Last week, fellow ShelfTalker Leslie Hawkins wrote a compelling piece on talking to kids about racism directly so that they can see it and name it and react to it. She pointed to Holly McGhee’s Come with Me as a title designed to help kids engage with tough topics and figure out what they can do. I completely agree and think that books that depict kids finding ways to push back against hatred and racism and bias can be especially impactful—books like The Story of Ruby Bridges, Emmanuel’s Dream, Separate Is Never Equal, We’ve Got a Job. But as Grace Lin reminded everyone in a PBS video last week, there are plenty of books that introduce racism but don’t call it by name, and some of those books come labeled with the word “classic.” It’s embedded racism in bestselling, famous stories that we can’t afford to gloss over with young readers, even if it’s tempting to keep turning the pages to get back to the fun parts.
Even old-school nature documentaries struggled with identifying what set human beings apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. The narrator would begin by declaring “man, the tool maker.” Tool making, we understood, set us apart. And yet as the documentary progressed a chimpanzee would be filmed turning a leaf into a funnel and using it to extract ants from a tree. Unmistakable tool making, We were dished! Or were we?
The issue remained ambiguous and yet I believe that old idea was onto something. We are as imposed upon by biological imperatives as any other mammal, to be sure. We are capable of the same level of reflexive and sustained prejudice and violence as that exhibited by a group of territorial weasels. It is not physical tools which make us our best selves but rather the creation of intellectual constructs, tools of the mind such as the First Amendment, and adherence to principles such as non-violence and critical discourse, which elevate us over a state of nature.
As the school year begins, so do the myriad of events hosted by PTAs, sports teams, service clubs and groups. Customers (and people claiming to be regular customers) approach the counter daily with a single typed sheet on letterhead extended before them like a foam play sword, requesting donations for auctions, raffles, back-to-school nights and festivals. We are happy to be included, of course, in their planning, but sometimes the sheer volume of requests is difficult to accommodate. While the soliciting volunteer often asks for “just anything, really” to fill their basket, we are torn between wanting to empty our “slightly damaged” shelf in the stock room and the potential marketing opportunity of an event — it IS our reputation we’re sending with our brochure and donation, and shabby or shopworn merchandise is just not quite the impression we were hoping to achieve.
In the aftermath of the horrific white nationalist gathering in Charlottesville, I’ve heard and read some very pointed (and on point) feedback about the well-meaning platitudes that follow such events. Being who I am and doing what I do, I’m trying to absorb this feedback and learn from it, especially concerning how the children’s book community and others who influence kids can do better.
One hard truth we have to face is that, as much as we want to think that “this is not us,” that this is not who our country is, we aren’t going to change anything until we all accept that racism is alive and well and confront it head on. When it comes to what we teach our kids, maybe messages in books and songs and classrooms about how we’re all the same just aren’t enough. We, as a country, aren’t going to just “age out” of racism. I’ve been guilty of that assumption myself, noticing how white parents today are much less resistant to (even actively looking for) books featuring non-white characters compared to what I saw when I opened my bookstore 12 years ago. Yeah, it’s maybe getting better in my tiny little privileged corner of the universe. But out there in big wide world, not much has changed. As someone pointed out today, a lot of the neo-Nazis in that Charlottesville mob looked pretty young.
Working with publishers large and small is a huge part of what we do, but when you enter our store, the focus is generally on the books themselves or the authors and illustrators who created them. That’s how it should be. But publishers have their own voices too, especially independent presses whose carefully curated lists often reflect very personal, specific points of view. I think highlighting their voices can add something important to the conversation our store builds around books. I wrote a few months ago about an instore section I developed with Enchanted Lion Books, and we recently worked with Lee & Low Books to spotlight the robust catalog of titles they have built through 25 years of publishing stories “about everyone and for everyone.”
A great book can sometimes end just like a great vacation does, by making it hard to transition back to even a pleasant norm. This can be a problem for people who read copiously for a living. We have dietary restrictions. The conveyor belt of frontlist titles does not grow less insistent when a jam occurs. Re-reading cannot be more than an occasional indulgence. It’s a safety issue. And yet sometimes a book throws us so that in turning to the next book in our queue we taste nothing but ashes in our mouth. To head off into a different world is suddenly unpalatable. We are cast off course.
This sort of thing is rare for me, and I treasure it when it happens. The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, the debut novel by Cherise Wolas, caused such a breakdown. It had been a while. The last book to halt the line was Sally Green’s sublime culmination in Half Lost. I recalled picking up book after book but finding myself unable to engage. The need for another trip back to sit by Nathan’s tree was slow to fade.This recollection did not auger well for my current predicament.
We have a lovely family in our community who have been great supporters of our store. Their two sons, Drew and Sean, both have autism. They manifest this diagnosis in different ways, but neither boy likes loud noises, crowded places, or unexpected events. We met them for the first time several years ago, when the boys were still in strollers, out for a Sunday morning walk in our empty shopping center. I was inside, assembling a train table for delivery that afternoon, and when I saw the parents peeking in the windows of our closed store, I unlocked the door and offered to let them come in to play. Unfortunately, the door “dinged” as I opened it (do you have those bells on your doors, too?) and little Drew took offense to the sound. Dad and I exchanged apologetic looks, and I suggested that they walk up and down the sidewalk again, and in the meantime, I’d disconnect the doorbell. Then they could just come in quietly, and I’d go back to my Phillips head screwdrivers and directions-in-translation. They quickly agreed, and a friendship was born over a tantrum and lack of overhead store lights (we just kept the store dark, and let the sunshine do the work) for their almost weekly visits. Now, when they are headed over, Sandra calls on her cell phone first, and one of the staff jumps up on the stepstool to disconnect the offending dinger, and turns off the stereo. Their visits are no longer limited to off hours, as other customers are very accommodating to our quick “lights out” drill, and will even kindly lower their voices if told of the boys’ preferences.
As sales of books in comics format have soared over the past several years, most booksellers and publishers have come to use “graphic novel” to provide an umbrella for a wide-ranging genre that includes nonfiction and other forms that defy the definition of “novel.” The term has become easy collective shorthand, but its inaccuracy irks many, including the very artists who make these books, many of whom use and prefer the term “comics.” So how do we resolve this terminology issue at the store? Continue reading
I was delighted to receive a text message today from one of my oldest friends asking if I’d read the YA novel Every Day by David Levithan. Joey and I have been talking books since we bonded over our love for Harriet the Spy in grade school, so random texts about what we’re reading aren’t that unusual. I was surprised, however, that he was reading a young adult novel. He teaches advanced high school English and in the past has been notoriously snobby about even his students reading YA. This has been a point of contention, as you might well imagine given my chosen vocation. The reason Joey started reading Every Day is that it had been chosen for a One School, One Book summer read. It’s the third such text chosen by the school, he tells me, and the first one he will actually read. “The premise is very Woolfian,” he tells me. “A few pages in and I love it.” Continue reading
Shoppers sometimes know exactly what they are looking for, but often they’re looking for inspiration. With about 28,000 square feet, we have a lot of space to play with at BookPeople, which is a huge luxury when it comes out to laying out displays and face-outs and event spaces. But in a large space filled with nooks and crannies and corners blocking lines of sight, we have to think (and rethink) about where books will be seen to their best advantage. Creating an atmosphere of optimal discoverability can feel like a moving target because our title mix changes over time, but it’s also kind of fun to experiment. Earlier this year I wrote a ShelfTalker post about the ways creative sections can help call out topics or ideas that feel current and important and reflect our store’s point of view. But oftentimes the impetus for new sections is a lot more practical than philosophical.