Author Archives: Elizabeth Bluemle

A Standing Ovation from Me — and Everyone at Children’s Institute

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 5th, 2015

Jewell Parker Rhodes delivers her closing keynote to booksellers at Children’s Institute 3. Photo by Judith Rosen.

I was so sad that I wasn’t able to attend the ABC Children’s Institute this year, especially because it featured several panels and discussions about diversity in the children’s book world. And I’m monumentally sad that I missed hearing live and in person the beautiful, powerful closing keynote that author Jewell Parker Rhodes delivered on the true meaning of diversity in our field, the change we need to be striving for wholeheartedly and with purpose. But I am thrilled that PW reproduced the speech in its entirety for all of us to read. I was moved to tears by it, as were the audience members, who also showed their appreciation with a standing ovation.

Here is the link to Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Children’s Institute keynote speech. (I will also include the spelled-out link here: http://pwne.ws/1bHkkQE. Debbie Reese alerted me to the fact that vision-impaired folks listening to articles cannot access links that aren’t spelled out. This is obvious but hadn’t ever occurred to me, so thanks, Debbie!)

Ms. Rhodes is an exceptional storyteller, which enables her to tackle a topic that can almost lose its urgency under a burden of ‘isms’ and ‘shoulds’ and make it personal, universal, funny, heartwrenching, and heartwarming.  I’m SO tempted to quote from it here, but that would cheat the experience of letting it unfold for you the way she told it.

Thank you, Jewell Parker Rhodes! Even though I wasn’t there to hear your warm, passionate words, I give you a standing ovation from my chair, too.

ShelfTalker readers, if you read the speech, please consider sharing your thoughts and/or appreciation (just a line or two is fine) in the comments here. I’d love for Ms. Rhodes to see how far the impact of her words travels!

Please Design Nonfiction Book Covers That Grab Kids

Elizabeth Bluemle -- May 1st, 2015

Sometimes, when I see new juvenile nonfiction titles, I feel as though they’re covered in dust already. I almost feel as though I’M covered in dust. And if I—an adult who loves nonfiction—react that way, I can only imagine how a 10- or 12-year-old would feel.

Some publishers make the argument that these books aren’t for bookstores. They’re for the school and library market. And my reply is, “Exactly.” I’m not sure why we would want to create books that have the most amazing true stories inside look dull and lifeless on the outside. Are we trying to make kids dread report writing as much as humanly possible? Are we trying to discourage their interest in the past, in other human beings, times, and places?

Good book covers of any kind engage readers by inviting them into the wonders within. They might portray an exciting moment of action, or pose a visual question the reader wants to answer, or simply present exciting graphic design that gives a reader confidence that whatever lies within will be interesting and worth their time.

I can sell great nonfiction to kids. Anywhere between 1/5 to 1/3 of the kids who come into the store prefer facts and true stories for their pleasure reading. Let’s give them books they will reach toward rather than shrink away from. I’m not talking about fake-y “Heeeeeyyy!” kinds of covers. I’m talking about smart, contemporary design that respects and admires the material in the book and the ultimate audience it’s aimed at. A book that lures kids into story is golden.

I’ve always felt that great fiction feels true, and great nonfiction reads like the most riveting story. And even kids who don’t think of themselves as enjoying nonfiction actually love it when it sparks their interest. How many times have you told a story to kids and had them on the edges of their seats, and afterward, they say, “Is that true?! Did that really happen??!” They want to know because it makes the story even better for those avid listeners if it’s true. If it really happened, that incredible tale of survival and endurance, that unlikely triumph, that small idea leading to a great innovation — well, that’s a tale that satisfies any reader.

And I think the sales department will reinforce that books that get read, get re-ordered, sell more copies, and live longer in your backlist.

Here are some examples of covers that I think are really successful at drawing kids in:

         

I’ve noticed that books adapted from adult nonfiction seem to already know the secret of offering covers that grab readers. Books designed with schools and libraries in mind should be just as lively and exciting for kids as books destined for bookstore shelves. Trust librarians to be savvy handsellers. They don’t want dry covers any more than booksellers do. Librarians want the books to appeal to kids! A great cover will give the worthy content inside the best possible shot at being eagerly picked up and perused.

And while we’re at it, make sure your page margins inside those books have enough air that readers don’t feel smothered by the content, especially kids who struggle with reading.

