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Author’s Stories: Best Heard Over a Meal

Josie Leavitt -- May 28th, 2015

I walked into the Javits Center this morning in time for the adult author breakfast. The room was full and I had missed the crush of people usually waiting to get in. Mercifully, there were seats. Elizabeth and I had paid for the continental breakfast with fruit. We were told straight away by one of our funny tablemates that there was one strawberry and she ate it. Half a stale bagel later, I realized that I had had far too many cups of good coffee, which is actually a good way to start the day on the trade show floor. The breakfasts are always a window into how these writers came to become authors, and there journey is often unexpected, full of surprises and touching. The speakers were Lee Child, Diana Nyad, and Brandon Stanton.

The breakfast was hosted by Kunal Nayyar, an actor from The Big Bang Theory. I do not watch this show at all, but after he was done speaking I was certain I would order his book, My Accent Is Real and Other Things I Haven’t Told You, for the store. He was engaging and very funny about being an Indian in America.  His path to becoming an author was somewhat fraught as was his path to becoming an actor on the hit show. Lee Child was up next and he was also humorous. I loved hearing about how he became an author. He got fired from the job he’d had for 18 years and bought himself a pad of paper, a pencil and an eraser. The next thing he knew, he had finished the first of his 20 Jack Reacher mysteries. I still can’t believe he wrote a bestselling book with a pencil! And it was his first book!

Diana Nyad followed and she spoke  of her swim from Cuba to the Florida Keys that is the basis of her book that’s coming out in the fall, Find a Way. A wonderful storyteller, she roamed the stage and told the incredible story of her upbringing. She spoke about her Greek father showing her the word nyad in the dictionary when she was five, and it meant water nymph, will remain as one of my favorite BEA moments. When she turned 60 she was inspired by the Mary Oliver quote, “What are you going to with this wild and precious life?” Then she decided to try again to make that distance swim again. Part motivational speaker, part comedic storyteller, she was absolutely riveting.

Brandon Stanton, author of the wildly popular Humans of New York series, was so honest and engaging. He said Diana spoke with him backstage before the breakfast and said, “Being nervous shows respect for the audience.” He then told the audience, “I have so much respect for you.” His journey to the bestseller list was one of risk and following his passion. Like Lee Child, he too, had been fired from his job and decided to take photos everyday. Slowly, he got over his fear of talking to strangers and began asking questions of his subjects. He asked deeply personal questions aiming at getting folks to really open up. His talent for photography and for knowing what to ask made his blog grow slowly from hundreds of follows to over a million. When he said that he sobbed in the car for two hours when he found out he’d made the New York Times bestseller list, there was such an openness to him that many folks teared up.

The beauty of these meals is getting to know authors in a very personal way. They choose to share part of their lives with us and for that we are all enriched.

Band-Aids and Advil: Some BEA Planning

Josie Leavitt -- May 28th, 2015

There are necessities for any successful trade show. Proper planning is always helpful. This year, I’ve been aided by Elizabeth’s zeal for organization. We arrived in NYC with a detailed itinerary for our days here. While that was very helpful, I have my own self to blame for the lack of appropriate, comfortable footwear. Why is it that every year I pack shoes that seem comfortable, and they never are? After two hours walking around the Javits Center my sandal-clad feet are festooned with blisters and my bag is full to bursting and my shoulders are throbbing from carrying it all over the show floor. 

Every year I say to myself that I will just forgo fashion and wear sneakers. And when I pack for the show I decide to leave the comfy shoes at home because I’m packing lightly to make room for the galleys and swag. In the space that comfy shoes take up in an airline approved carry-on, I can fit probably 10 galleys and all kinds of other fun things. So, I say yes to books and no to comfort. Luckily the show hotel is a stone’s throw from a drug store (honestly, isn’t anywhere in New York around the corner from a Duane Reade?) so I can get Band-Aids.

Advil is needed because, honestly, trade shows give me headaches. It’s the combination of a lack of fresh air, the endless aisles of books that are almost more than one person can take in, the dance of avoiding walking into people while looking at said books, and the carting around of more things than you need. But ultimately, trade shows are fun. Despite the throngs of people, the blisters, the headaches,  there is such enthusiasm for books here it’s hard to not feel hopeful about the state of industry, and that is a very, very good thing.

