Author Archives: Elizabeth Bluemle

Fabulous First Lines, 2014 Edition, Round One

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 11th, 2014

While an exceptional first line is a wonderful thing, any superior delight it offers is actually lagniappe, since readers generally are willing to wade through a page or two—and usually at least a chapter—before abandoning a book as a lost cause. First lines are important, but they don’t carry the pressure of, say, the last line, which shoulders the entire narrative on its skinny self. All an opening line in a novel really needs to accomplish is to make you want to read on.

That said, there’s a particular pleasure in a terrific first line. It sets the tone for the book, can establish a strong voice or setting, assist in building the fictional world, startle readers into unfamiliarity, make them laugh or gasp. The first line gives you a sense of the storyteller in whom you are placing your time and trust to lead you on a remarkable journey.

Twice before in ShelfTalker, I have collected fabulous first lines (2013, 2011) that caught my attention from the year’s new middle grade and young adult releases. Below are some of the standouts I’ve come across so far from the 2014 crop of ARCs.

This is just the first round; plenty of time for more of the best to surface! In December, we’ll vote for the absolute best first line of the year.

Enjoy, and please add your own 2014 discoveries in the comments section.

I’m the happiest guy alive, because Katrina M. Zabinski is my girlfriend. I’m also the most miserable guy who ever lived, because the pressure of having a girlfriend like Tina is crushing. —Family Ties by Gary Paulsen (Random House / Wendy Lamb)

My rules for the Black Market are simple. Don’t make eye contact—especially with men. Their faces are sharp, but their eyes are sharper, and you never want to draw that blade.Sekret by Lindsay Smith (Roaring Brook)

Maximillian Reisman can stand on his head for thirty minutes if he wants to. The Cracks in the Kingdom by Jaclyn Moriarty (Scholastic / Arthur A. Levine)

There’s something I need to tell you.
Don’t be mad.
Please. Please don’t be mad. I hate it when you’re mad at me.
We Are the Goldens by Dana Reinhardt (Random House / Wendy Lamb)

No body meant no casket, so they used her headshot instead. This was a Hollywood funeral, after all. —A Hitch at the Fairmont by Jim Averbeck (Simon & Schuster / Atheneum)

When I first heard Gayle, I couldn’t tell if she was a bird or a girl.Nightingale’s Nest by Nikki Loftin (Penguin / Razorbill)

Once upon a time there were two brothers, as alike to one another as you are to your own reflection. —The Witch’s Boy by Kelly Barnhill (Algonquin Young Readers)

In my life, I’d had my share of fights, sometimes with fists, sometimes with knives, occasionally with a sword. I’d faced opponents twice my size, twice as mean, and, as a general rule, uglier than I ever hoped to be.The Shadow Throne by Jennifer A. Nielsen (Scholastic Press)

It looked like an ordinary package.The Secret Box by Whitaker Ringwald (HarperCollins / Katherine Tegen)

I am Private First Class Daniel Christopher Wright, I am seventeen years old, and I fired the shot that ended the United States of America.Divided We Fall by Trent Reedy (Scholastic / Arthur A. Levine)

I’d never seen a mock man until the Professor showed me one.Threatened by Eliot Schrefer (Scholastic Press)

As Jackson Greene sped past the Maplewood Middle School cafeteria — his trademark red tie skewed slightly to the left, a yellow No. 2 pencil balanced behind his ear, and a small spiral-bound notebook tucked in his right jacket pocket — he found himself dangerously close to sliding back into the warm confines of scheming and pranking. The Great Greene Heist by Varian Johnson (Scholastic / Arthur A. Levine)

What first lines have you loved this year?

 

 

Candlewick Gang Shares Spring Favorites

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 10th, 2014
L to R: e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, Chris Van Dusen, Joan Powers, Andie Krawcek, Sharon Hancock, Katie Cunningham, Mac Barnett

L to R: e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, Chris Van Dusen, Joan Powers, Andie Krawczyk, Sharon Hancock, Katie Cunningham, Mac Barnett

I have so much to share with ShelfTalker readers about this week’s Children’s Institute, as well as the Texas Library Association convention—but that will need to wait a bit, since these days have been nonstop, leaving little time to pull together coherent thoughts and create any kind of succinct account of the highlights. I promise all that is coming soon.

