact of their decisions makes sense in the story. Also, I think it simplifies the flow….and I don’t enjoy the process of naming characters.

Kenny:  Were you, in creating this book, like The Inventor, “inspired to build a new machine from his old satellite parts and the new mysterious parts he found under his desk?”

Drew:  Well, I’m nowhere near as smart as any inventor, but the inspiration was how to solve a puzzle. How to weave 6 stories together where the characters barely interact, but each has an effect on the other and the other’s storyline. I like writing when the parameters are strict, challenging and weird.

Kenny:  As you created the story how did you approach the interplay between text and illustration?

Drew: This was tricky because on most spreads, in a single setting, you have each character doing their own thing and the text has to both explain what that is while also fitting on the page somewhere near them. There are pages where you have to read things in a certain order and other pages where you can read it in any order.  The illustrations are pretty simple because it felt like there was potentially too much already going on. I Initially tried to write each character’s story so you could also follow them individually throughout the book if you wanted to, but I had to abandon that on a few pages to have everything make sense.

Kenny:  Well,  to paraphrase the lead Sports Kid, “Who among us is worthy to judge any true expression of the human condition, but if there was a best one, it would be The First Week of School.” Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us Drew.

Drew: Thanks for reading and believing in Pat.

The Final ShelfTalker: An Interview with the Year 2024

Kenny Brechner - December 29, 2023

I approached the Glade of Years with a tang of melancholy in my heart.

Kenny: Hello there, Year 2024.

The Year 2024: Hello, Kenny.

Kenny: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us.

The Year 2024: Not so fast.

Kenny: Eh?

The Year 2024: I understand that this is the final ShelfTalker post ever. That its long run is coming to an end today.

Kenny: Yes. That is so.

The Year 2024: In that case, I’ll do the questioning here and interview you.

Kenny: What! Hold on a minute. A little warning would have been nice. You’ve caught me entirely flatfooted and unawares.

The Year 2024: Oh, come now. Chin up!

Kenny: Oh, all right!

The Year 2024: Now then, first things first. Is there anyone you want to thank or recognize?

Kenny: Well, certainly all the ShelfTalkers should be praised. In order of advent that would be Alison Morris, Josie Leavitt, Elizabeth Bluemle, myself, Leslie Hawkins, Meghan Goel, and Cynthia Compton.

The Year 2024: Well-spotted in recognizing your bookselling colleagues! But isn’t there a mighty figure who reigns in the shadows you want to thank?

Kenny: Well, yes I do. Diane Roback, PW’s Children’s Editor, is the creator, editor, and cheerleader of ShelfTalker. She’s the smartest person I know in the business, a person of vision and integrity, and a real pal. Diane deserves a giant dollop of thanks.

The Year 2024: Yes, I have heard nothing but praise of Diane from preceding Years. So, what has led up to this moment of finality?

Kenny: I would say that the pandemic was like a slow leak in an aging tire. Though I personally continued to fling a post up once a month, the regular practice of writing by the group never reanimated.

The Year 2024: I see. And how many posts were made during ShelfTalker’s 15 year run?

Kenny: 2693.

The Year 2024: Well! And what was the most read of any post?

Kenny: The runaway winner was The Real Reason Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Is Not Here Yet, which I wrote in 2017. One should note that it is still relevant as book three continues to be nowhere on the horizon and I don’t suppose you will have any news to share of it during your tenure.

The Year 2024: You are quite wrong about that. In fact, I can now reveal that book three, The Doors of Stone, is already here.

Kenny: What?!

The Year 2024: Yes. As I’m sure you know Rothfuss recently published a duplicative tidbit of a book, The Narrow Road Between Desires.

Kenny: Yes, though why it was published baffled me.

The Year 2024: Ah. Well, it will be revealed that every word of The Doors of Stone is present somewhere in The Narrow Road Between Desires. To read book three of the Kingkiller Trilogy all you have to do is unlock the complex secret algorithm used to shrink The Doors of Stone into the tiny new book and then reverse engineer it to read book three in full. So you can see that the long wait is over.