Thanks for listening. Librarians, what say you?

50/50 Diverse Reads Project

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 28th, 2015

Earlier in the year, I decided to spend 2015 reading a much richer selection of books. I determined that fully half of the books I read will feature main characters of color, preferably by authors of color (though current publishing statistics make that latter goal pretty hard to achieve). I wanted to share a few of these books from my reading so far.

An Angel for Mariqua by Zetta Elliott (Rosetta Press)—This book for ages 8-12 reminded me so much of books I loved as a fourth- and fifth-grader, the kind of books that explored in a warm and authentic way life’s problems and pleasures as navigated realistically by a young person I could identify with, even if some particulars of her circumstances were different from my own. (I was a desert kid, and most books I read were set in cities, suburbs, or a green countryside. As you might imagine, there were few kids in desert settings in 1970s chapter books. Heck, there still aren’t many!)

Mariqua is eight years old and in a rough patch, getting into arguments at school and leaving her grandmother at wit’s end. The gift of a wooden angel from a mysterious street vendor is the beginning of a series of small good things for Mariqua as she whispers her hopes into the angel’s ear at night. She meets a teenage girl in the same apartment complex who has secrets and struggles of her own but teaches Mariqua how to manage her strong feelings and learn to open up her guarded heart.

We are an over-the-top society these days when it comes to storytelling, and that’s a lot of fun, but children are also still learning to navigate their lives. I loved books about magic and adventure when I was a kid, but I also loved books about family, school, and community. There aren’t enough of those books in our current climate, and I couldn’t help thinking of how little room there is in publishers’ lists for books like this especially when the main character isn’t white and doesn’t live in the suburbs.

Lion, Lion by Miriam Busch and Larry Day (HarperCollins/Balzer + Bray) — An exuberant picture book with sly humor in the vein of Jon Klassen and Kevin Sherry, this one is for kids who like to put visual clues and cues together. A little boy calls for his missing Lion, but the lion who shows up is looking for lunch. The boy shows him several non-human lunch possibilities, but the lion dismisses each for various reasons (some of which will help the boy and his little kitten, Lion, later). Will this end badly for the tyke? Happily, the little boy is cleverer than Lion and all ends with a happy twist.

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir (Razorbill) — This brutal, fast-paced fantasy feels both familiar and unique. Laia is not brave like her brother nor fierce like her rebel mother nor strong like her father. Laia’s family are Scholars, whose lands and rule were overtaken over by the cruel Martial Empire long ago. Laia’s rebel parents were captured and have disappeared, and now she and her brother live with their grandparents. As the book opens, Laia’s brother is arrested for treason by ruthless Masks — soldiers of the Empire who wear liquid metal masks over their faces — and her family disintegrates while Laia watches, helpless and terrified. Disgusted by her own cowardice, she finds her way to a hideout of Scholar rebels, hoping for their help to free her brother. In exchange for their help, she must disguise herself as a slave and go into service as the handmaiden of the sadistic leader of the Martial Empire, a woman so vicious her own son—a brilliant young soldier who wants nothing more than to escape his violent future—can’t love her. In addition to the palace intrigue and peril, this story offers love triangles and questions what lies at the very heart of courage, integrity, and loyalty.

The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste (Algonquin) — If the Brothers Grimm had visited Trinidad and gathered stories there, they might have uncovered tales like this one. I’ve never read a book quite like it—unique, colorful, and memorable, not to mention scary! Aimed at ages 8-11, it has a marvelously rendered Caribbean island setting and invokes colorful creatures of myth and folklore from that region. This story is definitely for kids who like to be scared to the tips of their toes by things that go bump in the night. Corinne, 11, is very close to her hearty fisherman father. Both share a deep love of Corinne’s departed mother. Neither has ever paid much attention to tales of the jumbies and creatures who live in the forest that borders the seaside village, but one day Corinne and some friends venture into the woods, triggering a restlessness in the creatures there. Then, when a beautiful, mysterious woman shows up at the open-air market and takes an interest in Corinne and her father, Corinne knows something is not right. The woman insinuates herself into Corinne’s life and her father’s affections, while the wicked sprites and evil mischief-makers are emboldened to leave the forest and attack the villagers. As her father literally falls under the jumbie woman’s spell, it’s up to Corinne to discover the legacy of her mother and the secret strengths that lie within herself, with the help of her friends and a witch. An author’s afterword elaborates on the varieties of jumbies in Caribbean folklore.

