Author Archives: Elizabeth Bluemle

A Terrific Letter to an Anxious Young Student

Elizabeth Bluemle -- October 20th, 2014

The school year is in full swing now, and here at the bookstore, we see a full range of children: those who are happy, sad, energized, stressed, beaten down, lifted up by their experiences at school – sometimes many of those things all in one day. Our town is a college-minded one, and there can be a lot of pressure to achieve. When a student comes into the store who seems overwhelmed by the demands of school, family, or especially him or her own self, I find myself wanting to share this beautiful letter that my friend, children’s book writer J.D. Lester, wrote to her own daughter one challenging afternoon. It feels balancing and whole and joyful and kind and calm, a rudder on the out-of-control boat that can be our current cultural mindset. I’ve gotten J.D.’s permission to share her letter here, and after the letter, I’ll post a few book titles that seem to me to celebrate the happy imperfections and uniqueness of kids just being themselves, and I’ll invite you to add your recommendations, too.

And now, the words of J.D. Lester:

An Open Letter to my Kid after our first 3rd grade gifted teacher conference:

Dear Scout, I see how frustrated you are with school sometimes. I see how tired you are at the end of the day. You’re working a grade year ahead for the first time and I know it’s not easy. You’re slow and methodical; they want rapid and moving-on. I know you’re fearful that maybe you’re not good enough. But here’s the thing. You’re 8 little years old. Now is not the time for worrying about your grades or school performance. When I was 8, my biggest goals were figuring out a way down the McQueary’s chimney, growing my hamster empire, and torturing your aunt Lynna. So, I was shocked the other day when you asked me when your grades would begin to count for college. College?! You still have licensed characters on your underpants; let’s just lighten up here a bit, girlfriend. Childhood goes by too quickly; I don’t want yours to slide by in an adrenaline-and-cortisol anxiety-drunk haze.

As I told you again today, if you try your hardest and flunk every single dadblamed subject, we’ll go out for frozen yogurt to celebrate, because, YAY, you tried your hardest. And then maybe we’ll play with the dog and the bunny, or watch a little Turtle Man on Animal Planet. Furreals, all I really care about is that you give it your best shot – ever. I don’t care if you don’t go to Harvard. Too snowy up there, funny accents. Of course, I’d like for you to go to college – somewhere – because I think knowledge is cool, and because I think knowledge is the very best gift you can give yourself (other than a baby, and you’ll need a participant for that particular gift. But, that’s another letter for another day, though – many years from now. Like 20 years from now. At least.).

Anyway, where were we? Oh, yes. Grades… and school stress and homework anxiety and – stop the presses!!! – again, I repeat, you’re 8 years old. Life is supposed to be SO much more than performing well in school, or succeeding in some fab career – though those things are nice. I’m not knocking them. I’m just saying there’s SO much more. And you’re succeeding wildly already, in my eyes. When you wanted to give blood to the children affected by the Boston bombing… when you wanted to give your birthday money to the Humane Society… when you take the time to make sure other kids feel included… those are the times I come close to being a proud Tiger Mom – because I very fiercely want you to be a good human being. The world needs good human beings more than it needs scholars and over-achievers – and the tragic thing is, we just don’t hand out nearly enough “A’s” for loving, and living, well.

So, you could say that I want you to get straight A’s in caring about other people, and having a good life, however YOU measure that. I’d also be proud if you were Valedictorian of the class that loves the sky and water and land enough to defend it. I hope you’ll be crowned Queen of the Dance of People who Failed and Got Back Up Stronger. I want you to be in the top percentile of people who value and practice humility. I want you to be voted Most Likely to Pee in Her Pants from Laughing Too Hard and Occasionally at the Wrong Times. I hope your greatest awards are smiles you give to others; I hope your trophies are lives you change because of the way you live yours. I don’t care if anyone ever knows your name; I just want you to carry it with grace so, at the end of the run, you have a sense of pride in who and where you’ve been.