Kenny: That’s quite a sense of humor you are sporting, Year 2024.

The Year 2024: I’ll need it. And now, returning to ShelfTalker, how many posts did you personally produce?

Kenny: 354.

The Year 2024: Indeed!  And do you have a favorite?

Kenny: Not really a single favorite, though I do  have some favorites. For example, I think The Problem with Problems was the most important. The State of Maine’s Apology to Lev Grossman is a favorite. The interview with Gail Carson Levine’s Book Covers is a favorite interview.

The Year 2024: I see. I know you wrote a number of spoofs regarding Amazon. Do you have a favorite there?

Kenny: Sure, I’ll go with A Surprising Suitor for the Amazon Headquarters II.

The Year 2024: All right then. What about the fun contests you ran from time to time? I myself was tempted to enter them, but since I had foreknowledge of the results I restrained myself.

Kenny: Hmmm… I did love The Best Behaved Blurb contest, but my all-time favorite was The Valentine for Blobfish Contest and its charming Submissions Page.

The Year 2024: Ah, yes. You also wrote a bunch on free speech and even gave your reasons for resigning from the ABA Board in a post. Any thoughts there?

Kenny: Children’s books are filled with magical mirrors of dubious character and certainly the ABA’s continuing impulse to strongly defend the speech that they agree with and feel legitimated by the support of people who agree with them leaves them in the position of being a mirror image of everything they dislike. For example, they encouraged everyone to support the ALA’s Freedom to Read statement but, steeped in their well-established antipathy to the First Amendment, they are themselves at odds with all seven of the Freedom to Read Statement’s precepts. There is no end run around the First Amendment principle of tolerating speech we are offended by that doesn’t result in censorship, hypocrisy, and autocracy. We must criticize rather than suppress written works. The harm of censoring to protect from perceived harm only escalates into a kind of harmageddon.

The Year 2024: “Harmageddon,” eh? Did you make that up?

Kenny: I did. Don’t think about appropriating it.

The Year 2024: Ah, but as Gandalf said, “Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused. The wish to wield it would be too great, for my strength. I shall have such need of it.”

Kenny: Fair enough. You do seem to be in for a rough ride. Can I ask you one thing?

The Year 2024: Sure. 

Kenny: Is there any book coming out in your year that provides a kind of counterbalance to all the travail you’ll be overseeing, Year 2024?

The Year 2024: There is, actually. Chris Raschka’s Tomorrow’s Lily. What a sweet, deep, healing book that is.

Kenny: Oh, that is a truly lovely book.

The Year 2024: Any last thoughts, Kenny?

Kenny: Presentism, the projection and superimposition of the present onto the past, is a form of narcissism that is fatal to literature. All books and their authors are creatures of a particular moment in time and each of them simultaneously adhere to and transcend aspects of their present. The flaws of a book or its author are aspects of a whole, a whole which also contains other, sometimes vitally important aspects. Books are vast interior spaces and their integrity is critical, a necessary constant in a world of variables. Defense of that integrity is crucial in order to safeguard the experiences of their readers from being made subject to autocratic suppression, the lethal hubris of presentism rooted in a mad belief that we, unlike every other generation who had the same false belief, have it right and are justified in expunging wrong from creative works.

Children’s books are the most magical portals of all, leading to enchanted schools, fabled sanctuaries, homes, friends, monsters, dangers—and other things a child, however challenging their circumstances, could desperately need. Children with terrible parents can be raised inside books. Children who can’t find hope anywhere else can find hope in their pages. Respect the power and the unique interplay of every child’s experience in the literary worlds we sell.

The Year 2024: Thanks, Kenny. Goodbye now!

Kenny: Goodbye, everyone!

Forever Shelf Talking

Alison Morris - December 28, 2023

ShelfTalker, PW’s blog written by booksellers, is ending its long and successful run at the end of the year. When Diane Roback invited me to come back and write a final ShelfTalker post I was immensely grateful. I was also stymied, because after 13 years of not blogging, there is so much I’d love to say!