Red Butterfly by A.L. Sonnichsen (Simon & Schuster) — I’d been hearing great things about this book, so it was high up on my reading stack. When I cracked open the covers, I admit I was a little disappointed to find that it was a novel in free verse. It’s hard for those novels to avoid having the same staccato rhythm, and most really aren’t poetry. Red Butterfly wasn’t entirely immune to those problems, BUT — I soon stopped caring because I was so intrigued by the story and characters and the way this adoption story unfolds.

So much about the story is mysterious in the beginning. Kara is a Chinese child who speaks English fluently but has bad Chinese language skills. She lives with her mother in a small apartment. They have little money, and Kara’s mother rarely ventures outside. When she does so, she covers up from head to toe. Kara’s father lives in America and sometimes sends money, sometimes doesn’t. Little by little, the reasons for Kara’s circumstances become clear. I won’t say more because part of the magic of this book is in discovering the story at its own pace.

I loved this book. I cried at the end of it, cared about the characters — especially a couple of secondary characters in the middle of the book who are deeply, lovingly rendered — and I think sensitive (the positive connotation) young readers will really love this story. My one quibble is that the turning point for Kara comes a bit too quickly, is resolved too suddenly.

So many of us have friends with daughters adopted from China. It’s a tale we think we know at least the main outlines of, but Red Butterfly illuminated an experience I’d never known about — American parents living in China for years before the adoption officially goes through, Chinese children who are undocumented because of the single-child rule, having no official identity and therefore no avenue for even being adopted. It’s clear that this novel was written by someone with intimate insider experience, and it shows in both the small details and the emotional resonance of the story.

Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer by Kelly Jones and Katie Kath (Knopf) — This charming middle-grade novel is lively and as much of a standout as The Jumbies, but for completely different reasons. It begins as the story of an immediately likable city girl and her parents, who inherit a farm and need to make sense of a completely unfamiliar setting. At first, you think it’s going to be the kind of bright, funny, warm, realistic novel that an author like Deborah Wiles writes—but then come, as the title promises, some very unusual chickens, some with quite alarming abilities. The mixture of the everyday and the humorously supernatural has a Roald Dahl flavor to it, but tilts less zany and more grounded. (There are even real facts about chickens and how to raise them peppered throughout the book, enlivened by great illustrations.) Twelve-year-old Sophie is resourceful and funny, an observant kid who writes letters to her deceased beloved abuela to keep her posted on Sophie’s new world, as well as to Agnes, original owner of the unusual chickens. She strikes up friendships with Gregory, the mailman (a refreshingly three-dimensional character and one of the only people in town who is “brown” like Sophie and her mother (her dad is white; her mom is Latina). Ethnicity is handled lightly but also directly in this book—for instance, Sophie has occasional moments of frustration due to people’s assumptions based on her mother and her own brown skin—which is also refreshing. These are brief, honest moments in a girl’s life and are folded so easily into a story that includes poultry thieves, shapeshifting creatures, communication from beyond the grave, as well as building an ideal chicken coop and finding friends. One of the most original, fun books I’ve read in a long time.

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So that’s my update for now! The diversity revolution in publishing is beginning to have real legs, though we all need to do our part to make sure this isn’t another burst of enthusiasm that fades. Given the population of the United States, it is a win-win-win decision to bring all of our children into books that make them heroes, both ordinary and super, of stories.

Next up: The Lost Tribes by Christine Taylor-Butler (Move Books) and Ink and Ashes by Valynne Maetani (Tu Books).

 

“A Bookstore Is for Forever Books”

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 20th, 2015

Trinity CLiF EventWhen you visit a school filled with exuberant toddlers and little kids, you never know what gems might pop out of their mouths. Last week, I had the happy occasion to visit with 65 children ages 2 1/2 to 5 years at a bright, open, cheerful school that had won a grant from the Children’s Literacy Foundation to supplement their library and send new books home with the kids. Every surface in the bright, clean, vibrant classroom was covered with books donated by the folks at CLiF, who provide a terrific curated list to teachers and invite them to choose from the list and add any other requests the teachers may have. 

every hero has a story

One of the celebration’s guests was Rebecca, head of Youth Services at Burlington’s Fletcher Free Library, who told the children about the library’s summer reading program, which is newly open to children below kindergarten age. Every participant not only gets to read great books and do fun activities all summer long, but also receives a free Jarrett Krosoczka-designed “Every Hero Has a Story” Platypus Police Squad T-shirt! Very exciting. I totally want one.