I want you to see wild places and know that they are life’s cathedrals; I want you to give them every bit of respect and wonder in you. I want you to see despairing places, work to change them, and never take your own entitlement for granted. If you have to be a teacher’s pet, let the teacher be someone with so much less than you who smiles regardless. You never have to be the star athlete of anything other than euphoric dancing in the rain. (I secretly hope you’ll be a champion rain dancer like your mama.) You don’t have to be cast in the lead of any play. I hope you will know that being authentically, courageously yourself is the greatest starring role you could ever have. I want you to stay busy with extra-curriculars of living room karaoke, lightning bug catching, lying on your back in the grass and cloud-watching. I don’t want your life to be spent looking at the back of a headrest, rushing from one brag book accomplishment to the next.

Basically, sweet girl, here’s what I believe: the world chases a lot of ultimately meaningless benchmarks to measure human worth, and to prove ourselves worthy to other humans. (Silly, isn’t it? And just a little sad?) Know that many of these are arbitrary standards created by people who maybe just never learned how to be happy themselves. And if you don’t conform to these standards, or triumph within the prescribed rules, just go ahead and make your own measures, guided by your own conscience and your own special gifts. Succeed in ways that make you feel proud inside, no externals, no accolades -and, especially, no grades – required. And no matter where you go, know that, already, you’ve been my favorite teacher ever. I love you.

Love, Mama

PS: Your grades were fine. Stop worrying. XO

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I love that letter. Thank you, J.D., and writers everywhere who help children develop compassion and kindness and self-forgiveness and remind them to value their own inner compass. Here are a few books that share this letter’s spirit of valuing children for their flawed, wonderful, trying-hard selves, books that say, “I hope you will know that being authentically, courageously yourself is the greatest starring role you could ever have.”

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The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf. The peaceful little bull who refuses to fight in the ring, preferring to smell the ladies’ beautiful flowers, leaves a lasting impression on young readers.

ish

Ish by Peter Reynolds. A boy crumples up his artwork after its imperfections are mocked by an older sibling, but his little sister collects it for the gallery she keeps of his drawings and shows him how to see them differently. His flowers may not be perfect, and his vases may not look ideal, but they are flower-ish and vase-ish, and there’s a lot of freedom and joy to be found in living “ishfully.” A terrific book for perfectionists.

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Weslandia by Paul Fleischman, illus. by Kevin Hawkes. A boy doesn’t quite fit in with the other kids. He’s got his own way of looking and thinking about things, and one summer, he sets about creating his own civilization in his garden. His determination and self-reliance—not to mention the magical results of his efforts—draw people to him. A celebration of quirky individuality.

trouble with dogs

The Trouble with Dogs… Said Dad by Bob Graham. When “the Brigadier” is brought in to teach obedience lessons to exuberant puppy Dave, his militaristic approach dulls Dave’s sparkle and dampens his spirit. Not to worry, though; Dave’s human family finds a way to teach the Brigadier that a gentler approach is the way to go, and that warmth and loyalty are more important than mere obedience.

Joey Pigza Loses Control by Jack Gantos. There isn’t a more lovably flawed, doing-his-best character in children’s literature than ADHD “wired-up mess” superstar Joey. Any of the Joey Pigza novels qualifies for this list (and there’s a brand-new wonderful fifth book out this fall, The Key That Swallowed Joey Pigza), but I chose the second one because I read them out of order and it was in this book that I discovered this series’ incredible tightrope balance of wild, laugh-out-loud humor, heartbreak, and great good heart.

brilliant fall of gianna z

The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z by Kate Messner. Disorganized, well-meaning procrastinator Gianna has one week to pull together the big seventh-grade leaf-collecting project she should have been working on for months. This MG novel rings so true, and show such great compassion for imperfect students whose other strengths deserve to be recognized and celebrated.

and heres to you

And Here’s to You by David Elliot, illus. by Randy Cecil. I have mentioned this book in a couple of blog posts over the years; it’s one of the most joyful books around. In rhyming verses, Elliott sings funny, heartfelt praises of insects and animals, fishes, birds, people, and more. Its sheer ebullience is infectious.