In the meantime, I was one of the guests at my publisher’s author/librarian dinner last night, and so I polled some Candlewick authors, artists (well, one artist), editors, and marketing folk about the spring 2014 book they’re most excited about at the moment. Here’s what they shared (note: for brevity’s sake, I note only the most recent release for each author and artist polled):

e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, author of Fat Angie: “I’m excited to read Katie Davis’s Dancing with the Devil, because it’s a book about overcoming victimization that doesn’t feel like a Lifetime movie. It’s about becoming your best self and about empowerment.”

Chris Van Dusen, artist of President Taft Is Stuck in the Bath: “Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan. His illustrations blow me away. He’s innovative, he always does something different, and you can expect the unexpected.”

Joan Powers, Candlewick editor: “There Will Be Bears by debut author Ryan Gebhart. It’s a middle grade book about hunting and meat and guns, none of which I like but all of which I love in this book.

Andie Krawczyk, Candlewick marketing: “The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton. It’s multigenerational magical realism, which I’m not usually a fan of, but I am in this book. The writing is lyrical. Even the book design is impeccable.”

Sharon Hancock, Candlewick marketing: “Swim That Rock by John Rocco and Jay Primiano. It’s a compelling coming-of-age story in a blue-collar quahogging community.” (Apologies to Sharon for catching her with her eyes closed. She was not asleep – just blinking!)

Katie Cunningham, Candlewick editor: “I absolutely adore Two Speckled Eggs by Jennifer K. Mann. I like that it explores female friendships in a genuine way. And I really love the scene with the party hats!”

Mac Barnett, author of President Taft is Stuck in the Bath! ”The Meaning of Maggie by Megan Jean Sovern. It’s super good. It’s got that intangible thing people are talking about when they say ‘voice.’ It’s perfect voice.”

 

 

 

 

 

Are We Rushing Kids Out of Picture Books?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 1st, 2014

Next week at the ABC Children’s Institute in San Antonio, I’ll be on a panel with fellow booksellers and one librarian, talking about our experiences with adult customers and patrons who seem to be pushing children out of picture books and into chapter books at younger and younger ages.

I don’t want to post spoilers for the panel (I’ll report on the discussion next week, and I think ABA members will be able to watch the video of the panel), but I did want to ask you out there in ShelfTalker land — you parents and teachers and booksellers and librarians — if you are noticing this pressure, and why you think it’s happening. We don’t see this “age compression” in schools; teachers who shop at our bookstore seem to understand the value of both fiction and nonfiction picture books for students of all ages. But parents and grandparents seem to be balking.

Obviously, we need to educate customers about the richness of picture book language, and the huge range of styles and formats and narratives in this literary genre that is perhaps more diverse than any other. We need to remind them that, although the price of a 32-page picture book and a 300-page chapter book might be roughly the same, a child may read the chapter book once, but the picture book 1,000 times, finding more to discover with each reading.

Why do so many parents and grandparents reject even sophisticated picture books as “baby books?” Is it a misunderstanding of what picture books are? It is an outcome of the excesses of our testing-burdened, measurable-achievement-oriented educational system? Or is there a greater loss at work, as well? Has the love of stories become somehow lesser? Do we value only what is perceived as more challenging, and testable? And why is it that the same parents who readily read light, unchallenging books for their own pleasure and comfort don’t allow the same indulgence for their kids? They often want little Johnny or Samantha to chug on up the reading levels — again, a misperception, since so many picture books contain rich vocabulary  and complex sentence structure that are more challenging than many young chapter books.

There is no sinister intent on these parents’ parts, of course; they are most likely simply trying to make sure their children are well prepared, not left behind, in the academic realm. So how do we best show them the sweet and rewarding light of opening their minds to the full range of worthy reading possibilities for their kids? Inquiring minds want to know — and if you share a terrific thought in the comments, I’d be delighted to share it during the panel discussion and credit you!

(Booksellers and librarians: The ABC has prepared a fantastic flyer to use, featuring great picture books to share with older kids, along with tips for talking with parents. Be on the lookout for that next week!)

Vermont’s Youngest Librarians (Ages 11 and 6)

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 31st, 2014

Aidins Library StampWhen I moved from New York City to Vermont, I had a little fantasy of finding a house that had its own library, a light-filled, high-ceilinged room lined with bookcases and windows, and at least two big window seats with cushions. I imagined pitchers of lemonade and an open-door policy for the neighborhood. I wanted to share my big collection of books with families, and I imagined letting people check them out with old-fashioned lined cards tucked in pockets inside each book. While my library fantasy turned into opening a bookstore, I recently met someone who had the same home library fantasy I did and made it come true. And he’s only 11.

