Author Archives: Elizabeth Bluemle

Tip Sheet: Picture Books Are for All Ages

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 22nd, 2014

Timeless Picture Books page 1Recently, I wrote a blog post (Are We Rushing Kids Out of Picture Books?) about the way children are pushed toward chapter books at younger and younger ages. The topic struck a nerve; thoughtful comments poured in. Then at the ABC Children’s Institute in San Antonio earlier this month, I was on a panel discussing this topic (Selling Picture Books in the Wake of Age Compression) with several other children’s booksellers and librarians, and the room was overflowing and the conversation energetic. Clearly, this is a subject people feel passionate about!

The panelists were (including me): Elizabeth Bluemle, Flying Pig Bookstore (Shelburne, VT); Maureen Palacios, Once Upon a Time (Montrose, CA); Ann Seaton, Hicklebee’s (San Jose, CA); Marianne Follis, Ph.D, senior librarian at Valley Ranch Library (Irving, TX); moderated by Valerie Koehler, Blue

Timeless Picture Books page 2

 Willow Bookshop (Houston, TX). 

I thought I would share the terrific list of suggestions made by the panelists and the attendees. Because the discussion was rapid and I was writing by hand, I couldn’t attribute each suggestion to its bookseller, so thank you to all of the fabulous folks who shared their expertise and great ideas!

Also, the ABC made a wonderful poster that bookstores (and schools and libraries) might want to use, as a handout for customers and staff members.

I’ve divided the suggestions into categories: Talking Points, Display Ideas, Staff Training, and Quotables. Please feel free to print out this bulleted list and share it with your bookselling, library, and teaching colleagues if you think it would be helpful.


Customer Education and Handselling Tips

The term “picture book” simply refers to a book format in which art and text depend on one another for the full meaning of the book to emerge. Picture books span a wide range of intended ages. There are picture books for babies, picture books for just about every age of childhood, and picture books for adults.

Though they may seem simple, picture books often contain more sophisticated language than chapter books, because they are intended for fluent readers to read aloud, not for beginning readers to sound out. So an adult trying to move a child toward a more challenging read might in fact find that challenge right there in the picture book section.

It’s very effective to let adults know that teachers use picture books with older kids all the time in classroom settings. In addition to sparking various kinds of social studies conversations and explorations of art and the interaction of text and art, picture books can teach kids a lot about story structure, narrative, rhetorical devices, voice, and storytelling mastery.

Wow them with science: A child development expert friend of mine said that picture books connect our visual and auditory cortex with our frontal lobe in a way that even illustrated chapter books don’t. For example, the illustrations in a picture book often introduce an unwritten subplot, tell mini-stories not in the text, or actually contradict the text — inviting the brain to make connections in a way that chapter books generally don’t.

Picture books are excellent for social-emotional development. A picture book can be the fastest way to spark a conversation or get to the meat of a topic with older kids.

Relatability is crucial; often children are rushed away from books that are developmentally appropriate for their abilities and interests, and into books they won’t get nearly as much out of. (One bookseller asks children who pick chapter books that are meant for older kids to promise to re-read the book when they are older, and some kids have come back and said, “It’s a totally different book now!”)

A 32-page picture book may cost the same as a 350-page novel, but a picture book is read over and over again, and each time there may be something new to discover. The more reading a children does, especially of books with rich language, the more fluent he or she becomes as a reader.

Don’t give away your child’s board books too soon; they are perfect for when a child becomes a beginning independent reader, and he or she can read those old favorites to littler siblings, to pets or stuffed animals.

The language in picture books is often quite rich and sophisticated, exposing children to the joys of language, vocabulary, cadence, and to the many ways a story can be spun.

The same is true of picture book art. Nowhere else in literature are readers of all ages exposed to such a variety of artistic styles and examples of visual expression.

Wordless picture books: suggest that older siblings ‘read’ wordless picture books to younger siblings.

Author Aaron Becker (Journey; Quest) has written a wonderful guide to ‘reading’ wordless picture books aloud.

One of the marks of a fluent reader is the ability to read all kinds of literature, both “harder” and “easier.” They have different purposes and varied appeal, speaking to a child’s imagination, challenging thinking, introducing new ideas, entertaining and delighting, comforting, and sparking creativity.

How many kids get turned off reading because they’re pushed too fast away from the books they truly love?

Humor trumps all. Find the funny intelligent book, the funny artistic book, the funny musical book, etc., and your customer will be hooked.

