Author Archives: Elizabeth Bluemle

From Teenage Book Guru to Sax-Playing Fiend

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 27th, 2014

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!


Voting on Book Jackets!

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 20th, 2014
NetGalley Like the Cover


For YEARS now, I’ve wanted a way to give publishers feedback on book covers. As booksellers—who spend hours every single day handing books to customers and observing their reactions—we have a pretty good sense of what will and won’t move, at least in our own stores. Sometimes we receive a truly wonderful book with a cover we know children wouldn’t poke a stick at, much less pick up and buy, and it’s a shame.

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Authors, Please Don’t Do This

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 19th, 2014

Let me preface this by saying that we’re all more transparent than we would like to believe we are. All of us. I know I’ve done various ill-advised things in the past, every instance of which I’ve later regretted. In that spirit, let me save you from yourselves.

We already know that some authors are going to face out their own books — or ask their friends and family to do this — in our stores. This can be a minor inconvenience for us, since it may be messing up a themed display, or your face-out may be replacing a book we are trying to feature for a special time-sensitive reason. Indie bookstore staff do pretty much always know which books we’ve chosen to face out, but sometimes we smile and let yours stand if we love the book you’ve turned outward. This is a mildly risky move, because if you do mess up a bookstore display and someone on staff notices, they may be irked. And you don’t want to irk booksellers; you want to endear them to you.

A much better approach is to walk up to the counter and introduce yourself, saying something like, “Hi, I’m Charming Author [insert your own name there], and I see that you have my book. Thanks so much for carrying it. I’d be happy to sign any copies, if you’d like.” We at the Flying Pig almost always say yes, though I’ll caution you that this is not universal. Some stores may say no, because stock levels need to be controlled, and bookstores are not supposed to return unsold copies that are autographed. So if that happens, try not to feel bad; they are just being uber-practical, hardcore stock warriors. The strategy then would be to create a nice relationship with them so they remember you and will give your book(s) a second look. You can do this by chatting about some of the new books you’ve loved; there is almost nothing as bonding as shared book enthusiasm. And if you actually buy something at the store, you’ve made the first move in a good faith contract of mutual support.

As tempting as it may be, please oh please do not call bookstores and ask for your own books, pretending to be someone else. For one thing, we all have Caller ID. For another, there is just something obvious about these phone calls. They don’t sound the same as regular inquiries. You know how your voice transmutes into false, stilted tightness when you have to answer an automated voice system on the phone instead of talking to a human being? Suddenly, you can’t even say your own name or the word “Question” or the number “2″ normally. Well, it’s similar with these faux phone calls about your book. The difference is palpable, and it leaves both you and the clerk uncomfortable. Also, please don’t come into the bookstore and do that same thing. We have Google, and you have a website. We can see what you look like.

Even worse, please don’t have friends or family call the store pretending to be interested in buying your book so that we will order copies. If you aren’t planning to send real business our way, it is rude to try to trick us into carrying a book that will not have your support.

Recently, we encountered a new low-point attempt at guerrilla marketing. Our staffer, David, pointed to a couple of books and said, “What’s the story on these?” I looked at them, two different titles in paperback, and shook my head. “I don’t recognize them,” I said. He said, “I think this lady left them in the store.” He told me that he had been helping another customer up front in the store on a busy sale day over the weekend, and he’d seen a woman bend down in front of the “NPR Book Picks” end cap. (This is the first bookcase most customers notice when they come into the store and turn right. It’s prominent.) David said the woman had given him kind of a funny look, and he’d seen her doing something on the bottom shelf, but he was busy helping someone else, so he didn’t have a chance to check in with her before she ducked quickly out of the store. I asked David, “You think she left these books here, hoping we’d sell them?” He said, “I think so. These and the other copies.” Other copies?? I went up front and there were more books on the bottom shelf. The person had left SIX copies of books we hadn’t ordered, displayed as though they were NPR picks. This takes a lot of gall, and is definitely not the done thing.

David had Googled the author, and said she was not the same person who left the books, nor does she live in Vermont. Perhaps it was a family member or friend. We can’t figure out the aim of this move: would someone be calling in a few weeks to see if the books had sold, and want payment?  Our staffer, Laura, had a kind thought: “Maybe she asked a friend to drop off some books for consignment, and her friend didn’t know what that meant.” This is a generous idea, but I have to wonder what friend doesn’t ask the bookstore staff, and instead decides to plop the books on a shelf face-out and run.