As a lifelong avid reader, public library patron, and former school librarian, I have always been a huge fan of libraries. They are – even more so than our beloved and important community bookstores – absolutely vital to a community’s survival (not to mention thrival). After my author story time at the CLiF celebration, there was a little Q&A with the children. I asked if they knew the difference between a library and a bookstore. One little girl, age 4 or so, raised her hand. Here’s what she said:

“A library is where you can go and get as many books as you would like and you take them home and then bring them back. You can take them out again, though, but then you have to bring them back. A bookstore is for forever books. It’s where you can take a book home and keep it forever.”

I couldn’t have put it better myself. A bookstore is for forever books! *sniffle* And a library is that magical place where you can take as many books out as you like, over and over again. It occurred to me that nonprofit literacy organizations like CLiF, First Book, and so many others are the perfect intersection of bookstores and libraries: they provide free books children can take home and keep.

CLiF booksAfter the presentations, the children were invited to eat some of the tasty and beautiful snacks the school had set up for them and their families, and – best of all – they got to choose two books each to take home and keep from the many treasures the CLiF grant provided. I wish I could show you pictures of the happy, well-controlled chaos of 65 little children gazing with delight and concentration at the tabletops filled with wonderful books to choose from, trying to pick the very most enticing ones to take home, clutching their riches in their arms as the party dispersed and teachers led the little groups back to cheerful, bright, book-filled classrooms and the prospect of going home with their brand-new forever books.

Events like these make me so grateful to be part of a field that brings kids not just knowledge and entertainment and inspiration, but sheer joy. We are lucky!

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If Someone Only Knew: Inviting Hurting Teens to Talk

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 13th, 2015

If Someone Only KnewAnyone familiar with the creative and advocacy efforts of YA author e.E. Charlton-Trujillo and her writing colleague Carrie Gordon Watson will know about their Never Counted Out initiative, which strives to empower teens—especially at-risk teens—by encouraging them to share their stories and believe in themselves despite being dismissed, stifled, bullied, or belittled.

The Never Counted Out folks have created a new project in reaction to recent suicides by transgender teens like Ash Haffner and Blake Brockington. Frustrated by the slow pace of tolerance in this country for kids and teens who are different from their peers, Charlton-Trujillo, Watson, and their team dreamed up the idea of a shared public blog for teens called If Someone Only Knew, which invites young people to share writings on that topic in an effort to support one another.

Charlton-Trujillo felt that her childhood and teen years growing up in a small Texas town, where she “felt counted out more often than [she] was counted in,” would have been vastly different if she had been able to connect to people like her in other towns and cities, sharing ideas and offering encouraging words and supporting the fierce belief in freedom and self-expression.

If Someone Only Knew invites teens to share their stories anonymously. It’s an opportunity to tell people what’s really going on in their lives—the good, the bad, and the ugly—which, Charlton-Trujillo and Watson hope, might just help other teens make it through the roughest patches. “We are now asking young people to be heard via writing and art rather than in a suicide note,” Charlton-Trujillo writes.

Submissions to the blog can take the form of photography, video, writing, poetry slam, and music, and the comments section will be moderated to keep internet trolling at bay.

The Never Counted Out website has a great clip from At-Risk Summer, the short documentary film sparked by Charlton-Trujillo’s novel, Fat Angie. The video shows Charlton-Trujillo working with teens. Her workshops are lively and funny, and clearly draw out teens who may not have many respectful, relatable adults in their lives.

Some of the contributions to If Someone Only Knew will eventually be published in a paperback anthology, likely to come out in 2016. “Monies from the publication,” Charlton-Trujillo says, “will be directed to programs sponsored by Never Counted Out.”

Kudos to an inspired and inspiring project!!