I met Aidin at the Flying Pig’s event for Jarrett Krosoczka a couple of months ago. He was waiting in the signing line with his parents and had a bright presence. He was one of those kids who seems remarkably easy in his own skin for such a young person: articulate, relaxed talking with adults and other kids, not shy. The kind of kid who grows up to be a political leader or who invents new ways for remote villages to gather water. At some point in the conversation with his family, it came out that Aidin had started a reading group last summer for his friends — around 15 kids, though not all of them come to the chapter-per-week discussions. One of his favorite book group picks so far was Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. He also turned his personal library of around 200 books into a lending library, and made and hand-delivered library cards for every kid in the neighborhood. His aunt had a special stamp made to mark his book’s endpapers, and Aidan uses that space to write due dates underneath the stamp.

Vermont's youngest librarians, showing off their newest acquisition, Jarrett J. Krosoczka's Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle.

Vermont’s youngest librarians show off one of their newest acquisitions, Jarrett J. Krosoczka’s Lunch Lady and the Schoolwide Scuffle.

Because Aidin also has other goals he’s working on (he’s an athlete in training with his eye on breaking some records), Aidin’s younger brother, Foster, age 6, has also been pressed into service. According to the two kids, Foster is the library assistant, responsible for “bookkeeping, making sure the books are in good condition, that they come back in time, and that kids know the library policies about due dates and treating books nicely.” Wow. That’s quite a chunk of responsibility for a first grader, but it seems to be going smoothly so far. (Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that an older sibling already so adept at turning thoughts into actions is pretty good at knowing how to delegate. I had an older sibling just like that, and she is now executive director of an amazing nonprofit organization.)

I was so charmed and impressed by Aidin and Foster’s make-it-happen ingenuity. I hope their library continues to grow, that the reading group discovers ever more treasures, and that we get to see what other community-building schemes they cook up over the years.

The Case for ‘The Case of the Marble Monster’

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 14th, 2014

the-case-of-the-marble-monsterOf all the wonderful books I wish back in print, The Case of the Marble Monster by I.G. Edmonds is one of my very top picks. About the length of a Magic Tree House book, and aimed at about the same age (7-9, though older readers would also like it), this book contained 17 marvelous stories of the wise, kind, yet sly and often mischievous Judge Ooka and his many inventive solutions to perplexing problems, both large and small.

Each story has an evocative title, “Ooka and the Stolen Smell,” “Ooka and the Barbered Beast,” “Ooka and the Willow Witness,” “Ooka and the Death Decree,” and the stories themselves surpass the titles.

In the introduction, the author shares that he or she heard these stories from his or her own grandfather, Ojisan, on long winter nights in Japan. The author says that Judge “Ooka really lived, and he did some very strange things. He accused a statue of stealing some silk. He declared a student guilty of stealing a smell. He ruled that a man could be a thief and still be honest. He divided thirteen horses in two equal groups without cutting the thirteenth horse in two. And once he even sentenced himself to death! But all of the strange things he did were for the purpose of finding out the truth, so that he could carry out the shogun’s order to punish wickedness and reward virtue.”

Don’t you want to read the stories now, too? It’s like Encyclopedia Brown (without the ambergris). And yet both more delicate and more worldly.

I think what I loved so much about these stories when I was a child were not only the clever puzzles/paradoxes in the tales and their witty recounting, but also their gentle exploration of human character—with integrity, compassion, respect for others, and humor winning the day over greed, stubbornness, bullying displays of power, and other unsavory aspects of human nature. There’s a whole world of humanity, of heroes and villains, in this little book, from rich merchants to poor students, from small children to crafty con artists. There were kid problems and grown-up problems, all in the same book! It felt like a real world.

There’s something lovely about the fact that both author and illustrator hail from the Japanese culture, and that the author heard these stories from his or her nearly-90-year-old grandfather. I think that’s one of the reasons the book has such flavor and depth of texture even in its simplicity.