It has me wondering: is there some lecturer out there advising authors to do these things to get their books noticed? Because I have to say that, at indie bookstores at least, your best bet is not trickery or gimmicks, but is still the simplest (if not the easiest) one: to strike up a real conversation with a bookseller.

P.S. You may be wondering what we plan to do with those six books we didn’t order. They don’t look terrible, and if the author or her friend had approached us directly, we might have tried one or two copies. Given the icky way they came into the store, we removed them from the shelves and will hold onto them for a week or two in the back office to give back to the author/friend if she comes back or calls. After that, I suppose we will donate them.

this ORQ. (he great book!)

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 11th, 2014

This Orq

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of picture books published every year, and many of them are good. Some of them are great. And a few of them hit the picture book sweet spot jackpot by managing to provide:

  • a perfect marriage of text and art
  • phenomenal kid appeal
  • read-aloud deliciousness
  • art that invites poring over
  • new discoveries in repeated readings
  • heart, joy, playfulness, suspense, reassurance, and humor
  • and, yes, jokes for the grownups, too.

this ORQ. (he cave boy.) by David Elliott, illustrated by Lori Nichols (Boyds Mills Press) hits the jackpot with its hilarious (and wry) caveman-speak text, huge heart, and utterly lovable illustrations by newcomer Lori Nichols (who also wowed us earlier this year with her debut picture book, Maple, published by Penguin/Nancy Paulsen). 

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Wanted: Beautiful Fairy Picture Books

Elizabeth Bluemle -- August 5th, 2014

Flower Fairies Magical Doors: Discover the Doors to Fairyopolis by Cicely Mary Barker (Frederick Warne & Co)

I was working in the back room when the voice of Flying Pig bookseller Sandy floated in from the front desk. “You know what’s hard to find that you’d think there would be a lot of?” she asked.  ”Beautiful fairy storybooks, the kind I would have loved and lost myself in as a child.”

You’d think this would be a flooded field, but actually, most of the gorgeous fairy picture books we used to carry have now gone out of print.

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It’s Official—The Funniest Bookseller in Vermont!

Elizabeth Bluemle -- July 31st, 2014
Josie comedy

Josie Leavitt; photo © Stephen T. Knight

Okay, “funniest bookseller” wasn’t actually the category for which Josie Leavitt won top honors; it was Best Stand-Up Comic, in the annual contest run by Vermont’s arts weekly newspaper, Seven Days. The Seven Daysies are coveted awards covering 177 topics ranging from Best Restaurant to Best Place to Get Naked. Seven Days takes voting seriously; you have to vote in at least 50 of the 177 categories for your votes to count. This year, around 10,000 Vermonters sent in their picks for “best,” and Josie won Best Stand-Up Comic! The Flying Pig is bursting with pride.

This is actually Josie’s second win; she tied with “The Logger,” Rusty DeWees, in 2011, the first year that Seven Days included the stand-up comedy category. Winning the category’s first year was fitting, since Josie has been so instrumental in creating the now-blooming Burlington stand-up scene. As Seven Days put it so aptly and wonderfully in the award announcement this year:

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Psst! All Books Are Interactive

Elizabeth Bluemle -- July 29th, 2014

interactiveRecently, I came across catalog copy for a book with a big starburst sticker on the cover that boasted that this book had some extra feature that made it “INTERACTIVE!”

I’m a little mystified by the impulse to add moving parts or noises to books to make them seem more interactive than they already are. Reading a book not only requires a complex set of skills involved in decoding words and making meaning from them, but involves the imagination, engages predictive thinking, and—depending on the content and challenge of the material—invites reflection and the processing of new information. Readers create the world of a book alongside the author. Reading lights up the brain all over.

The truth is, the more “interactive” a book is, the less a reader is required to engage meaningfully with it. When you add bells and whistles that do the work for you, you’re actually making it less interactive, neurologically speaking.

Readers necessarily interact with a book by creating mental images and making connections as they read; the brain is quite active while reading. In fact, reading is apparently one of the top ways to exercise your brain, along with learning another language, meditating, and getting some physical exercise.

So the interactive label seems more like marketing hype to hook consumers more than something that adds true value to a book. I’m not a total curmudgeon; as a young reader, I adored books that did fun things. Bennett Cerf’s pop-up joke books were read to tatters, and for a solid year, the See-n-Say was my favorite word-related toy. Heck, I *still* encounter pop-up and lift-the-flap books that knock my little reader self’s socks off. But I don’t think anyone would have claimed that the pop-up book or the See-n-Say made me a better thinker.