Book Expo Kicks Off with Art

Josie Leavitt -- May 27th, 2015

Last night hundreds gathered in the Manhattan Ballroom of the Grand Hyatt Hotel for the ABFE Art Auction to Benefit Free Speech in Children’s Books. The art, as always, was stellar. The selections were great, including a special tribute section to Judy Blume who was the evening’s honoree. This gathering has been fun through the years. Every year the children’s auction crowdchanges. In previous years it has been held in the Javits Center in a variety of rooms, some too big, some too small. Sometimes the food was stellar (the show in Los Angeles stands out in particular for great food) and sometimes, well, the food, was lacking.

But regardless of the nitpicky things (though I will always mourn the lack of the mashed potatoes in martini glasses), it’s really about the art for me. To see such a collection of art from kids’ books always makes me happy to be part of this rich world of books.patrick Part of the fun for me with the auction was selling raffle tickets for ABFE. Last year I volunteered to help out and this year I did it again. Fun was had by all the raffle sellers. There was a subtle competition and honestly, ABFE was the richer for it. By the end of my selling time I clearly was tired and just said to Robie Harris, “Just buy some tickets, please.” And God bless her, she did. 

Heading Off to BEA

Josie Leavitt -- May 26th, 2015

It’s that time of year again, when hordes of the publishing world descend on the Javits Center in New York City for the annual BookExpo America show. Booksellers, authors, illustrators, publishers and a host of others involved in the trade will flock to the west side of Manhattan in hopes of finding that one special sideline their store needs, or the book that will make the fourth quarter. This show is about possibility. And it’s virtually impossible to see the entire show floor with a discerning eye alone, let alone attend lunches or educational session. This year Elizabeth and I are heading down together, something staffing has not always allowed. We are eager for the show and look forward to reporting from NYC during the week.

How we buy books now is different than when I first started going to BEA. Eighteen years ago I went to my first BEA and I’m fairly certain it was held in Chicago. It was important to go to the trade show because access to the fall books wasn’t as abundant as it is now. Back in the day, I’d walk the aisles of the pleasantly crowded show floor with a notebook (no easy iPhone photos to help remember), making note of all the new books I thought I’d want to bring into the store. Now, by the time the show comes around, we’ve all seen, if not ordered, a lot of the books, especially the big books of the fall season.

The reasons for going to BEA are different in 2015. So much of BookExpo now is meeting people and less about seeing the books (and with the crush of people on the show floor, it’s almost impossible to actually see the books). Meeting with reps is always good, but it’s especially fun to see these folks off the show floor. The ABFE Art Auction to Benefit Free Speech in Children’s Books is a delightful way to get to know folks. There are a lot of chances to mingle with old friends and talk the retail year thus far, meeting favorite authors and illustrators, and of course, bidding on fabulous art.

I always try to have a goal or two (or five, but I try to keep it realistic these days) for BEA. This year I want to connect with publicists and make face-to-face contact. Sometimes being in northern Vermont can feel very far from the decision-makers in the publishing world. This year the ABA has made it easy by setting a Meet the Publicists Speed dating. In blocks of 12 minutes we get to meet five different publicists from different houses. This kind of access is wonderful. A chance to really convey the store’s enthusiasm for author events with the folks who create tours is a great opportunity.

So, off we go to the big city! What are your goals for this year’s BEA?

 

 

Memorial Day Reading

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 22nd, 2015

We’re closed for Memorial Day, and guess what that means? Pleasure reading!!

I’m just coming off Nova Ren Suma’s haunting and memorable The Walls Around Us, which is part Black Swan, part Orange Is the New Black. The story and its evocative telling linger. A terrific read.

Now I’m reading Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms by Katherine Rundell, which came out last August but which I somehow missed. Her charming Rooftoppers was one of my favorite books of 2013, so when I noticed Cartwheeling on our shelves recently, I did a funny little hop and happy squeak. The first page alone assured me that I was not going to be disappointed, and by page 6, I was thoroughly enchanted. This book already reminds me of two of my very favorite books (which few people I know have read, so they may not be a helpful comparison): Olive Ann Schreiner’s adult novel The Story of an African Farm, with its cross-racial best-friendship and beautiful African setting; and Maria Gripe’s Hugo and Josephine, a story of two best friends, a boy and a girl, where one of the characters refuses to be bound by conventional expectations.