An Undersung Tour de Force and Great Re-Read: Gregory Maguire’s ‘Egg & Spoon’

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 3rd, 2015

I’m so far behind in my reading (a common bookseller’s lament) that I rarely allow myself the luxury of re-reading a book. But I got a yen recently for Gregory Maguire’s Egg & Spoon. Don’t know why, but I just had to revisit his Baba Yaga. And in re-reading Egg & Spoon, I was again struck by what a freaking masterpiece it is, a masterpiece that adults can appreciate but that never loses sight of its child audience – a rarity. Egg & Spoon is a classic. A grand, quirky classic.

Gregory Maguire’s genius is so glittery fabulous and so human, so rich and sharp and humorous, so wildly fertile, that I think he approaches Shakespeare in inventiveness, earthiness, and scope. I’ve never compared a living writer to my main bard, Shakesy, but if anyone can stand the test of centuries and still be found gorgeous, timely, relevant, and astonishing, I believe Gregory Maguire can and will.

I was shocked that Egg & Spoon was passed over by awards committees this January, and I can only hope that the one or two remaining major children’s book awards for 2014 titles (*coff*) rectifies this glaring error. (Please note: my dismay isn’t a comment on the books that did win awards, which I adored and most of which were in our store newsletter as our top picks of the year. I just thought Egg & Spoon would be up there with them.)

I think sometimes writers are so good that they almost exist in a category of their own. Maybe Shakespeare was overlooked by the Tudor Tony Awards, too.

How the Future Looks Now: New Apps for Bookstores

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 1st, 2015

One of the best things about writing for PW’s ShelfTalker is that sometimes we get the chance to break book-related news before anyone else! It’s not news that the bookselling field needs to innovate in order to stay afloat, but PW bloggers Elizabeth and Kenny have been looking at some exciting new apps being developed for booksellers to help us face some of our unique challenges and compete in an increasingly aggressive marketplace.

Here are a few of the most ingenious and experimental new apps that are just out of beta testing and will soon be available to booksellers across the country:

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The iBoat Remote (for international and water deliveries)

Overseas freight charges and customs delays are a nightmare for both booksellers and customers. Fortunately, the International Booksellers’ Association has been proactively developing a new system that will revolutionize book delivery overseas — and to anyone who lives near water. “Remote control submarine delivery” (RSCD) is the next innovation in immediate, individualized distribution of books to consumers. Booksellers will simply load customer orders into waterproof containers and slide them into the iBoat Sub for safe transport under the stormiest of waters.

Step 1: Process the customer order as usual.

Step one: Process the customer order as usual april fool blog post

Step 2: Slide books into the appropriate-sized waterproof container:
plano waterprooc
Step 3: Load container into the remote-controlled iBoat submarine and set on course.
submarine

It couldn’t be easier! And controlling the iBoat is a breeze with the dedicated iBoat Remote app (available in the iTunes store and Google Play), which allows booksellers complete control over destination, speed, variable depth, and sonic predator deflection settings.

Dina Garnish, owner of Unfinished Chapters on Tortola, BVI, has been beta-testing the iBoat Remote for two months. “The last thing a bookseller needs,” she says, “is for a customer waiting on Pioneer Girl to have her long-awaited copy eaten by a shark.”

She thinks the predator deflection settings work wonders. “I swear, I’ve seen a lionfish heading for the sub and then suddenly veer away like it heard ‘Party in the U.S.A.’ on the radio at breakfast.”

Garnish also says her store has confirmed a 94% on-time completion rate with the iBoat Remote system. “That’s better than FedEx, UPS, and the U.S. Postal System combined. And I’ve only lost one sub so far. The iBoat folks think a disoriented beluga was traveling out of its usual path and, in confusion, mistook the deflection sound for a mating call.”

“It’s not a perfect system yet,” admits iBoat Remote developer Brandt Vonderzeep III, “but it’s getting close. And unlike traditional delivery methods and drones alike, the iBoat won’t have to combat bad weather on land or sky. It zooms along safely underneath the storms and ice.”

It sounds good, but doesn’t this leave landlocked booksellers out of the loop? Not at all, says Vonderzeep. “They can simply piggyback the system onto a drone until it reaches a viable lake, river, or sea.”

Elizabeth’s rating of the iBoat Remote: “So far, I give it 4 out of 5 Flying Pigs! Extremely promising. More field-testing will be necessary, but this is a very solid and exciting development for booksellers!”