The illustrations throughout, by Sanae Yanazaki, are fantastic. I remember being fascinated not only by the various characters and their exotic (to me) silk robes and porcelain dogs and other accoutrements of life in long-ago Japan, but also by their similarity to myself and the people I grew up with in Scottsdale, Arizona, a place about as far from Ooka’s homeland as could be. This wasn’t a book that felt distant or alien; it was full of familiar notes and emotions, little kids who loved their puppies, fun and peppery grandparents, lively family gatherings, celebrations and festivals to look forward to. There was mystery and suspense and the huge satisfaction — 17 times! — of learning just how Judge Ooka would outwit the rogues and scoundrels who tried to lie, cheat, and steal.

I’ve re-read The Case of the Marble Monster several times over the years and find that it holds up beautifully. Simply told, with a rare quality of clarity, lightness, and charm, these stories are timeless. I don’t know if I.G. Edmonds ever wrote anything else, but he or she is a master storyteller, like Natalie Babbitt or Richard Peck — fluid, graceful, authoritative in the most invisible way.

My copy is from Scholastic Book Services which published it via an arrangement with Bobbs Merrill — which sounds as though it was one of my weekly book order treasures from the second or third grade. Regardless of who owns the rights at the moment, I just need to tell you publishers that this is the kind of book that kids eat up and adults find delightful. It invites all kinds of critical-thinking skills, too, in case someone (*coff*hello, Scholastic*coff*) wanted to reissue it with a school market in mind. If so, I hope they wouldn’t monkey with the text or art; it’s quite perfect as is.

So — my publishing pals, here it is, right in your laps: a perfect chapter book for that hungry young reader crowd. Aren’t you always telling me you want to find more of these? Today’s children need Judge Ooka! And so, come to think of it, do adults.

What’s the Best Bad Book You’ve Ever Read?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 13th, 2014

With the movie version of V.C. Andrews’s immortally trashy, creepy, compulsively readable book Flowers in the Attic, about to be released on DVD, I started thinking about bad books and what makes some of them so good. (And by “good,” here, I mean irresistible despite obvious flaws.)

I have loved a number of questionably tasteful books over the years. Some were books I was convinced were well written when I read them as a child or teenager, and upon re-reading them as an adult, I realized my literary faculties were perhaps impaired by competing interests with a higher priority at the time: a cozy or magical world I wanted to live in, perhaps, or a hunger for mystery, adventure, and suspense, or, later, curiosity about romance and sex. Was it narrative drive that made some of the poorly written books so readable? Or the introduction to some hitherto taboo topic? All I know is, it didn’t matter to my reader self at the time that the books weren’t well-written or the characters beautifully developed. They sparked my imagination. And I did grow up to have credible critical faculties despite the popcorn reading, so they didn’t ruin my brain. Of course, they weren’t all I read, either.

So I wanted to throw it out to you: What makes a bad book good? And which ones did you love best?

Do You Watch Book Trailers?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 7th, 2014

I’ll admit that I am not the most plugged-in person on the planet. I don’t spend much time watching YouTube videos, although I admit I will follow Facebook leads to the occasional snippet of goats bouncing on sheet metal, sneezing baby pandas, or really cool flash mobs and worldwide orchestral projects. Basically, videos have to come to me, and knock hard on the door, before I notice.

I think I’m missing out on book trailers. I’m not sure if it’s because I don’t frequent the websites or blogs where they are unrolled to the public, or if I’m not noticing promotions that arrive in my inbox. The ones I’ve seen have usually been terrific. But do people watch them?

For me, the most successful lures to watch a trailer have been via the author’s own website or an appealing widget in an industry email, like PW Daily or Shelf Awareness. There are a lot of beautiful and/or intriguing and/or charming book trailers out there, and I’ve very much enjoyed the ones I’ve seen, although I’m not sure if that always translates into my seeking out the book. Trailers are a marvelous tiny art form, yet one that I’m not entirely sure finds its audience.

I suspect that a lot of school kids and teens watch book trailers, and, even better, MAKE them for the books they love. I’m not as sure that trailers for picture books get seen, and yet one of my all-time favorite book trailers is Katie Davis‘s “Little Chicken’s Big Day,” which won the 2012 Trailee Award:

I saw that trailer in a seminar Katie led. In other words, once again, I was very specifically led to it. Are teachers and librarians and parents who aren’t already seeking out an author’s books finding these trailers, I wonder? And does it even matter if the videos only reach people who are fans already? What exactly is their purpose, their value, and their reach?