At Diane’s invitation I originated this blog back in March of 2007, during the decade in which I was the children’s book buyer for Wellesley Booksmith (now Wellesley Books). In my first ShelfTalker post I mentioned my then boyfriend (graphic novelist Gareth Hinds) to whom I got engaged then married during the 3 years in which I contributed to the blog, and in 2010 we moved to NYC where I joined the editorial team at Scholastic Book Clubs – a job I was offered because folks there discovered my expertise and writing by way of this blog.

ShelfTalker gave me a national stage in the days before social media was (in theory) providing such opportunities to everyone. But having a TikTok, webcam, and understanding of algorithms is still not the same as working for a trusted institution that will back your expertise, hand you a pre-existing audience, give you an excellent editor, and (the biggest of all) pay you for your work. I’m forever grateful that Publishers Weekly (and specifically Diane) did those things for me. And I’m grateful they did them at a pivotal mid-point in my career – I was 30 years old, with 8 years of industry experience under my belt and the certainty that this – putting books in kids’ hands – would be a thing I’d want to do in perpetuity. 

After 3 years in NYC, Gareth and I moved to Washington, DC, where today I’m in my 11th year as the Senior Director of Title Selection at nonprofit First Book. I oversee the buying of children’s and young adult books for the First Book Marketplace, helping put millions of books each year into the hands of kids in need, and helping build new generations of readers, book lovers, and (hopefully also) future book world colleagues.

The amazing indie booksellers who’ve been “shelf talking” here over the years (the wonderful Elizabeth, Josie, Kenny, Cynthia, Leslie, and Meghan) are in the same important business of reaching readers. They’re also creating lasting relationships with their communities and building book-centered ecosystems that center the needs of local kids and local families. Their work continues to make a critical difference, and I’m grateful that ShelfTalker provided them a place to share sage insights, great ideas, and funny anecdotes with those of us who don’t stand face-to-face with customers each day.

I’m hopeful that the posts we’ve shared on ShelfTalker are a reminder that we all should make space in whatever ways we can for motivated early- and mid-career booksellers, librarians, and other industry professionals (in particular those from communities historically excluded from industry conversations) to have opportunities to share their ideas and opinions, expand their circle of industry connections, and learn from others. While ideally this means hiring them to do paid work (e.g. creating social media content for you or hosting online author events), it can also mean inviting them to cocktail parties, offering them free badges to conventions, arranging opportunities for them to Zoom with your editorial team or join your children’s book trivia team, or simply offering to talk with them about their jobs and the work they might want to do in the future. Actions like these help us continue to cultivate an industry of passionate and compassionate advocates for work that I think is more important and more impactful now than ever.

The children’s book industry has changed dramatically in the 16 years since ShelfTalker got its start, and so have the books themselves. Extensive efforts to diversify books and diversify publishing are creating what I truly believe is a golden age of children’s books – one in which kids across a broad spectrum of cultures, communities, identities, and experiences can now see themselves and their families reflected on the page and learn more about one another. My small team of buyers considers more than 10K new children’s and YA books each year from our 50+ publishing partners, and our task of choosing titles gets harder each year as the array of available books becomes more robust and more reflective of our world’s people and the very real needs of kids. To me that is the biggest, best thing I’ve seen happen to our industry in the past 16 years.

I think about that progress whenever I’m fretting about what our industry might look like 16 years from now. I am genuinely concerned about the impacts of book banning, advances in AI, publishing mergers, and the increasing pressures on (and lack of appreciation for) the hard work of thoughtfully creating, editing, choosing, and providing books to kids. Many of the most knowledgeable and experienced people in our industry are aging out, retiring early (not always by choice), and/or moving on. Meanwhile their mid-career colleagues are jumping ship because they’re overworked, underpaid, or (in the case of too many teachers, librarians, authors, and others) under threat. I worry about the expertise (or lack thereof) that’s left behind, and the impact it has on our long-term ability to meet kids’ needs. I also fret daily about the intentional erosion of public education in this country and what that means for book adoption by schools and libraries, for literacy rates nationwide, and (of course) democracy at large.