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Caninartist (dog authoring and illustrating)

One new app to keep our eyes on is the new indie publishing app, Caninartist, which allows dogs to dictate and draw their own picture books through its sophisticated bark-to-text and bark-to-image mapping software. The books are then published via etailing giant Atavism’s expressplace self-publishing platform and available for purchase online and at book and kennel Atavism affiliates everywhere.

Dog owners are reporting being thrilled with the new app. “This is just another example of the great boon indie publishing offers to the world of readers and their creative pets,” Atavism’s Caninartist spokesperson Stan Juiker said. Juiker isn’t the only one who is very pleased with this new publishing initiative.

“I always knew Mango (his golden retriever-dachsund mix) had some great stories to tell,” said Mango’s owner  Mark Santeros, “and now with the publication of his picture book, Feed Me, he can share his creative vision with the world.”
mangoThe Caninartist App may not be a boon for independent booksellers though. For example, recently retired bookseller Karen Chittenden commented, “This is why I retired, this goes beyond triage, it’s more like being trapped in a garbage disposal. ‘Capture, Kill, Eat, Good,’ repeated 10 times in a row, that is not a professional narrative, nor do the garish images of sea turtles and rabbits frolicking, which appear to have been just randomly downloaded from a clip art library by the software onto the page, have any artistic value at all.” Juiker offered a different perspective. “Animals help make us more human, and now they can enrich us in even more ways,” he said.

Kenny’s rating of Caninartist: ” I rate this app a 5 out of 5 because it would be arrogant to do otherwise. After all are we really qualified to judge the literary output of our canine companions?”

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Bookistry (literary palm reading app)

A highly touted bookselling app that launched recently, the American Booksellers Association’s palm reading app, Bookistry, has met with a mixed, but mostly positive reception. The Bookistry app, which offers customers palm readings to discover what their ideal book selections are, got off to a flying start as indie customers were quick to open both their palms and their wallets for this in-person, electronic palm reader.

The app, which is integrated into bookstore POS systems, is very easy to use. Booksellers simply scan the customer’s palm and their ideal book titles appear in the POS cash register. DDG was a beta test store for the app. I can tell you that results were both surprising and gratifying. Twenty-two-year-old bookseller Sam Oppenheim noted that, “I had always been a Neil Gaiman reader, and I must say that I was surprised by the app results, but let me tell you, it knew me. Anne River Siddons is the bomb!”

Doris Maybury, mother of seven-year-old Grace, echoed those sentiments. “At first I thought Grace was a little young for Haruki Murakami but I was so wrong, she can’t put IQ84 down!

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Other stores have reported darker experiences, though. “At first I thought this was an ideal extension of handselling,” said Gabby Watkins of Red Ribbon Books. “When the Bookistry scan kept adding bereavement titles for one of my favorite customers to purchase, we laughed it off. I figured it was just a glitch. I know better now. I’m not laughing anymore. Did Bookistry read the future or cause it, that’s what keeps me up at night.”

Whether it is the cause or merely the messenger of future events, app developer Jane Hypand declared that Bookistry is here to stay.  ”Look, nothing in life is perfect. Being matched up with your ideal books in a less than ideal world is bound to have some attendant complications, but the benefits far outweigh any negatives.” Totally agree!

Kenny’s rating of Bookistry: “I rate this app a 4 out of 5 because I agree with Hypand that its benefits far outweigh its occasionally uncomfortable revelations. Uncovering the books which our customers are destined to read is too large a leap forward to be set aside out of a reactionary fear which, if humored, would leave us in the position of cowardly shielding our eyes from the future.

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Booksellers, will you be trying any of these new apps? And have you encountered any apps that you think signal the future of bookselling?

Happy April!

The Holy Grail of Organizing Tools?

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 30th, 2015

IMG_3470Independent bookselling is a strange and wonderful avocation. Although we have many colleagues around the country, each of us runs our stores differently. We have broadly similar goals – bring beautiful, important, funny, inspiring, informative books to as many readers as possible – and yet wildly idiosyncratic ways of getting there. When I post behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Flying Pig infrastructure, I do so partly to give people on the other side of the desk a peek inside, and partly to share my personal strategies, tips, and resources with my colleagues, wanting to compare notes.