Readers, what is your experience with book trailers? Do you like them? Do you watch trailers for authors you don’t know personally, or whose books you aren’t already familiar with? Publishing folks, do you find that trailers are driving exposure and/or sales?

[Edited to add the following:]

Thinking about the topic made me wish there were some kind of website or app that served as a gathering place for all book trailers and was sortable by age range and genre, and perhaps some way to highlight the more amazing of the student-made trailers. Surely there is a student at Emerson or Simmons who would want to take this on…. : )

Money, Meet Mouth

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 4th, 2014

If you’ve read my February 6 blog post, The Tipping Point for Diversity — Turning Talk into Action, you may recall my mentioning the terrific, impassioned conversation happening over at the CCBC (Cooperative Children’s Book Center) discussion group about diversity in children’s literature. Many people weighed in, and came up with ideas for how we might all do more than just talk about the issue. Toward the end of the discussion (discussion topics switch regularly in this moderated list, so this conversation had an announced start and end date), writer Sarah Hamburg, whose thoughtful posts were among the highlights of the conversation, created the following summary of participants’ proposed action steps toward change. I am sharing her post its entirety with her permission. (Anyone interested can also post the summary; Sarah’s goal is for this to be a living, breathing document, edited and added to by others, and — most of all — USED.)

Sarah Hamburg’s marvelous summary of activism steps follows. She writes:

I don’t know if I’m at all the right person to do this (in fact I’m sure I’m not), but as the conversation winds down I hope it’s okay to draw together the responses to the question about activism, and add some other possible thoughts/questions as well. Please step in if I’ve left anything out/ not hit the mark, or to take over!

– Many of the ideas focused on personal activism: actively buying books representing a diverse range of voices; committing to ongoing challenges (Crystal Brunelle mentioned The Birthday Book Challenge, Diversity on the Shelf Challenge, and Latino/as in Kids’ Lit. Challenge); recommending and promoting diverse books to others when and wherever possible; asking for them at bookstores, schools and libraries; using social media in those efforts and to draw attention to issues of representation; writing reviews on Amazon, B&N and Goodreads; and stepping out of personal comfort zones to make connections and advocate on these issues.

– For writers and illustrators, people also suggested that personal activism would include: stepping out of artistic comfort zones; consciously considering questions of representation, audience and perspective in one’s work (including whether the perspectives and voices of people of color tend to be explored/presented in a heavy context); soliciting and listening to feedback from members of the communities one is writing about when going outside one’s own culture; and also considering questions of cultural bias and representation while conducting research and evaluating sources.

– The same considerations hold true for those publishing, buying and using books with children, promoting books to parents and teachers, creating library and bookstore displays… etc. including whether those books receive the same quality and quantity of promotion, and whether they are somehow held apart from other books.

– Many came back to the importance of smaller presses in making space for new voices. This included Tim Tingle’s publishers Cinco Puntos Press and RoadRunner Press, and Lee & Low Books. (Would it be helpful to create a list to share here of independent publishers who are actively publishing “multicultural” books?) Lyn Miller-Lachmann talked about visiting smaller presses at conventions to order books and create buzz. Jason Low talked about “liking” Lee & Low on Facebook and using social media to promote them and their titles, and purchasing their books through independent bookstores. Are there other ways people can actively support small presses, or that smaller children’s publishers can perhaps share resources to further cross-promote with one another? (Some consortium, such as an umbrella website?)

– People also mentioned the importance of writers’ events and conferences, such as the Native American Literary Symposium, VONA Voices, the Lambda Literary Foundation, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, the Muslim Voices Conference, the Comadres and Compadres Writers’ Conference, and the Carl Brandon Society. (Would it be helpful to compile a list of similar conferences/organizations, too?) Is there a way to facilitate more outreach to events such as these, and also encourage more inclusion/ promotion of writing for children at those events?

– Along with such conferences, people talked about the possibility for individual outreach to writers/ artists who are working in other areas, but who seem like they might be suited to the children’s book field (like Debbie Reese introducing Eric Gansworth to Cheryl Klein.)

– It’s exciting to see new businesses forming, like Cake Literary and the Quill Shift Literary Agency (where you can sign up to be a reader.) Are there other ways people could help promote them?

– People have also started an amazing array of blogs, websites and tumblrs that focus on aspects of diversity in children’s books. These include Diversity in YA, Rich in Color, American Indians in Children’s Literature, The Dark Fantastic, CBC Diversity, Lee & Low’s blog, Cynsations… (I know I’m leaving many out! Please add them – would a list of these be helpful, too?) Would it also be helpful to create some sort of consortium here as well – like the Niblings umbrella?