But we still have the books. I have not stopped (and will never stop) believing in the power of the book, and the printed book in particular. I still see how print books emanate their own tractor beam of interest (among kids fortunate enough to have them), through a technology that is great precisely BECAUSE it is designed to do just one thing and do it exceedingly well. We know books are like magic tickets to bearable bedtimes; tools that open doors, inform, educate, entertain, and provide escape – that introduce kids to ideas beyond their own and to people beyond their block, their school, their community, their country. 

When I was blogging for ShelfTalker people were predicting the end of the printed book, and they were dead wrong. The printed book is still alive – so much so that it’s now being treated like a snake in the Garden of Eden – something so alive that some want to cast it out for fear it might open kids’ eyes to reality. But reality is as beautiful and complicated and valuable now as it has ever been – and we need reality, honesty, truth to combat the falsehoods and false promises inherent to other forms of tech.

Whoever you are – whatever your role in this industry – please keep doing what you’re doing to create opportunities and access for kids to get their hands on books, so they discover art and words and stories and all of the good things that go hand-in-hand with those three critical elements of being human. Please also continue to pay humans to do what we do best – to empathize with one another and create art and words and stories that pull from that well of understanding. And please continue to support humans who are passionate about this work and eager to learn more, do more, connect more dots in this industry so we can continue to build, educate, inform, and inspire new generations.

To sustain this industry we have to plant the seeds of its future employees and the seeds of future authors and illustrators – the most capable of whom are not being made in a lab somewhere. They’re the ones sitting on a caregiver’s lap or curled up on a sofa, falling in love with a new favorite book.

The 2023 Stocking Stuffer of the Year Award!

Kenny Brechner - November 30, 2023

Aragorn counseled Arwen to reconsider her adjuration that he continue to rule and live past the time in which he could maintain his integrity. “Take counsel with yourself, beloved, and ask whether you would indeed have me wait until I wither and fall from my high seat unmanned and witless.” In reading that, I felt that Aragorn was speaking to me about the Stocking Stuffer of the Year Award. Once a source of fair-minded excellence and moral stature, the award has suffered indignity after indignity in recent years as judge after judge awarded the top award to themselves, despite making solemn vows to avoid that ignoble shaming.

Was the award at the point reached by Aragorn? Was it time to retire it? I decided to give it one final chance. After all, I had in the store a judge renowned for unwavering ethical fortitude: The Surprize Ball.

Kenny: Is it true, oh Surprize Ball, that you judge through a kind of enlightened consensus?

Surprize Ball: That is so. As you know, I am comprised of six hidden presents and my judgments are reached by achieving a consensus of all six.

Kenny: Fantastic. And do you solemnly vow to not surprise me by awarding yourself the grand prize?

Surprize Ball: I do so solemnly vow.

Kenny: Phew. Okay, so let’s get going with our first category: The Most Elegant Stocking Stuffer. Our contestants are the sublimely cute Sleeping Cat Blind Box, the auspicious Magic Animal Scratch Pads, the debonair Favorite Things Gel Pens, and the stylish Nekoni Stickers.

Surprize Ball: We have gathered, we have deliberated, we speak with one voice. The winner is the sublime Sleeping Cat.

Kenny: Well deliberated, oh venerable Surprize Ball. Our next category is The Most Rambunctious Stocking Stuffer. Here are our energetic contestants: the gregarious Flip-Over Stunt Truck, the wondrous Wobbli, its cousin the adorable Wobbly Woofer, and the fearsome Dino Tube.

Surprize Ball: We have gathered, we have deliberated, we speak with one voice. The winner is that wellspring of wonder, the Wobbli.

Kenny: Well deliberated again, oh venerable Surprize Ball. And now for a most difficult category: The Most Emotionally Supportive Plush. Our steadfast contestant friends are the sympathetic Possum, the learned Llama, the regarding Rabbit, and the affectionate Cat.

Surprize Ball: We have gathered, we have deliberated, we speak with one voice. The winner is the emotional support Possum.