In Cartwheeling in Thunderstorms, young Wilhemina (known as Will) is a funny, fiercely independent scrap of a girl with free reign of lots of Zimbabwean farm land as the daughter of the farm’s caretaker.  And Simon, well,

“Simon was Will’s best friend. He was everything that she wasn’t—a tall, fluid black boy to her waiflike, angular white girl. It had not been love at first sight. When Simon had arrived to train as a farmhand, Will had taken one single look and with six-year-old certainty announced that, no, she did not like him. He was flimsy. [....] But it hadn’t taken long for Will to see that Simon was breathing, leaping, brilliant proof that appearances are deceptive. In fact, she knew now, Si was a stretched-catapult of a boy, the scourge of the stables, with a hoarse laugh much too deep for him, and arms and legs that jerked and broke any passing cup or plate. [....] He smelled to the young Will of dust and sap and salt beef.

Will had smelled to Simon of earth and sap and mint.

So with such essential aspects in common—the sap, most obviously, but also the large eyes and the haphazard limbs—it was inevitable that the two fell in sort-of-love by the time they were seven, and by the time their ages were in double digits, they were friends of the firmest, stickiest, and eternal sort.”

In addition to a lively, spritely writing and terrific characters, Katherine Rundell has a gift for getting inside her character’s heads and articulating the kinds of things we all think but rarely express. I’ll indulge myself with one more example:

“…Will stayed in the sun, trying not to smile. Because Will didn’t take orders from anyone. She crouched down, making her most aggravating proud-face, and began scratching a W in the dirt with a long stick. A beetle lumbered up it and onto her arm, and she stilled herself, enjoying the tickling feeling of its thread-thin feet. It was deep green with shimmers of blue and turquoise, with pitch-black legs. She kissed it very softly. If happiness were a color, it would be the color of this beetle, thought Will.”

Isn’t that just lovely? And all by page 9.

I can’t wait to read the rest of this novel! I suspect that by the time it’s over, I might also be likening it to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden, because I accidentally read the flap copy and discovered that Will is going to be torn away from her beloved Zimbabwe and plunked into a London boarding school.

What will you be reading over the long weekend?

 

 

A Group Hug for Kayla

Kenny Brechner -- May 21st, 2015
Jon and Pamela giving a talk on writing before the big Community Read assembly.

Jon and Pamela giving a talk on writing before the big Community Read assembly.

Two years ago, at a middle school community read event featuring the husband-and-wife author team, Pamela and Jon Voelkel, a passionate writer in the 7th grade named Kayla took Pam up on her invitation to stay in touch. The two of them corresponded steadily since the event, and then mysteriously stopped a few months ago. Then Pamela received an email from Kayla on a topic other than writing. Here’s Pamela:

“In a little town in Maine, there’s a teenage author whose world is falling apart. Her name is Kayla and I first met her a couple of years ago on an author visit to her middle school. She asked if I’d look at her work and that’s what I’ve done ever since. She’s at high school now, but she’s still as passionate as ever about her writing (mostly historical fantasy with strong female characters). Kayla writes and writes and writes – sometimes whole books! – and sends them to me for critiques. I hadn’t heard from her for a while and then I got the saddest email a few weeks ago, apologizing for her lack of output and explaining that her mother had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. This will be a terrible year for Kayla.

One day, she’ll be a famous author. But right now, she’s out of words. Which is why I think she needs a group hug from her fellow authors and booklovers. We can’t rewrite Kayla’s story, but maybe we can give her strength for what she has to face. Her school guidance counselor says that such a gesture would be greatly appreciated by Kayla’s family.

That is from a letter Pamela is sending out today to other authors and to booksellers, encouraging them to send out notes of support to Kayla. Pamela contacted me to help with the project. She shared with me that…

“My own mother died when I was a bit older than Kayla. It felt like it should have been headline news, but the world just kept on turning. I want to show Kayla that she’s in the hearts of people she doesn’t even know. She’s a writer and that means her fellow writers and booklovers will always be there for her – booksellers, librarians, editors, publishers, readers, everyone. It’s the most supportive community I’ve ever encountered and Kayla needs to feel the love right now.”

Kayla’s family thinks this would be a wonderful and supportive idea. Anyone interested in sending Kayla a note of support should do the following. (This is from Pamela’s letter; I’m not going third person on you.)

“Cards, letters, signed books, messages of support should be mailed to Kayla via her local bookseller, Kenny Brechner at DDG Booksellers in Maine. Or you can email your message to kenny@ddgbooks.com, putting “For Kayla” in subject line.  (Of course, all correspondence will be checked by Kayla’s school guidance counselor before it’s passed on to Kayla and her family.)

For letters, please put Kayla’s envelope, unsealed, in an outer envelope addressed to:
Kayla
c/o Kenny Brechner
DDG Booksellers
193 Broadway
Farmington, ME 04938
If you can spread the word on social media, please use #grouphugforkayla”

A full copy of Pamela’s letter to authors is here, Thanks everyone!