– In addition, people asked that “diversity” be an inclusive idea, and not limited to one group or set of groups.

Along with these existing or already mentioned avenues for activism, I had a few other possible ideas based on issues people have raised. Some may well already exist in some form, and if so please excuse my ignorance! I also don’t know if some may feel segregating rather than inclusive, or otherwise problematic – but here they are:

(All initiatives mentioned below would include leadership in design and implementation by people from the communities in question.)

– School Library Journal/Horn Book…etc. might create a regular column, written by a Native, PoC, and/or LGBT, and/or Muslim, and/or disabled contributor, which might discuss issues regarding children and books in different communities, or highlight reviews of recent books by people from those communities, or discuss collection development/classroom use issues related to problematic books, or be published in a bilingual format, or simply be a space always kept open for additional voices from less-represented communities.

– Development of a course within the Massachusetts 5-college area, in conjunction with the Carle Museum, for Native college students/ students of color to study illustration and writing for children.

– Outreach to a group like 826, with centrally-organized workshops about writing/illustrating led by people in the children’s book community.

– A group within SCBWI for Native artists/ people of color to meet and speak about issues in the field specific to their communities, and provide resources and networking opportunities.

– A subsidized (with some form of community grant?) internship at one of the children’s publishing divisions or literary agencies for a person of color or Native person.

– Some form of organized mentorship program for aspiring authors/illustrators.

– A bilingual division of something like NetGalley, featuring bilingual books, and other books by Latino/a writers and illustrators.

– A group made up of members of publishers’ marketing departments, convened to study marketing strategies and approaches, with leadership that includes outreach to, and input from, members of different communities.

– Some e-publishing/print-on-demand initiative or business, focused on bringing back out-of-print titles by people of color.

– Also, something like the New York Review of Books Classics, which would bring back into print/reissue/hghlight classic children’s books by people of color – including international titles. (Or, actively petitioning the NYRoB children’s collection to include more such titles – do they currently have *any* books by people of color on their list? I couldn’t find them.)

– Concerted outreach at events like Bologna to find and acquire titles by international authors of color/indigenous authors for publication in the U.S.

– Something like the PEN New England Discovery Award (which recognizes the work of unpublished children’s writers, and provides an opportunity to have that work read by an editor at a publishing house) that would be national, and would recognize work by unpublished Native/PoC writers. It could include a specific category for nonfiction.

– Inclusion of Toni Morrison’s book Playing in the Dark (and Zeta Elliott’s article “Decolonizing the Imagination”) on the reading list at MFA programs focused on writing for children, with a curriculum that includes more lectures/discussions about race, writing and the imagination – not just in the context of discussion about writing outside one’s own culture.

– Focused outreach as part of recruitment initiatives for MFA in writing for children programs (perhaps writers’ conferences like those listed above would be one good place?) and promotion of existing opportunities like the Angela Johnson scholarship.

– A centralized resource for parents/ teachers that would look at still-read classics and more contemporary books, and examine different responses/perspectives on those books related to representation. This might include strategies and perspectives on classroom use. (A sort of “critical engagement” resource, with different perspectives – like that of Debbie Reese’s American Indians in Children’s Literature.)

– More inclusion of issues related to representation/cultural bias in reviews of current nonfiction and fiction titles.

– Some central website to publish/promote lists of recommended titles (such as the Top 100 Books by Indigenous Writers, Recommended Books regarding the Middle East, Lee & Low’s Pinterest pages, and the many other lists of recommended books shared here…) There might also be the possibility of compiling and promoting new lists, based on the needs and interests of those who work with children. Maybe individual titles from the lists could be highlighted on a rotating basis as well.

– Lobbying and activism on related issues, such as funding for public schools and libraries, and support of those institutions (as well as businesses like independent bookstores) on the local level.

– As Malinda Lo asked for, greater inclusion of PoC/ Native/ LGBT/ Muslim/ disability community voices at the head of these discussions.

****

(Back to Elizabeth now.) Thanks so much, Sarah, for synthesizing all of these terrific ideas.

Readers, how do you feel about these individual and community efforts? Is there anything you would add?