A terrific article in the May/June 2011 issue of the Horn Book finds author/artist Marla Frazee and her editor, Allyn Johnston, discussing “Why We’re Still in Love with Picture Books (Even Though They’re Supposed to be Dead.” Also, the Horn Book has many interviews with artists; sharing these with parents can help them better appreciate the treasure trove of visual literacy picture books provide.


“A picture book is not an age. It’s a form.”

“It’s never too late for a great picture book.”

Call the longer, older-aimed picture books “picture novellas.”

For adults wanting to steer their children toward a chapter book that is simply too old for their child developmentally: “Just because they CAN read a book doesn’t mean they SHOULD.” (Books resonate with different ages differently.) OR: ”They can read it, but they will get so much more out of it when they’re [perfect age for book].”

Again, for adults steering their children away from age- and interest-appropriate picture books: “Relatability is the single biggest factor for a book’s success with a child.”

For younger children wanting to choose a chapter book because it’s thick and looks like what their older siblings/friends are reading: “That’s [chapter book] a good book to carry around, but this [picture book] is a great book to read!”

“We aren’t gatekeepers, but guides.” Our job is to help children find the books they will love deeply, the right books at the right time. (One great strategy a bookseller used for discouraging a too-young kid from reading The Hunger Games was to ask, “Are you into politics?” At six or seven, the answer was a resounding NO. That approach helps place the decision in the child’s hands, with a little help.)

Staff Training (for General Bookstores as well as Children’s-Only)

New staff training — the store tour always ends in the picture book section.

One store has daily story time; new staff (in all sections, not just children’s) must watch every story time for two weeks.

Staffers are encouraged to take a stack of picture books home every single day. You can’t recommend what you haven’t read.

Storytime for staff — take time for some impromptu readings of picture books during the work day.

Staff read picture books out loud occasionally at the front counter; it always sells books.

As you receive new picture books, take time to share them with colleagues.

Everyone on staff must spend a half hour per week in the children’s department.

At staff meetings, have each bookseller bring a favorite picture book to ‘handsell’ to colleagues.

Write reviews from the proofs of picture books pre-publication; that way, the buyer’s enthusiasm for the picture book is fresh. The shelftalker will help familiarize other staff with the books when it eventually comes in.

Display or Event Ideas That Have Worked Well

Staff Picks Comfort Books: Make a display of staff picture-book comfort reads (i.e., picture books read by adults) with shelftalkers from staff members explaining why they love and turn to this book in times of stress or sorrow.

Tie in with current events or culture: When Cosmos aired on PBS, for example, one bookstore did extremely well with a display on space-related picture books. Another store did an entire window display on picture books featuring numbers in some way; this display sold amazingly well.

Great All-Family Read-Aloud Picks: This display highlights picture books that appeal to ALL ages, not just the family’s youngest members.

Some stores arrange picture books by age range: baby books; preschool to kindergarten; elementary age.

Pair a picture book with a novel for children’s in-store book groups.


Please feel free to share some of the tips that work well in your store (or library)!

Fabulous First Lines 2014, Round 2

Elizabeth Bluemle -- April 18th, 2014

Last week, I posted some of the best, most fun, striking, and otherwise notable opening lines from this year’s middle grade and young adult novels. This week, intrepid Flying Pig staffers Sandy and David helped me gather the next round. And at the end of the post are lines offered last week by alert ShelfTalker readers. Keep ‘em coming, folks!

“Okay. I got one. Would you rather live every day for the rest of your life with stinky breath or lick the sidewalk for five minutes?” Noodles asked.When I Was the Greatest by Jason Reynolds (S&S / Atheneum)

There is an uneasiness that remains after your best friend tries to kill you.The School of Good and Evil: A World Without Princes by Soman Chainani (Harper)

I never set out to pose nude. I didn’t, honestly.A Mad, Wicked Folly by Sharon Biggs Waller (Viking)

There are six teams today in the Eastern Shore Baseball League. Tomorrow there will be none.The Right Fight (World War II, Book 1) by Chris Lynch (Scholastic)

My art teacher says that a real artist bleeds for her craft, but he never told us that blood can become your medium, can take on a life of its own and shape your art in vile and gruesome ways. —Unhinged by A.G. Howard (Abrams / Amulet)

Grandpa stopped speaking the day he killed my brother, John.Bird by Crystal Chan (S&S / Atheneum)

The empty cafeteria table snapped in half at the middle and shot up off the ground.The Quantum League: Spell Robbers by Matthew J. Kirby (Scholastic)

The crackle and hiss of the flames devouring our house couldn’t block out the screaming and wailing of those who were still alive.Defy by Sara B. Larson (Scholastic)

