Author Archives: Elizabeth Bluemle

How the Sausage Gets Made

Elizabeth Bluemle -- November 18th, 2014

IMG_2728I’ve just come back from the fabulous Rochester Children’s Book Festival, about which I have written before (here) as the gold standard of children’s author festivals. This year, more than 3,000 people attended this indoor celebration of books. There was not a moment when people were not filling the aisles, browsing our tables, participating in presentations, making crafts, and listening to read-alouds. The RCBF is a blast! As always, it ran like clockwork thanks to the amazing team of Elizabeth Falk, Kathy Blasi, Barbara Underhill and her team of volunteers, the brilliant Vivian Vande Velde who dreamed up the festival in the first place, and so many others who make it happen. Lift Bridge Books creates a pop-up store in the festival space and brings all of the 50 visiting authors’ books — no easy feat, I can tell you. And during the two weeks before the Festival, the “Festival-To-Go” brings authors into inner-city schools in Rochester for free, allowing hundreds, maybe thousands, of children unusual access to “real live authors and illustrators,” all talented, dedicated people passionate about books, reading, writing, and kids.

In addition to the glow of seeing SO MANY enthralled, excited children at the festival — from the three-year-old rapt over a copy of Library Lion to the 10-year-olds excitedly clutching signed copies of new books from favorite authors — there is the great joy of spending a little time with author and artist pals I might only see once or twice a year. The hilarity is pretty much non-stop, and lasts from dinner the night before the festival to drinks after the dinner the night it closes. And Readers, sometimes this means we are privy to the secrets of Great Writing.

Authors Paul Acampora and Erin Dionne let me into their private writing worlds, and are allowing me to share this video snippet with you. It came about because Paul was telling us about how his daughter refers to his writing room as a “thinking room,” because all her dad does is stare out the window. He demonstrated. And Erin responded by sharing her own, um, memorable writing style. And then they allowed their process to be recorded, poorly, by a mediocre phone camera in a crowded restaurant. So aspiring writers, take note: as Erin Dionne says, This is how the sausage gets made. (Don’t worry about the sound; it’s probably best left off.)

‘Blue Mountain’: A Book That Stands Out from the Herd

Elizabeth Bluemle -- November 13th, 2014

blue mountainIt’s astonishing how accustomed we’ve all become to a certain tone in middle-grade books, a voice or mood that’s become so familiar it takes something radically different to remind us of the fact that there are many, many different ways of telling stories. A nation’s political situation, social context, attitudes, trends, or popular culture can’t help but influence writers, and writing trends and storytelling habits emerge and change along with them. Writing styles and trends wax and wane, but even gone, they leave their mark on subsequent generations of writers.

It’s so rare to feel that exciting kick in the gut that signals something fresh and deep and true, done differently. I had that feeling immediately when I started reading Martine Leavitt’s Blue Mountain. I’m not sure if Leavitt’s Canadian roots account for this book’s uniqueness, but sometimes it takes a book from another culture to spur this kind of reading awakening. Styles of narration, types of stories, even favorite themes, can vary wildly between countries, giving us stories that stand apart from our habitual daily fare, as delicious as it may be. Reading Blue Mountain is like drinking a glass of clear cold water after having chugged sodas for a week.

So much about this book feels like a return to classic storytelling. It is old-fashioned (and by this I think I mainly mean that the narrative is patient, deliberate, without being staid), full of starkness and beauty, joy and sorrow, danger and gentle calm. Readers who loved Where the Red Fern Grows and The Yearling and especially The Call of the Wild should find a new timeless tale to love here. Blue Mountain is the story of Tuk, a bighorn sheep whose world is threatened by natural predators and human encroachment. Young Tuk is large, and his approving herdmates assume that he will grow up a leader. Further signaling his specialness is Tuk’s ability to see, now and again, a mystical blue mountain in the distance that is the stuff of legend among his kind — a safe homeland for bighorn sheep beyond the reach of dangers. As humans build higher and higher up the mountains, there’s a chain reaction; animal predators are emboldened and there are fewer resources for the hungry bighorns. When Tuk leads a group of his fellow sheep away from their grounds to find the blue mountain, he encounters challenges that test his strength, intelligence, and wits.