The Secret Temptations of Booksellers

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 20th, 2015

Counterintuitive as it may seem, most people don’t go into bookselling for the “selling” piece of it. As a whole, we are avid readers, librarians at heart who love to be around books and recommend them to people, and would rather just give them away if we could. The “selling” part is a necessary, but not beloved, aspect of the job, involving enough craziness (plus frustration, plus absurdity) in the details of ordering, receiving, selling, and returning books to drive us to the outermost edges of our patience. And occasionally, I’m sorry to report, we will get a real pip of a customer—someone who forgets that the person on the other side of the counter is a human being. That’s when our brains get busy and we start wondering how close we are to saying or doing something completely outrageous at the store.

Some of our temptations are of the amused, mischievous variety. I am often tempted to pretend I’ve never heard of a very famous series that a customer is asking for. “The Magic Tree House?” I want to say with a look of thoughtful puzzlement. “Not ringing a bell.” Or, “Percy Jackson series?” Shaking my head, blank expression. “Who’s the author?” I actually have done this now and again—usually only with Harry Potter, because I know the customer will get the joke right away.

Sometimes my temptations are creative. I have to wrestle myself to the ground not to do things like rearrange all of adult fiction by color. Or size. Or to group books by theme instead of alpha by author, so the shelves would be divided into sections like: Books That Make Your Heart Happy. Books That Make You Cry, But in a Good Way. Books with Worlds You Don’t Ever Want to Leave. Books That Teach You Fascinating Things. Books That Make You Laugh on Every Page. Fabulous Books with Terrible Covers. Brilliant Gems You’ve Never Heard Of. And so on. I remind myself that this is what displays are for; I don’t need to revamp the entire store.

We did create a Mystery Mystery section on April Fool’s Day:

IMG_3479

The worst temptation is the one when we’ve just had it with retail for the moment. Maybe we’ve dealt with people using the store as a showroom to make online purchases. Plus some kids are using picture books as skateboards while their oblivious parent reads a book in a section nearby. And an entitled customer is snapping his fingers at us for his change while another blames us for the gift card she lost. At those times, I can feel myself nearing the danger zone, which means that the very next person who is intolerably rude or treats the books, store, or my staff with disrespect is in danger of hearing out loud what I am chanting in my head. “Get. Out. Get out get out get out!” Happily, it’s never gotten to that point. Yet.

Josie and I used to have a smiley-face-on-a-stick that came with some book back when we first opened the store. We kept it for years, and whenever something drove us absolutely bonkers at the store, one of us would go behind the counter and—unseen by anyone else—raise it up to our face. It made whoever was on the front lines of the bad moment laugh and remember that, as ridiculous as retail can be, it’s still a pretty great job to be a bookseller.

Fellow booksellers, teachers, and librarians—what are your secret temptations?

New Birthday Party Staples

Josie Leavitt -- May 18th, 2015

Birthday parties are a gold mine for children’s bookstores. Every Saturday morning (and some Friday afternoons if folks are planning ahead) we are usually helping families pick out books for birthday parties. As we help folks find the right gift, I couldn’t help but notice there’s been a shift in the birthday party standards. There are always go-to books for many families. These are the books they love to share with friends: the books that make their kids giggle, the books that families feel good about giving. These are the new classics and I’ve noticed that there are some books that have firmly established themselves as books families want to give in hardcover as treasured presents. The following is a list (in no particular order) of books that are new go-to books for birthdays.

The first book is Flora and Ulysses. Kate DiCamillo knows how to speak to kids and parents alike.flora One mom came in for the hardcover and said, ” I love everything about this book. And how did she come up with all those ideas?”

Another book for the middle grade set that folks just love to give are anything in the TumTum and Nutmeg series. These lovable stories about mice and their world within our world are great fun for any animal-loving child.

Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie books for early readers are outpacing almost all other early readers for gifts by a margin of two to one. Kids just love these and they love sharing them with their friends. The Mercy Watson books are also early reader favorites.

libraryEscape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library is a massive kid favorite to give to other kids. They love the humor of it and the sense of adventure.

Any book by Wendy Maas in the 11 Birthdays series is a winner. Kids just love these and they have a broad appeal to many readers.