Roughly half my life has been spent trying to find perfect organizational tools. For example, because I am a reluctant planner, I have to have the exact right portable paper calendar — for me, a monthly view, with large, clean, uncluttered squares to write in – without which, I cannot keep track of my schedule. It’s a genetic thing; my sister and I inherited it from our Dad – both the aversion to setting dates in stone and the desire for gorgeous organization. From old-fashioned stationery stores to brand-new iPhone apps, the three of us have searched high and low for that elusive perfect tool that will transform us into the highest versions of our fully organized selves. We haven’t found it, my sister and I, but we are ever hopeful.

When it comes to sharing important information with a team of people, those tools are even more important. Bookstore events require so much advance planning that we are always fine-tuning (and sometimes overhauling) our systems to make sure nothing falls through the cracks. Since pre-fab forms and apps don’t exist, every bookstore creates its own ways of doing things. At our store over the years, we’ve used events to-do list spreadsheets and Google Docs with many incarnations – adding and subtracting columns, trying to get everyone to use the same tool the same way – with varying levels of success.

But now – and this has been a REALLY long-winded of getting to the single celebratory point of my post –  I think I may have finally invented a pretty solid events template. It’s a notebook that lives at the store where everyone can access it at any time. At the top of the page goes the event name, date and time, and the rest is a checklist of just about everything we need to do for that event. I showed this template to an organized friend of mine who does consulting work for businesses, and she said, “I have a suggestion: instead of having people just check off the boxes, ask them to initial them, so if you have any questions later, it will be easy to know which staff member to ask about that item.” Brilliant!! 

Here it is:

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I tell you, it takes a village to organize a bookstore, and an entire bookstore to organize a good event. I’ve already revised this thing four times since its creation. We’ll see how many more tweaks it gets before we decide that, for now, it’s the perfect organizational tool.

An Unexpected Wrangle with the Easter Bunny

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 20th, 2015

easter grass roundWe’ve always been surprised by how good business is around Easter. You’d think Valentine’s Day would be the stronger bookselling holiday, but the Easter Bunny brings better sales than St. Valentine and St. Patrick put together. Some of it is likely due to the optimism New Englanders feel in springtime; those newly sunny, springy days bring out happy shoppers. And some of it may be due to parents, these healthy Vermonters, wanting to pop something in their kids’ Easter baskets that doesn’t contain sugar.

For 18 years, we’ve had ads or a signboard for the store that says, Fill Their Baskets with Books. When there’s time, those words on the signboard are nestled in a festive drawing of a basket with eggs and a couple of books. When there isn’t, just the words suffice.

In the past, my concerns about the sign were only about whether it might be too Christian. After all, of course, many families don’t celebrate Easter Sunday. And even though the Easter Bunny is as far removed symbolically from the religious Easter story in the national imagination as candy canes are from the traditional Christmas story, it is still a Christian holiday. Occasionally, we’ve chosen a signboard that mentions both Easter and Passover, but Passover isn’t a gift-giving holiday like Hanukkah is, and we have never sold many Passover books beyond family Haggadahs and a few picture and board books, so it hasn’t been too worrisome to highlight Easter as a holiday with a big place for books.

So I was surprised when one of our staff members mentioned her discomfort with our sign because it might tip off kids old enough to read to the fact that parents, um, help out the Easter Bunny. As a kid who clung to a belief in Santa for a long time, I am sympathetic to the charms of childhood magic and am happy to uphold and protect children’s delight and belief in that magic. The current signboard has no images and doesn’t mention Easter at all; the words “fill their baskets with books” could simply mean, “fill their shopping baskets with books,” but its proximity to Easter is definitely suspect. On the other hand, it seems pretty easy to come up with explanations that don’t shatter the story. Perhaps the Easter Bunny solicits parental help for the non-egg, non-candy portions of Easter gifting, especially since it doesn’t know a child’s reading interests. Unlike Santa, who has armies of elves gathering intel, the Easter Bunny hops alone.