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What books would you add to this list?

Twenty-Five-Year-Old Toddlers? Eileen Christelow’s Five Little Monkeys

Elizabeth Bluemle -- October 14th, 2014
Eileen Christelow Drawing

Eileen Christelow drawing one of her little monkeys.

You can’t mention “five little monkeys jumping on the bed” to anyone in Vermont and have them NOT be familiar with the colorful series of exuberant picture books by Eileen Christelow. I suspect this is true in the rest of the country, too. Those little monkeys are so mischievous, and channel toddler energy so impishly, that it is impossible to think of them as 25-year-olds. But the first book in the series did, indeed, turn 25 this month, and we had the privilege of celebrating that milestone with a store full of real toddlers in party hats, who enthusiastically chanted along as Eileen Christelow read her books aloud.

Because of the way the event was set up in the store, there was no way to get behind the group to take photos of the backs of the kids’ heads (we don’t show their faces for privacy reasons), so you will have to take my word for it that they were ADORABLE! And the gasps and the looks on their faces watching Eileen draw her monkeys was priceless; she was making beloved characters appear out of thin air!

We had party treats for the kids set up outside on a table for children after the lively reading, drawing, and Q&A. They were invited to enjoy cake or cupcakes and apple cider on the porch, after leaving the bookstore (a sticky-page-saving endeavor that worked like a charm). We’d bought a couple of Barrel Full O’ Monkeys games and popped those on the sheet cake.

Monkey Cake

And even though the Harvest Festival and a giant soccer tournament were going on during the busy Columbus Day weekend, families turned out in numbers for the monkeys’ birthday party. We had some signboards outside that I’d drawn (apologies to Eileen Christelow for the imperfect renditions). I’d covered the signs with packing tape as a sort of laminate against rain. Good thing, too, because during the couple of weeks they were out, we had some downpours.

We don’t always have the time to try replicating picture book characters on signboards, but when we do, I think it really increases the attention our signs receive from passing traffic.

Christelow signboard side 2

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It was one of those events that feels great from start to finish — even with the slightly hectic last-minute easel assembly (all of ours had gone missing, so we made a trip to the store that morning and had an amusing time wrestling with the nearly wordless, not-very-clear instructions).

And while the event is now past, we get to celebrate (as we do with all events) a while longer with displays of autographed stock, including Five Little Monkeys Trick-or-Treat just in time for Halloween.

I can’t wait to see what story Eileen Christelow cooks up for the monkeys’ 30th!

Reading Runs in Families

Elizabeth Bluemle -- October 7th, 2014
Family Reading

The family that reads together, dreams together.

Maybe it’s the gorgeous fall weather we’re having right now, but suddenly whole families are coming to the bookstore to shop together. Usually, the families generally pile in en masse on weekends. During the school week, it’s more usual to see one parent with an assortment of the kidlings. For the past 10 days, it has been the season of dads and moms and offspring! Dads reading to their children in the picture book section, dads and moms browsing for books while the kids scatter to find theirs. It’s just lovely to see entire families of reading enthusiasts sharing stories together.

And while it is true that many passionate lifelong readers have grown up in families that didn’t share their love of books, I can’t help but think that growing up with parents who take the time to sit and read with their children, who make it a priority in their own lives, too, can’t help but greatly influence even the most struggling reader. There is something so moving to me about the gentleness (and liveliness, and silliness, and seriousness, and thoughtfulness, and joy, and inquisitiveness) about families sharing books. What better way to help a young person find his or her way into a love of story and discovery, and give them a fluency with the written word? As more and more people disappear into their devices, even and especially when they are spending time with kids, I am heartened beyond measure that the simple pleasure of page-turning still beguiles families.