Kenny: Delicately decided, oh venerable Surprize Ball. And now for our final category: The Stocking Stuffer of the Year Award. Our auspicious entrants are the aptly-named Magic Butterfly, the fabulous Fresh Cut Flowers, the regal plush Tarantula, and the breathtakingly charming Spinning Fruit Top.

Surprize Ball: We have gathered, we have deliberated, we speak with one voice. The winner is that most mystical stocking stuffer: The Surprize Ball!

Kenny: What!!! Noooooo! You promised not to surprise me.

Surprize Ball: We didn’t surprise you.

Kenny: What do you mean?!!

Surprize Ball: We Surprized you!

Pajama Night 2023

Kenny Brechner - November 17, 2023

Last night marked the 2023 iteration of my favorite event of the year: Jammie Night!

Jammie Night, aka Prime Time Reading Night, which takes place at Mallett Elementary School, has ingredients that would be the envy of any event. For example, it is comprised of an actively shared love of reading, widespread community support, partnerships, great authors, a great crowd, amazing decorations, and pajamas.

Here’s how it works: the Mallett community comes back to school at 6:00 in the evening—parents, kids, teachers, librarian, principal—all dressed in pajamas for an evening of read alouds. I produce a children’s book author. The evening starts with that author reading her book to the assembled throng in the gymnasium, which has been lavishly decorated around the book’s theme. Afterwards, families can either go listen to one of five different community readers in five different classrooms, read together in the gym, or purchase a book and have the guest author sign it. The evening ends with the author reading a second book to the whole audience and then concludes with goodnights and more book signing.

Continue reading

A Harrowing Coming of Age

Kenny Brechner - October 12, 2023

There are many reasons to read Alix E. Harrow’s terrific new novel, Starling House, for it is both resoundingly entertaining and profound. The psychological underpinnings of haunted houses and cursed communities are dealt with powerfully without veering into allegory. The book’s monsters are tethered to forces that readers will experience strong echoes from within. Surprising narrative choices keep the reader on the edge of their literary toes. Another reason to take up Starling House is that it embodies a particular definition of the single most important element of young adult and middles grade literature: coming of age.

What is coming of age? The prosaic idea of it as simply a transition into adulthood has no literary resonance. Certainly transition is present—the shedding of one state to attain another—but the traits of the transition are subtle and various.

We should first note that the nature of coming of age in adult novels and young adult novels are decidedly different. In the inveterately adult The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh describes it as follows: “He was adding his bit to the wreckage; something that had long irked him, his young heart, and was carrying back instead the artist’s load, a great, shapeless chunk of experience; bearing it home to his ancient and comfortless shore; to work on it hard and long.” This sense of having shed romanticism for artistry is the inverse of the young adult understanding of having attained a solid basis for romance.

There is also the question of whether coming of age belongs to any age. Though it is commonly understood to pertain to teenage and early adult years, we must also respect the truth of Ogden Nash’s observation that “we are only young once, but you can stay  immature indefinitely.” It is certainly true that coming of age is not, like adolescence,  a universal experience. We also find in the pages of Alix E. Harrow’s Starling House that coming of age is not necessarily experienced at any particular point in a person’s age development. For some people it can be suspended for years, but then comes into play due to shifts in a person’s relationship to powerful levers such as trauma, privilege, responsibility, betrayal, and trust.

Opal and Arthur, Starling House‘s protagonists, are two people who are both still young, but stunted in experiencing a coming of age. They each have suppressed what they want out of a state of necessity, a self-driven responsibility to protect others at any cost. They each must overcome a mistaken apprehension that what held them down is also what makes them who they are.

In this, Starling House is an adult novel which contains the heart of young adult coming of age. It defines coming of age as the creation and achievement of home, rather than the inheriting of it. It is a belonging by virtue of character, rather than a bestowal. For Arthur and Opal, coming of age is a stepping into self, a transcending of trauma by honoring its truth and embracing the power of want by relinquishing the familiar security of need. This speaks to the core metaphor of fantasy—and it belongs to anyone who fought, fights, or plans to fight for a meaningful home.