Image source:







Somewhat serendipitously for this post, Salon just ran an article by Sara Scribner titled, “Your iPhone addiction will rot your kid’s brain,” with subtitle teasers “iPads and other devices aren’t really interactive. An expert on the need to read for kids.” In the article, Scribner interviews Jason Boog, author of Born Reading: Bringing Up Bookworms in a Digital Age — From Picture Books to eBooks and Everything in Between. This new book takes a look at interactivity from a slightly different— and just as important—angle: the interactivity that happens when a child and adult read and discuss books together.

I haven’t read the book yet, but will look forward to seeing what it has to say about young readers and books and devices.

As for the type of “INTERACTIVITY” shouted by burst-shaped stickers on book covers, well, I’m not sure how many parents are taken in by that label. But I’m entirely certain that they will be able to assess its relative value, for better or worse, after a single reading.

What to Do About Leveled Readers?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- July 25th, 2014

star wars a new hope coverLeveled readers are, in some ways, a bit of a fly in the bookselling ointment. They sell extremely well, which is terrific, but they are also notoriously uneven when it comes to leveling. Teachers, parents, and even many kids are obsessed with the levels (for a variety of reasons, some unavoidable), but every staffer in a bookstore’s children’s department knows that levels are not consistent between publishing houses, and sometimes not even within the same house.

Recently, we received DK’s Star Wars: A New Hope, labeled a “Level 1: Beginning to Read” book. I knew the book would be wildly popular with early readers, and was curious to see how the author, Emma Grange, would translate the Star Wars story into words and sentences appropriate for someone just beginning to read. I think of someone beginning to read as being ready for something along the lines of “See Spot run,” or Hop on Pop, or Sam and the Firefly.

So Star Wars seemed to me to be quite a challenging job to turn into a beginning reader, given the many unfamiliar names and fantasy concepts that would need to be explained to an audience too young to have seen the movies. And the truth is, I doubt it is truly possible to retell this Star Wars adventure in a way that most children just beginning to read could manage on their own.

The book has lines like, “The rebels are a group of people who want to free the galaxy from the Empire,” and “A brave rebel named Princess Leia is determined to defeat the Empire,” and “R2D2 and another droid named C-3PO flee in an escape pod to the planet Tatooine,” and “Luke and Han rescue Princess Leia, but then they fall into a waste disposal unit.”

I think Ms. Grange did an excellent job of distilling the story into a short, easier-to-read form, and I know that kids reading Level 1 books will be deeeeelighted to have the opportunity to chat about Star Wars with their elder siblings. And I know that parents will be happy to help their new readers work through the more complicated words and concepts (the illustrations help there, as well). And yet, does that make the book a Level 1? There are Level 3 books simpler than this one.

With schools and publishers using standards from any of five or so different leveled reading programs, there is bound to be plenty of fluctuation. What this inconsistency in levels means for booksellers is that we need to be very familiar with all of the series we carry, so that we can better match young readers with books at just the right level of challenge.

And that is a challenge and a half for those of us on the sales floor. 

The Post-Privacy Era

Elizabeth Bluemle -- July 15th, 2014

George Orwell’s 1984 (Signet Classics)

“We had a strange phone call this morning,” said our staffer David as I walked in the door this morning. “Strange” is not generally a harbinger of good things, so I was alert. He continued, “A gentleman called and asked if our credit card machine stored information about his purchase, because he bought a book about Gatlinburg here, and a couple of days later, a tourism ad for Gatlinburg showed up on his phone. He was very upset.”

This was strange, certainly, but of course had nothing to do with our store. David had tried to reassure the caller by letting him know that our credit card machine, a stand-alone unit connected only to a power source and a telephone line, is essentially a magnet-stripe reader and a keypad. It is completely separate from our point-of-sale system computers. The only information that goes into it is the credit card swipe itself. Even if we’d wanted to violate our customers’ privacy in such a gross and unethical manner, it isn’t possible.

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Sideline Serendipity

Elizabeth Bluemle -- July 11th, 2014

While we carry sidelines (i.e., non-book items) from all over the world, it’s a special pleasure to stock toys, stationery, journals, gifts, greeting cards, etc., from local folks.

Every Christmas, my sister gives me either a small calendar or a packet of fine letterpress stationery on the most toothsome paper. They are made by ZoëInk, a Burlington designer whose aesthetic is delicious. The website gives just the tiniest taste of the range of designs available; suffice it to say that they are tasteful, bold, restrained, whimsical, and deeply pleasing to the eye.


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