A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to Banned Books Week

Elizabeth Bluemle -- September 26th, 2014

On Wednesday, right in the middle of Banned Books Week, a mom and her four children came in to the store. As we were ringing them up, we were talking about content in an adult book one of her high schoolers wanted to read. The mom was explaining where she draws the line for her teens, and her middle-grade daughter piped up. “They just banned a whole bunch of books today at school. Divergent, The Hunger Games, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Fault in Our Stars and all the other John Green books….”

I said, “They banned those books?! Here?? During Banned Books Week?!?”

“Yeah.”

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The Stars So Far (9/22/14 Update)

Elizabeth Bluemle -- September 23rd, 2014

You’ve been asking, and I’ve been working on it, and now it’s here! The updated round-up of this year’s starred reviews for youth literature from BooklistThe Bulletin of the Center for Children’s BooksThe Horn BookKirkus ReviewsPublishers Weekly, and School Library Journal.

So far this year, 789 books have received 1267 stars from these esteemed review sources. 

This is an insanely detail-laden process, and as careful as I try to be, there may be oversights here and there. If you want the cleanest version of this list, check back a week or two after each update, when I’ll have been alerted to anything that needs fixing.

Please remember: starred reviews are counted only when they have been officially published publicly by the review magazines. Often I receive emails about books that will be starred in upcoming issues; please only send me corrections if the review date has passed and the magazine or web review has already appeared to the public. {EDITED TO ADD: I have just been alerted to a problem with the Kirkus stars. Some titles receive online-only stars that do not appear in the Kirkus print index files. I will be tracking these down as best as I can, but would appreciate assistance for titles that received online-only stars from Kirkus.) Publishers, please alert me to any oversights at ebluemle at publishersweekly.com, including the review sources and dates for the starred reviews.  Thanks! Please do not send VOYA 5Q5P titles. I will post a separate list of VOYA “perfect ten” scores for 2014 in December.  

Finally, if you are purchasing books inspired by this list, please strongly consider using an independent bookstore. You can find online indies through www.indiebound.org. An independent bookseller (me) compiled this list on behalf of everyone who lives, loves, and works hard in the service of books and children. Thank you! 

P.S. Please drop a note in the comments section, if you like. Would love to know how and by whom this list is used. The feedback fuels the next assail.

SIX STARS

Brown Girl Dreaming. Jacqueline Woodson. Penguin/Paulsen, $16.99

Family Romanov, The: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia. Candace Fleming. Random House, $18.99

This One Summer. Mariko Tamaki, illus. by Jillian Tamaki. First Second, $21.99 hc, $17.99 pb

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Help Shape the Diversity Evolution

Elizabeth Bluemle -- September 16th, 2014

This blog post title may sound a little grandiose, but I don’t think it is. I can’t tell you how hopeful I am becoming about the prospect of real and lasting change toward meaningful diversity in the children’s book field. I’m trying to figure out how I can be most useful in this effort, and am enlisting your help.

Now, I’ve been blogging about this topic for years, as have countless other writers and editors and bloggers, but it hasn’t been until the past year that it finally feels like all of the individual voices and efforts have started to have a cumulative weight, some real momentum. And this real desire for change comes with a whole lot of questions about how to be effective.

Since National Public Radio’s three-part series on diversity in publishing (my part on bookselling diverse titles is here), I have heard from many, many people who appreciated the discussion. A few were parents who wanted to let me know they hoped their local bookstores would beef up their multicultural selection and that publishers would provide a whole lot more variety of content; others were listeners who wanted to know where to find my diversity database; the majority were authors of color asking for my help getting their books noticed by publishers.

And I honestly don’t know how best to help with that last one. I’m not an agent or an editor, and the jobs I do already take more time than I have. I suspect these writers, like all writers, represent a range along the spectrum from beginner to editor-ready.

How can I help these writers get their work seen?