Galley Triage

Elizabeth Bluemle -- February 28th, 2014

Almost nothing makes me happier than stacks of thick books waiting to be read—nothing, that is, except reading them. And booksellers have stacks, totebags full, book cases and back rooms overflowing with a riot of ARCs (advance reading copies). Not to mention a laptop full of Adobe Digital Editions. It’s an abundance of riches with a sad corollary: there is no way to read them all.

Figuring out which ones to read and which not to is a combination of whimsy, experience, and research. I reach for the titles by authors I love to read, for books that have been getting starred reviews and bookseller buzz, those the reps stick special Post-Its on because they love a book so much they don’t want it to get lost in the crowd, and those whose covers simply lure me in. (Yes, we are a visual culture, and yes, we judge books by their covers. Not only by their covers, but of course we do.)

I often avoid the blockbusters, knowing that they’ll sell themselves. But if I’m in love with the series, of course I can’t resist. Sometimes I’m perversely drawn to the most obscure books, the ones I think two or three of my customers at most will be interested in; I think it’s a form of defiance, a way to carve out some pleasure reading that isn’t about work in any way.

And I’m drawn to the books that don’t look or seem from their reviews to be like anything else on the shelf. Freshness is a hot commodity when you have been immersed in a literary field for almost 20 years.

I know a book is good when I am immune to the siren song of all the other books waiting for me.

Still, there is the guilt. And the reproach of the unread stacks all around.

The first two books shown in this post, Viking’s HALF BAD by Sally Green (loved by a bookseller friend) and THE GLASS SENTENCE by S.E. Grove (also recommended by a fellow bookseller), are my next two reads. Currently, I’m on Mount Elbrus with Jordan Romero, author with Linda LeBlanc of NO SUMMIT OUT OF SIGHT: THE TRUE STORY OF THE YOUNGEST PERSON TO CLIMB THE SEVEN SUMMITS (Simon & Schuster). The kid climbed Kilimanjaro at age 10 and Everest at age 13. Cannot stop reading.

After that, I’m not sure. I’ve got hundreds of books clamoring.

What do YOU recommend I read next? And how do you folks in bookselling triage your stacks?

 

Bleak Books: The Best, the Bad, the Broken

Elizabeth Bluemle -- February 25th, 2014

As a reader and as a bookseller, I think about this question a lot: why are some bleak books compelling and memorable and worthwhile, while others make you regret the hours — and the erosion of your soul — wasted upon them?

I used to think it was a matter of hope, some sense at the ending that redemption was, if not at hand, at least possible. And maybe that’s true, but I’m not sure it is. I’m not certain I could make that case for some of the books I’ve found deeply affecting.

My reading tastes don’t generally include a whole lot of death. I have zero interest in novels about serial killers, or mysteries with their endless parades of dead women. And yet, some of the most powerful, memorable books I’ve ever read are violent. Harrowing. Chris Cleave’s Little Bee stays with me years later. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a stunner. This weekend, I finished reading an extraordinary debut novel, The Kept by James Scott, and while it was totally different from The Road, I found it similarly riveting and unforgettable. (Run, don’t walk, to read The Kept if you valued The Road. Not a book for kids.)

Perhaps it’s the rendering of the characters themselves, and not the ending, that separates a good bleak novel from a poor one. When the characters are fully developed humans, flawed and trying, as terrible as their choices may be, we care about their journey.

In YA books, Adam Rapp’s 33 Snowfish remains one of the most searing, jagged, bleak and beautiful books I’ve ever read. I was truly grateful for the flicker of hope it provided at the end. Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking trilogy is brilliant; at least, I can speak for the first two books. I cannot yet bring myself to read the third; I am afraid of its potential to swallow me whole. The author is masterful, and I find myself too invested; he is too good at making me feel the bleakness. And yet, though I avoid Monsters of Men’s possible bleakness, I count it as most worthy.

Books for teens must earn bleakness very carefully. We owe young people hope; it is usually self-indulgent to make them wallow in our adult disappointments. The bad bleak books do this, I think.

Maybe a good bleak book is one that makes us face some of the harder human truths, makes us think, disturbs us — upsets our simple preference for rewarded virtue and punished villainy — in important ways. The good bleak books deepen our appreciation for humaneness, mercy, compassion. Perhaps the good bleak books shatter our hearts, but show us how to start putting them back together again.

What do you think, those of you who have found yourself loving some bleak novels and hating others? What separates the blazing ones from the sour, empty ones?