Yesterday, our bookseller who is uncomfortable with the sign received a phone call from a customer, a lovely person whose family shops often at the store and prefaced her concerns with the sign by saying how much they love our store. The customer’s daughter is nine, and though the child hasn’t seen our signboard yet, her mom is worried that she would read it driving by the store and begin to doubt. “It’s not a nice sign,” said our bookseller to us privately, and that gave me serious pause. Is it really not a nice sign? Aren’t there so many ads about Easter on TV, and so many displays in markets and drugstores that would send an even less subtle message about who is responsible for the goodies that show up on lawns and in houses across the country? Is our little sign really likely to be the big spoiler? I suppose that doesn’t really matter. I’m not responsible for the choices other advertisers make, but I am responsible for my own.

Perhaps personal bias makes me less sensitive about the Easter issue. I loved Easter as a kid — the hard fist-sized sugar eggs you could peer into, with miniature scenes inside! the malted milk robin’s eggs with their pale, pretty speckles; the Peeps, which I preferred slightly stale and chewy; the bright oblong candy eggs that held a center of spun fluffy sugar; the sugar sugar sugar! and the messy happy egg-dyeing. I clearly remember the eerie magic of going to my grandmother’s little house in Phoenix and searching for the baskets the Easter Bunny had hidden there — always behind the bedroom doors — for my sister and me. But frankly, the Easter Bunny didn’t rate like Santa. I was not strongly attached to the notion of the giant bunny and didn’t feel it had any particular interest in me as a person, unlike the jolly red-suited grandfather-type who invited a letter filled with my hopes and dreams once a year. And so perhaps I am not as attuned to sensitivities around this holiday.

Maybe we do need to rethink our signboard. Perhaps for many children, Easter Bunny magic might be overturned by the suggestion that parents help out with some of the goodies. It’s hard to let go of the sign altogether, though. Since books are such welcome additions to Easter baskets, but not necessarily intuitive ones, we have always felt that a little suggestion brings in a lot of business. But is it worth alienating families?  I don’t want to contribute to less magic in the world. One of the great joys of bookselling — of being human — is bringing delight and surprise to the lives of little people.

I suspect there’s a better tag line out there that might serve the purpose with less risk of spoiling the surprise — and I know which bookseller I’m going to ask to write it.

Literary YA Enchanters: Laura Ruby and Her Kin

Elizabeth Bluemle -- March 17th, 2015

Bone Gap

There are so many good writers for young people out there these days, writers whose strengths lie in great premises, pitch-perfect kid appeal, flawless pacing, intriguing world-building, irresistible humor, and more.

And then there are the writers who do some or all of the above, but with an extra magic. They spin their tales with fabulous language, a deft attention to cadence, tone, and atmosphere, a brilliant sense for the gaps and leaps, sparseness and richness, vividness and delicacy of narrative art. They are the writers who make other writers remember why they love writing.

I just finished reading Laura Ruby’s Bone Gap (HarperTeen/Balzer + Bray) and it created a kind of haunting mysterious gorgeousness that comes along once in a while and thrills a reader like me to the — well, to the bones.

I won’t say much about Bone Gap‘s plot except to say that it involves two brothers, fractured lives, a tiny, overly interconnected town, strangers both beautiful and monstrous, violence under a veneer of creepy blandness, and ominous corn. I couldn’t set this book down.

It spun a web around me in a way that reminded me of books by a few other YA writers whose gifts with language strike me similarly. They all have styles that are unique and mesmerizing. If you want to sink into language and beauty that is simultaneously stark and lush, add Bone Gap to your reading stack along with Julie Berry’s All the Truth That’s in Me (Speak), E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (Delacorte), and Franny Billingley’s Chime (Speak) (and her equally astonishing The Folk-Keeper (Aladdin).

While I don’t only love gorgeously written books, I do especially love them. But I’m extra picky about prettily written books, because there’s a line where ‘poetic’ becomes ‘precious,’ and I don’t like books that feel self-consciously or self-indulgently beautiful, books with no plot, or the kind that evaporate from memory the moment I’m done reading the lovely language.

Gorgeous books, to me, are the ones that reignite a blaze of appreciation for the subtleties and possibilities of language—the things you almost forgot words can do when strung together in dazzling, unexpected ways—and admiration of the fascinating elisions and collisions that happen in the narratives of confident storytellers. 

There can be a fine line between a soufflé and a mess of egg, and it’s a difference of artistry, practice, a lot of work, and maybe a little luck. All I know is, these writers have some kind of special hot-wired connection to a particularly wild and ungovernable Muse, and we are the charmed, haunted beneficiaries.