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Bad Grammar in Books

Elizabeth Bluemle -- September 12th, 2014

This is a tough era for readers who care about grammar. I try to tread a fair line between absolute purist (“bad grammar is something up with which I will not put”) and 21st-century slacker (“me and her went to the mall instead of diagramming sentences yesterday”). And I’ll confess that age has softened me somewhat; there’s only so much flailing against the tide of widely accepted modern usage a person can do before starting to feel like a Victorian schoolmarm.

However.

I don’t think it is too much to ask for copyeditors to be the last bastion of correct usage. When I come across “shrunk” and “drunk” being used as simple past tense, I don’t expect copyeditors to necessarily know that they are past participles, but I expect them to know how they should be used.

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A Season for Elephants

Elizabeth Bluemle -- September 5th, 2014

I was looking at our face-out display of picture book New Releases today and noticed a whole bunch of cute elephants staring back at me. This happens sometimes; something’s in the zeitgeist and all of a sudden there are 84 moose books coming out in one season, or seven authors have written poetry collections about bugs, or every fantasy novel seems to feature a severed hand. I’m not as enthused about severed hands as I am about elephants (although those severed-hand books, from a publishing season at least 10 years ago, were actually really good). But elephants! They were one of my two favorite wild animals growing up, and what’s not to love about them? In their small size, they are nothing short of ADORABLE, and as they age, they acquire an enviable depth and wisdom. They’re like people, only better.

So here are the world’s newest elephants, at least on the picture-book page:

Always by Emma Dodd (Candlewick/Templar) — In this sweet, silvery book for little ones, a baby elephant feels its parent’s love and warmth no matter what it encounters in its everyday adventures. Very simple and lovely, and the shiny silver accents on the pages add a little magical sparkle.

Baby Bedtime by Mem Fox; illus. by Emma Quay (S&S/Beach Lane) — This one sends tiny tots to bed with rhymes that start off lively and giggle-inducing —”I could eat your little ears / I could nibble on your nose” — and end up quiet, “There comes a time for sleeping / and our sleepy time is now. / So fall asleep, my angel / with a kiss upon your brow.” Mem Fox (Ten Little Fingers, Ten Little Toes) Fox has a gift for read-aloud rhythms, and the art is cozy and joyful. Some readers could find this story a little claustrophobic (cf. I’ll Love You Forever and The Runaway Bunny), but most will welcome its snuggliness.

Moses: The True Story of an Elephant Baby by Jenny Perepeczko (S&S/Atheneum) — Full of photos and interesting facts about elephants, this book introduces young readers to a playful, mischievous real-life little pachyderm rescued and relocated to a reserve for orphaned animals in Malawi. This book departs from usual nonfiction by anthropomorphizing little Moses to the extent of recounting “thoughts” and dialogue, which is a little odd. Children privy to the separate author’s note at the end will be sad to learn that Moses died unexpectedly young after an operation — but this is well handled and can be a springboard for discussion.

Little Elliot, Big City by Mike Curato (Henry Holt) — It’s not easy being a very small, cupcake-loving elephant in Manhattan, but Little Elliot finds confidence and stature (not to mention a new friend) when he helps someone even smaller than he is. Curato’s art provides the wow factor here; the rich, retro feel and color palette of these illustrations are striking. Plus, the elephant has subtle polka dots, which makes me indescribably happy.

And as if those aren’t enough trunks coming at you this fall, it looks as though September 2 will bring two more elephant stories, that I will come back and report on when they arrive. In the meantime, here’s the title info and cover art:

My Bibi Always Remembers by Toni Buzzeo (Disney Press)

 

 

 

 

 

The Memory of an Elephant: An Unforgettable Journey by Sophie Strady; illus. by Jean-Francois Martin (Chronicle)

 

 

 

 

 

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And now I’m going to put this out into the zeitgeist and see what the wind brings back: for next season, I’d like seahorses. Red pandas would be good, too, but really, seahorses.