An Interview with Autumn

Kenny Brechner - September 7, 2023

When I arrived at the glade for my annual interview with Autumn, I noted that her eyes lingered on the page of the book in her hand before she turned to greet me.

Autumn: Ah, so you’ve returned this year to hold speech with me again, Kenny? I’m pleased to see you.

Kenny: I’m most happy to hear that, as I had been under the impression that mild annoyance was the highest pitch of emotion my appearance in the glade had ever evoked these many years.

Autumn: That is sooth but, given the perils besetting the world, I have put an emphasis in my season on books epitomizing the role that conscious regularity plays in our efforts to effect the character of change. You therefore represent the establishment of a pattern of inquiry which I am inclined to see more as an opportunity than a nuisance.

Kenny: Umm… thank you. I hope. Hmmm. I see you are holding the latest story in Martha Wells’ peerless Murderbot series, System Collapse — does that exemplify your principle?

Autumn: Absolutely. It is a wonderful blend of the familiar elements of substantive transition. The way Murderbot approaches change reinforces the integrity of its character. How reassuring and engaging its voice is, how delightfully relaxing is the breakneck action.

Kenny: Totally agree! And what other books can you share with us that adhere to your principle?

Autumn: Well, last year I praised Sophie Blackall’s Farmhouse. This year I return to that author to praise a book which is equally excellent, but decidedly different in tone. If I Was a Horse is so light and funny while maintaining Blackall’s gift for deeper resonance.

Kenny: It is yet another triumph.

Autumn: Another picture book I’ll call to your attention is Leslie Barnard Booth’s A Stone Is a Story, magnificently illustrated by Marc Martin. What book more clearly conveys the role that change plays, even something which symbolizes fixity? Its pages are a source of wonder and delight.

Kenny: I’ll look into that one straightway! Any other picks for us?

Autumn: Sure, I was so happy to see a new Dory Fantasmagory book coming out. And it is most aptly named: Can’t Live Without You. Who would wish for a world without Dory?

Kenny: Not I.

Autumn: No, indeed. Now for graphic novels, I’ll mention Kate Leth’s Mall Goth, a deft and deeply-affecting coming of age, grappling with the interrelation of fixity and change. And for young adult, I really enjoyed Pascale Lacelle’s Curious Tides. A terrific story with intricate plotting, an atmosphere steeped in dangerous possibility, and the presence of the tides, transmuted from their traditional role as a force of regularity, makes this a story whose agency reflects the magic it describes.

Kenny: I’m so glad you mentioned that book! One yearns to see it escape from the sea cave in which debut fantasy novels are birthed. Thanks so much for sharing your picks, Autumn.

Autumn: I did it gladly, Kenny. Farewell.

On the Power of ‘Accountable’

Kenny Brechner - August 28, 2023

On the surface it may seem surprising that Dashka Slater, the author of delightful picture books such as Escargot, could also be the creator of searing young adult non-fiction books like The 57 Bus and the newly released Accountable. In his introduction to Egil’s Saga E.R. Eddison observed that the school that believes “the gouger out of Armod’s eye could not in nature be also the tender and sublime poet of the Sonatorrek, is a school that knows little of humanity.” Similarly we should be edified but not surprised by both Slater’s versatility, and by the humanity she reveals in the perpetrators of terrible actions in her non-fiction tours de force.

If I could pick a single book for a national book read it would be Slater’s just published Accountable. With Accountable she has brought another morally complex story of severe interpersonal harm among teenagers to life. She does so with an acute subtlety which draws forth the intertwined elements of action, character, causation, and reaction in a manner whose artistry and open clarity provides the reader with multiple avenues of engagement.

The subtitle of the book is The True Story of a Racist Social Media Account and the Teenagers Whose Lives It Changed. The story includes racism, masculine bravado, the worst mediation imaginable, the accelerant nature of social media, bystanderism, and the profound failure of the adults in the room. It is a failure shared by parents of both the victims and perpetrators, of school and town administrators  to put the welfare of children at the center of their words and actions.