The pace of the book has a rhythm like nature itself: it unfolds with stretches of peace and moments of high intensity. It isn’t afraid to be sober. It doesn’t shy away from the sudden brutalities of the natural world, but deals with them gracefully.

Blue Mountain is an animal unto itself. Like Tuk, Blue Mountain forges its own path, unconcerned with the exigencies of sheep beyond its herd. It isn’t for every young reader, but will resonate and stay with those who love nature and linger in dreams of wilderness, destiny, adventure, and myth.

Book Designers: Aging Booksellers Cry Mercy!

Elizabeth Bluemle -- November 3rd, 2014

ISBN picFor the love of all things typographical, this is a plea to the folks who design book jackets: PLEASE choose font sizes visible to the naked middle-aged eye for your series numbers, prices, ISBNs, and any other text necessary for retailers. This goes double for the marketing info you include on ARCs — what is the use of them if we can’t actually read the intended audience, age range, price, and promotional plan jammed into that skinny strip? And series numbers on spines that are nearly invisible (either because of font size or muddy colors that blend with the rest of the spine) don’t actually serve booksellers OR readers.

As you may not be aware—living as you do amid the clear-eyed, 20-something population that comprises Manhattan’s publishing and design elite—the average age of the indie bookseller is something like 173. We cannot see 6- and 7-point ISBNs even with our reading glasses on, or while using one of those humiliating wallet magnifying cards. This makes for some comical fun when our scanner is on the fritz and customers are waiting for us to hand-enter information. Likewise, forcing booksellers to peer helplessly at a spine to figure out which book is number 6 in the Em Square Saga does not help the cause of any publisher.

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Quick! Support the Indiegogo for We Need Diverse Books

Elizabeth Bluemle -- October 27th, 2014

This just in from the Department of Putting Our Money (and Social Media Efforts) Where Our Mouths Are: the We Need Diverse Books campaign has put together an IndieGoGo fundraiser.

Even if you can’t contribute financially at this time (although every little bit adds up), please don’t miss the wonderful short video featuring kids and children’s book authors and editors—including Matt de la Peña, John Green, Grace Lin, Marie Lu, Lamar Giles, Tim Federle, Jacqueline Woodson, Cindy Pon, and Arthur A. Levine—and share it with your friends, family, and colleagues, who may be in a position to contribute.

Here are some of the great initiatives you’ll be supporting:

1) Diversity in the Classroom: Your donation helps bring diverse authors to classrooms that really need author visits!

2) Walter Dean Myers grants for deserving authors and artists of color whose work deserves a wider audience. (More info in the PW article here.)

And here are some of the perks you can receive for donating:

(1) Signed prints from some amazing artists!

(2) Agent critiques!

(3) Swag packs full of bookmarks, pins, and other goodies, including a poster in the super swag packs.

Over the past several years, I’ve done a lot of reading and thinking and talking about this vital need in children’s books, and have felt pretty deeply immersed in the value of seeing ourselves and others reflected authentically and widely in the books we offer to youth. So I was surprised to discover, in the video, an aspect of this conversation I hadn’t really thought about. It came from Matt de la Peña, who was not an enthusiastic reader as a kid and didn’t discover the power of books until his basketball skills led to a college scholarship. There, he encountered the first book he ever read that moved him nearly to tears (watch the video to find out which one!). He said, “Books became my secret place to feel.”

I think this must be the case for so many young readers, especially for boys whose feelings are not encouraged to be shared. And how are books going to touch these tender souls wrapped in their outer protective layers if those books don’t speak to a variety of emotions and situations that resonate with readers? We need diverse books! For so many, many reasons.

Thanks for everything you readers do to support and learn about and educate others about this great ball of momentum for truly multicultural literature!

One Mom’s 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.”

the-story-of-ferdinand-book-cover-490x600

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.

weslandia_cover

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

christelow signboard side 1

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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