That’s the trouble with milking french fries—slippery elbows.Zits: Shredded by Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman (HarperTeen)

Listen—I was alive once and then I wasn’t. Simple as that. Now I’m alive again. The in-between part is still a little fuzzy, but I can tell you that, at some point or another, my head got chopped off and shoved into a freezer in Denver, Colorado.Noggin by John Corey Whaley (S&S / Atheneum)

The first thing we had to do was catch the Tralfamosaur. —The Eye of Zoltar by Jasper Fforde (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

The problem, or thrill, depending on how you choose to look at it, was that our relationship was practically based on an enthusiastic mendacity.little blue lies by Chris Lynch (Simon & Schuster)

J. Rutherford Pierce smiled as the six mercenaries filed into his London office.39 Clues Unstoppable Book 2: Breakaway by Jeff Hirsch (Scholastic)

I was raised to marry a monster.Cruel Beauty by Rosamund Hodge (HarperCollins / Balzer + Bray)

In musicals, characters break into song when their emotions get to be too big.Five, Six, Seven, Nate! by Tim Federle (Simon & Schuster)

Of all the items that can clog your plumbing, an overweight Arctic mammal is probably the worst.Timmy Failure: Now Look What You’ve Done by Stephan Pastis (Candlewick Press)

The night heat melted over me, the quiet unsettling since the laughter had stopped.The Lure by Lynne Ewing (HarperCollins / Balzer + Bray)

Outlaws have too many feathers in their hats. —The Hero’s Guide to Being an Outlaw by Christopher Healy (HarperCollins / Walden Pond)

The natural and the supernatural inhabit the same world, intersecting but largely unseen to one another, like lodgers who share a house but keep different hours, only occasionally passing on the narrow stairs. —When They Fall, So Do We All by Charlie Fletcher (Little, Brown / Orbit)

I’m having my favorite dream again—the one where I’m about to be crowned Greatest Underwater Wrestling Champion of the World, Ever. —Shark School: Deep-Sea Disaster by Davy Ocean (Simon & Schuster)

Lucia was sure that the white-haired gentleman reclining on the dining couch before her would make a delightful grandfather. As a future husband, though, he left a great deal to be desired. —Curses and Smoke by Vicky Alvear Shecter (Scholastic / Arthur A. Levine)

Presumed dead does not mean dead. They didn’t find his body. —Swim That Rock by John Rocco & Jay Primiano (Candlewick)

The man in the fog was watching her. —Ore: The Foundry’s Edge by Cam Baity and Benny Zelkowicz (Disney-Hyperion)

If there was one thing worse than seeing a giant’s head rise from the ground, it was seeing two giant heads. —Odin’s Travels (The Blackwell Pages) by K.L. Armstrong & M.A. Marr (Little, Brown)

Epigraph from Part One: A Girl of Wax: Nothing is more enjoyable than educating a young thing—a girl of eighteen or twenty, as pliable as wax. —Adolf Hitler Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman (HarperCollins/Balzer+Bray)

Deep in the black mountains, deep in the Romanian night, deep beneath the cold, dark waters of the ancient Olt, the river witches sang. —Deep Blue by Jennifer Donnelly (Disney Book Group)

ShelfTalker reader Deb Marshall contributed this marvelous entry:

Twelve–year–old Dorothea Barnes was thoroughly un–chosen, not particularly deserving, bore no marks of destiny, lacked any sort of criminal genius, and could claim no supernatural relations. Furthermore, she’d never been orphaned, kidnapped, left for dead in the wilderness, or bitten by anything more bloodthirsty than her little sister. —Ninja Librarians: The Accidental Keyhand by Jenn Swann Downey (Sourcebooks Jabberwocky)

This dryly funny line comes from ShelfTalker reader Michelle Weeks. Amen, sister!:

It wasn’t that Jinx didn’t like people. It was just that sometimes he had to get away from them.Jinx’s Magic by Sage Blackwood (HarperCollins / Katherine Tegen)

And these goodies are from ShelfTalker reader Summer Laurie (who also noted the line from The School for Good and Evil above):

Despite my mother’s best efforts, I never forgot the day my grandmother taught me how to tie the winds.Salt & Storm by Kendall Kulper (Little, Brown)

For the body, you go to the mortuary. — Six Feet Over It by Jennifer Longo (Random House)

On the day Liz Emerson tried to die, they had reviewed Newton’s Laws of Motion in Physics class. Then, after school, she put them into practice by running her Mercedes off the road.Falling Into Place by Amy Zhang (Greenwillow)


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?