Slater’s combination of tightly focused detail and moral restraint reveals harm as a self-propagating, ever-accumulating,  dehumanizing snowball  of polarization, rage, abuse, and suppression. The skill of the book’s revelation lets air into an environment normally inhospitable to life in which the only way to survive is to adopt a spacesuit of self-protection. To read Accountable is to traverse a heartbreaking tragedy that deserves our deepest attempts at understanding.  Remarkably it provides every reader with just that opportunity. What more could a children’s bookseller ask for?

On AI, Textual Integrity, and Bookselling

Kenny Brechner - August 4, 2023

As Artificial Intelligence (AI), crowd-sourced editing, and the superimposing of particular cultural  sensibilities onto established works of literature make themselves more at home in our world, those of us who care about books for a living—publishers, booksellers, authors, editors and book marketers—have a job to do.  We need to articulate our positions regarding these practices that are eroding the integrity of the human literary enterprise or allow passive fatalism to be the instrument of our own demise as book lovers, book professionals, and engaged human beings.

Here are some questions to consider.

The Trolls by J.R.R. Tolkien

Is the defense of textual and editorial standards a better path for the bookselling industry than buying into the self-fulfilling idea that this kind of change is inevitable? Should we offer an island of stability in a sea of ephemeral media, a source of balance and fixity in an unsettled world? Should we work to provide active engagement with the literary continuum over time or retrain ourselves to breathe in an atmosphere saturated with information imbalances that are leveraged to promote passive consumerism? Is there any point in resisting what appear to be dominant forces of dehumanification?

For perspective, let us look at a parallel situation. Consider the words of Saruman speaking to Gandalf on the benefits of aligning with Mordor, our AI-equivalent in The Lord of the Rings.

This then is one choice before you, before us. We may join with that Power. It would be wise, Gandalf…. Its victory is at hand; and there will be rich reward for those that aided it. As the Power grows, it’s proved friends will also grow; and the Wise, such as you and I, may with patience come at last to direct its courses, to control it. We can bide our time, we can keep our thoughts in our hearts, deploring maybe evils done by the way, but approving the high and ultimate purpose: Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish, hindered rather than helped by our weak or idle friends. There need not be, there would not be, any real change in our designs, only in our means.

“Saruman,” [said Gandalf]. “I have heard speeches of this kind before, but only in the mouths of emissaries sent from Mordor to deceive the ignorant. I cannot think that you brought me so far only to weary my ears.”

The insidious adjuration to adopt an ascendant, even if repugnant, force in the hopes of benefitting from its dominance and influencing its character over time could hardly be more on point. Each adoption of Saruman’s reasoning  weakens the standing of the bookselling world.

For example, new editions of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse come with the following warning:

That a book written in 1927 was written in 1927 should not be noteworthy. The idea that publishing the book as it was originally published is a noteworthy decision infers that the publisher just as easily might have altered the author’s words to align with some other notion of cultural representation and language. It should surprise no one then that, as the Washington Post opinion piece “21st-century editors should keep their hands off 20th-century books” pointed out, “The estate of Ursula K. Le Guin recently authorized the publisher of her Catwings series to change words such as ‘dumb,’ ‘lame,’ ‘stupid’ and ‘queer’ in seven instances across three books. In common parlance, the word ‘queer’ now means something different than it did when Catwings was first published in 1988. The estate determined that changing the language was necessary to ensure the author’s point comes across.”^

Once we have acceded to textual revision as a new standard of practice, it is but a short hop to Bertelsmann CEO Thomas Rabe (channeling Saruman) when speaking to the Financial Times: “[f]or creative industries, generative AI could be ‘very positive provided we… understand its potential and threats… [AI is] on balance… probably more of an opportunity… If it’s your content, for which you own the copyright, and then you use it to train the software, you can in theory generate content like never before.” +

There is a clear descending path from the To the Lighthouse trigger warnings to the textual revisionism of changing queer to peculiar in Catwings to Thomas Rabe’s disedifying pitch promoting generative AI in creative industries. This kind of progressive weakening of the norms of professional book publishing can only lend itself to even more dubious actions becoming more palatable and likely—such as apps offering readers the ability to optimize Jane Austen novels by requesting AI to output Sense and Sensibility with 15% added sex and 10% added violence, new AI-generated novels by Toni Morrison, new poems by William Butler Yeats, and other fresh AI-generated material from dead authors.