In the picture book world there is less of a shift away from the old smilestandards. Blueberries for Sal, Where the Wild Things Are, and Make Way for Ducklings still tend to be the lion’s share of what gets gift-wrapped for parties or baby showers. Though I have noticed that The Day the Crayons Quit  is rapidly working its way up the list and is a book we sell for parties a fair amount.

Graphic novels are slowly getting on the list of must-haves for birthdays, and Smile is by far the one we sell the most of to kids to give to other kids.

Readers, what books would add to this list of modern classics that you feel need to be gifted into a child’s library?

 

 

YA Books That Work For MG Kids?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 15th, 2015

Kids these days are growing up, at least superficially, very fast. Younger and younger children want older and older books, or at least think they do. I ascribe this to media exposure, social media saturation, and our lovely culture of “cool” that makes every child anxious about being called babyish.

A teacher wrote to a mutual friend, looking for books for 5th to 7th graders that feel “sophisticated and savvy” but that are still appropriate for her middle-grade readers. She says she is “always on the lookout for smart, teen-y books that are stealthy in their middle gradesness. Some examples of the books we’re always looking for more of… Drums, Girls, and Dangerous Pie by Jordan Sonnenblick, The Honest Truth by Dan Gemeinhart, When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds, Paper Things by Jennifer Richards Jacobson and, for older readers, The Truth About Alice by Jennifer Mathieu.”

What books do you give to a fifth-grade girl with an eye for YA romance? How about a sixth-grade boy who thinks he can handle all the toughness or violence in the world? The teacher’s examples are all realistic fiction, so that’s where I started.

I immediately thought of Shug by Jenny Han, Flipped by Wendelin van Draanen, After Eli by Rebecca Rupp, the books by Phoebe Stone (The Boy on Cinnamon Street, Deep Down Popular, Romeo Blue, The Romeo and Juliet Code), Alabama Moon by Watt Key, Hound Dog True by Linda Urban, Wake Up Missing by Kate Messner, I Kill the Mockingbird by Paul Acampora, The 10 P.M. Question by Kate De Goldi, Abduction by Rodman Philbrick, Addie on the Inside by James Howe.

Given the titles the teacher mentioned, I suspect some of my recommendations are still too young-feeling (i.e., have covers that telegraph MG) for what she’s looking for.

It’s tempting to rail against popular culture and insist on keeping MG kids paired with MG books, but that’s not how reading really works. My own impulse is to steer kids toward the books meant for their ages, the ones I do believe will best meet them where they are, whether or not they agree with me. But that would be hypocritical. I read books waaaay beyond my age, interest level, and appropriateness from an early age, and I managed to grow up without becoming jaded. I can’t think of a book that compelled me to behave differently from my innate self’s natural trajectory or to take risks I otherwise wouldn’t have. I think gaining the trust of young readers by listening to what they want and trying to meet that wish respectfully will earn us the trust to recommend a broader ranger of great MG (and young YA) books than they might discover on their own.

What would you recommend for these young readers who want something older, books that will truly resonate with them given their younger age?

Standouts from Our Diary Writing Contest

Kenny Brechner -- May 14th, 2015

Large-scale popularity in a genre doesn’t necessarily translate to imparting the life skills it depicts to its readers.  The widespread enjoyment of post-apocalyptic novels doesn’t mean that its readers are any better prepared to experience an apocalyptic event than people who read mysteries, for example. The enormous popularity of middle grade illustrated diary series, such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Dork Diaries, is different in this regard.

We ran a diary writing contest which has just concluded. With a sample size of over 100 entries to consider, one thing was clear from the results. Kids have not only been consuming popular illustrated diaries, they have been learning how to express themselves in that genre as well. See for yourself!

 

First of all here is one of our three Grand Prize Winners, Amelia, with her winning entry and her prize, a signed copy of Diary of a Wimpy Kid!

 

Here is Amelia’s terrific entry. Her delighted parents confirmed that 14 out of 16 Thanksgiving dinner attendees had gotten sick from the meal!

 Our second Grand Prize entry has it all!

Our third Grand Prize Winner, Ben, is much younger than the other two winners. We were as impressed as we were charmed by the effectiveness with which he integrated the illustration and the text to paint a vivid scene.

This runner-up entry helps clarify how kids feel about the Dork Diaries books.

Many parents, educators, and booksellers wonder how much illustrated diaries are developing kids as readers in general. We may not have answered that question but I think it is obvious that illustrated diaries are teaching kids to translate what they are reading into a dynamic form of self-expression. Many thanks to our sponsors at Simon and Schuster, the teachers who worked with us to engage kids in the contest, and of course all the kids who participated!