A Scandalous Book (and Its Disreputable* Trailer)

Elizabeth Bluemle -- September 2nd, 2014

At first glance, Julie Berry’s books might seem to be all over the map in terms of subject matter, tone, and intended audience. Her debut novel, The Amaranth Enchantment, was a sparkling fairy tale for ages 10-14; her Splurch Academy middle grade series was unusually fresh and funny, comic kid-vs.-monster hijinx adventure fare for 7-10-year-olds; and her All the Truth That’s in Me was a startling, powerful, gorgeously written young adult novel in stark, poetic prose for ages 12-17. When I heard she had a new novel coming out this fall, I perked up; what on earth would she have in store for us this time?

Turns out, it’s something different once again: The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is Jane Austen meets Frances Hodgson Burnett by way of Edward Gorey. It’s a gleefully farcical, Victorian-era boarding school story with a hint of romance for ages 11-15, featuring seven female students and a twist:

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From Teenage Book Guru to Sax-Playing Fiend

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 27th, 2014
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David killin’ it on the bari. (D-dawg, this slang’s for you!)

Oh, ShelfTalker friends, that bittersweet day has arrived when we must bid farewell to one of our own. Young David, now 18, is leaving the Flying Pig for college. Must these high school students do their work and actually GRADUATE from high school, abandoning us for university and their real careers?! Clearly, we are doing something wrong.

Sure, sure, so David’s been playing the saxophone for several years now and has enormous amounts of talent. He’s been a prominent member of his high school’s Jazz Band and Symphonic Winds Group, has played for three years with the Vermont All-State Jazz Band, has attended numerous summer jazz camps, and has taught saxophone to middle school students. He wowed guests at my book launch party this spring playing a duet with equally talented fellow staffer, guitarist and singer/songwriter Laura. He was so good on the horn that the professional jazz band invited him to sit in on more songs. So, the kid’s got some chops.

David tries to hide all of the accolades from us, because he is an incredibly modest young man and deflects praise like a champ, but word trickles in. He’s been invited to play with a number of prestigious groups, and this year, he won the Louis Armstrong Jazz Award at his high school. Wikipedia describes the award thusly: “The Louis Armstrong Award is the ‘top senior jazz award,‘ a highly prestigious award to a musician. It is given out by high schools nationwide to recognize “outstanding musical achievement and an incredible dedication to the program.” ‘Typically there is only one recipient per school.” Not surprisingly, David was accepted and offered scholarships to by several music schools, including the illustrious Berklee College of Music in Boston. *sniffle* So proud!

Yet, we would prefer to be in denial.

After all, David is an excellent bookseller! He is an avid reader, great with kids, unfailingly polite to adults, helpful to customers and colleagues alike, cheerful all the time, and terrific with technology. He can recommend books to an impressive range of customers – from very little ones to adults, girls and boys, men and women – with great sensitivity to their interests and wonderful enthusiasm. He’s one of the most naturally upbeat people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Oh, and he’s an Eagle Scout! He often volunteers for the tasks the rest of us don’t want to do, the ones that involve hauling heavy things up and down stairs, or tedious data entry, or scary bathroom issues.

He has his faults, though, let me just say right now. As teenagers are wont to do, he enjoys mocking our outdated slang (I amuse myself daily by saying things like, “Hey, David, do me a solid?” or, “Psych!”)  and in turn, he gleefully inflicts godawful new slang on us. (I still can’t figure out what “schweg” is supposed to mean. I’m afraid of looking it up in the Urban Dictionary.) And David is not a friend of the gift-wrap station. That’s about it in the flaws department, though, and I am sadder than I will ever admit to David’s face to see him fly the coop. But we will all be thrilled to see him soar. And he will come back to visit now and again, bringing with him some terrible new slang and phenomenal new songs. We can’t wait.

In a beautiful silver-lining loop of fate, the last high-schooler we said goodbye to, PJ, has just finished  up a master’s degree program in Edinburgh — and is coming back to the Flying Pig part-time. So I guess it’s all right to let these brilliant young people pursue their passions out in the world, because in one way or another, they will always be part of us.

In parting, I can only say to David: Do us a solid and visit often!

–Doc