And yet, advocating for what you care about is not the empty practice Saruman would have you believe. Consider Denethor’s proclamation to Gandalf:

[A]gainst the Power that now arises there is no victory. To this City only the first finger of its hand has yet been stretched. All the East is moving. And even now the wind of thy hope cheats thee and wafts up Anduin a fleet with black sails. The West has failed. It is time for all to depart who would not be slaves.

“Such counsels will make the Enemy’s victory certain indeed,” said Gandalf.

Resisting odious change is not a guarantee of success but, as Gandalf suggests, not resisting it makes failure a certainty. Perhaps producing and marketing integrity and quality is a better play for publishing and bookselling than sublimating all editorial and historical standards in the hopes that ephemeral forms of discovery, dubiously projecting the present onto the past, and relegating humanity into being the passive consumer—rather than the creator—of its own stories, will somehow keep things profitable and relevant. As TikTok stops simply being the discoverer of profitable, unedited material and begins to be the publisher of it as well, it may well be time to stop wondering about getting bitten by the hand that’s feeding you and go back to feeding ourselves. With The Writers Guild of America and The Screen Actors Guild on strike and fighting for their creative and professional lives against the threat of generative AI, perhaps we should be focused less on profiteering and opportunism and more on integrity and common cause with other professionals in the creative industries. Do we really want to help produce a future in which human beings no longer aspire to creative expression?

Instead of engaging in this dubious embrace *  I suggest it is time for the major publishers and bookselling trade organizations to make a formal position statement rejecting AI and textual revisionism.

+ *

Which Picture Books Are Selling This Season?

Kenny Brechner - June 22, 2023

Unsurprisingly, spring picture book sales are a lot like vegetable gardening. They are filled with a mix of blighted hopes, satisfying results, and occasional surprises and volunteers. Looking at what books stood out for sales this spring, and comparing it with our hopes and labors makes for a good case in point.

Some of the books we loved, handsold, and featured did indeed sell abundantly. Our top seller was Marla Frazee’s In Every Life, which makes one hopeful that we do inhabit a sane world because great books should  be welcome in every life. Our second best seller, Emma Straub’s delightful Very Good Hats, illustrated by Blanca Gómez, also represented a felicitous sales performance. After all, if you don’t love Very Good Hats your hopes for felicity are circumspect at best.

We were also happy to see store favorites Endlessly Ever After by Laurel Snyder, illustrated by Dan Santat, and That Flag by Tameka Fryer Brown, illustrated by Nikkolas Smith, be among our top sellers. After all, there is a place in a child’s world for both snarky fairy tales and compelling issues if they each thread the needle that great picture book telling requires.

One surprise on our list was the big-selling All About Mermaids by Izzy Quinn, illustrated by Vlad Stankovic. Who would have thought a nonfiction book would perform so well, no matter how well-illustrated, documented and researched it is? Actually though, the presence of Sy Montgomery’s The Book of Turtles on the list was no surprise both because we put it right by the counter and because it is amazing. What a sublime concordance of information and imagery. Illustrations by the estimable Matt Patterson, by the way.

An example of a book we hoped and expected would do well, but to date, inexplicably, has not, is Lalena Fisher’s Friends Beyond Measure. Its creative use of infographics is clever, charming, interesting, and brilliant, so what’s up with the low sales of it? Perhaps the days left for our species really can be measured.

And what books have just hit the shelves we have high hopes for? That would be The Brilliant Ms. Bangle by Cara Devins, engagingly illustrated by K-Fai Steele. So wonderful! And Isabel Greenberg’s The Midnight Babies, a book so captivating that the fate of humanity must surely hinge squarely on its success. After all, if Ms. Bangle and the Midnight Babies can’t save the day, who can?